A little more than 100 high school students from all over the county assembled a few weeks ago at Washington & Jefferson College for an unusual brain exercise. The youth conference, sponsored by Washington Hospital Teen Outreach, was called, “Exploring Culture: Past (1964), Present and Future (2064).”
Cellphones were banned from the conference; kids had to communicate face to face with each other and with a group of “mentors” – a nice term for the adult volunteers old enough to have experienced the culture of half a century ago.
The mentors – assigned to topics of education, gender, health, media and race relations – described life in 1964, and it must have sounded strange and incredible to young ears. The students were asked to imagine a time when lynchings of African-Americans in this country were almost common occurrences; when women in most states needed a man’s signature to open a checking account; when television signals were captured by “rabbit ears” and the news was on only 30 minutes a day; when cancer was untreatable; and when gasoline was 30 cents a gallon and concert tickets cost $3 or $4.
Students strained to comprehend a world without calculators, personal computers, cellphones, banking machines or microwave ovens.
Their mentors’ stories gave them an appreciation for the conveniences they have and take for granted. And learning how much culture has evolved over the past 50 years got them to thinking about how much it might change by the time 2064 rolls around, when they will be in their sixties and looking back.
For young and old, the conference illustrated how difficult it is to envision the future. Fifty years ago, we might have imagined that by 2014 we would all be operating vehicles that could fly through the air rather than on roads; that we would have, by now, colonized Mars; that we would have found a cure for cancer.
Of course, none of that happened. But no one could have predicted smartphones, the Internet or gay marriage.
We are living in an era of bewildering, rapid change, and there is no reason to believe that the pace of that change will slow, stop or reverse over the next 50 years.
We can’t predict what is in store for us a half-century from now, but we can imagine that these students will live in a very different world, a better one, it is hoped.
They may look back on 2014 as a time of innocence and primitive technology. Perhaps there will still be youth conferences then, and their tales of texting, “sexting,” Facebook and tattoos will send the youngsters of 2064 into seizures of laughter.