The Hazy Memory of a Simpler Past

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One of my favorite newspaper columns is Oliver Burkeman’s This Column will Change Your Life that he writes for the Guardian Weekly. The texts are short and poignant, the topics often refreshingly provocative and thus great for classroom discussions.

His column from February 2, 2014 is about our nostalgic tendency to believe in the past everything was better. Depending on the age of the person reminiscing, this could be any decade. What unites them all, according to Mr Burkeman, is that the person praising the respective time (and complaining about how things have changed since ‘then’ – and not to the better) was around seven at the time.

After reading that column for the first time, I thought about my own tendency to emotionally glorify the 60ies. I am totally aware of the many things that happened in the 60ies – socially, politically etc. – as I am fairly educated and was always particularly interested in that decade, precisely because it is the time of my happiest childhood period.

I am also aware of the most likely discrepancy between my definitely nostalgic memories and the memories of other people who lived through those times as adults, e.g.: people who did not share a decent middle class living standard; people who were badly discriminated against, restricted in their careers or life style choices; people imprisoned in roles as servants or housewives and mothers, and, more often than, not victim to lecherous male advances (if the scenes in Mad Men can be trusted); people who fought in Vietnam and lived through atrocities none who hadn’t been there could imagine; or those who hadn’t been there, but lost loved ones (sometimes children who lost their daddies because mommies wrote Dear John letters – wait – that’s not a nostalgic memory). 

The list is long and I didn’t intend to write a history post.

Suffice it to say, the 60ies were a time of great political upheaval and social turmoil as many other decades were as well, depending on whose perspective you look at: A time either suffered through, survived or even enjoyed by people depending on where they stood in the walks of life. However, for a child raised in a half-way decently protected family environment (before political events struck down on paradise), the 60ies were a great time I fondly remember and the one any feelings of homesickness relate to. 

I have discussed Burkeman’s text in a few classes, supplementing the lesson with some pre-reading questions and vocabulary focus. The topic of the text provides a great opportunity to discuss childhood memories and different experiences, especially when there are members of different generations in the groups; even more so if you have people from different countries.

Some of the questions we discussed:
1. In which decade were you born/spent your childhood?
2. Is there anything ‘your’ decade is most famously known for?
3. What do you remember specifically?
4. Go back through the decades beginning with the present one and name some major events of each: 2010s; 2000s (the decade nobody is sure how to name it – the ‘Noughts’, the ‘Zeros’); the 90ies; the 80ies; the 70ies; the 60ies
5. What have your immediate relatives told you about the decades before your time?
6. Generations differ in the books they read as children (if they read any), the films and TV series they watched, the music they heard or the general things they associate with the time they were children.

Pre-reading vocabulary: Match the words with their definitions
(the list of words, of course, depends on the level of the class, however, the column is more for upper-intermediate to advanced students, depending on the topic and the style of writing. So below are just some examples of words I focussed on in one of my classes):

reluctance – acknowledge – sitcom – narcissistic – entitlement – to be appalled – marginally – desperate – to argue – to chide – omnicient

1. admiring yourself too much, especially your appearance
2. the official right to have or do something; (US) a government system that provides financial support to a particular group of people
3. hesitating before doing sth because you don’t want to do it or are not sure if it is the right thing to do
4. to criticize or blame sb because they have done sth wrong
5. a regular programme on television that shows the same characters in different amusing situations
6. feeling of showing horror or disgust at sth unpleasant or wrong
7. to accept that sth is true; to accept that sth has a certain authority or status; to show that you have noticed sth
8. knowing everything
9. small or not important, or not part of a main group or situation
10. speak angrily because you disagree; give reasons why you think sth is right/wrong, true or not
11. feeling or showing that you have little hope; needing or wanting sth very much

(revised March, 2020)


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