New Year, Old Ideas

New Year, Old Ideas
Portrait of Jane Austen, 1873, from the Portrait Gallery of the Perry–Castañeda Library of the University of Texas at Austin. (Public Domain)

Several weeks ago, my teenage daughter and her friends attended a middle school dance. Junior high social collaborations are a funny thing. Teens and preteens come together to test their moves, look cool, and maybe actually dance with the opposite sex. Though I had been rather sick on the night of the dance and could barely keep my eyes open for a 9 p.m. pickup, I assured my husband that I’d be happy to get the girls. Post-dance car rides are a short but precious period of time. Ah, what a mom might learn.

“How was it?” I inquired casually, as the girls settled into the car.

“Not good!” They answered in united exasperation. “They kept the lights on all night and played nothing but rap music.”

“It looked like stadium lighting,” I commented. “They kept that on all night?”

“It was so bright!” the girls cried. “But the biggest problem was the music. No one could actually dance. They didn’t play a single slow song, or even a song we could sing to!”

We got home. The girls had snacks, visited with the family a little, and then dashed off to my daughter’s room for a sleepover. Bedtime rolled around; I headed upstairs to encourage tooth brushing. After a quick knock, what I saw made me smile, then ponder. The girls were dancing together, an improvised English country dance, Jane Austen style. They were laughing and having a marvelous time. When I entered the room, they begged me to hum a waltz as the background to their moves.

“It’s just like ‘Pride and Prejudice,’” my daughter’s best friend exclaimed. Earlier, we’d started to enjoy the first installments of the old A&E movie. The girls relished the humor and romance of an excellent human story.

“I bet those old dances would have been fun,” I reflected.

“Yeah,” the girls spouted, “it wouldn’t be awkward to dance with a boy if everyone knew what to do, and you only had to hold hands a little.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

Costumed guests arrive for the Pride and Prejudice Ball at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire Dales, England, on June 22, 2013. The event was organized to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Costumed guests arrive for the Pride and Prejudice Ball at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire Dales, England, on June 22, 2013. The event was organized to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The Good Stuff

There’s a lot to be learned from the formal practices and social customs we read about in 19th-century literature, especially in the work of Jane Austen. She had a keen understanding of human desires and motivations. She also offered an intriguing view of society during the time that she lived. Though only the most limited views of Jane herself exist, the artwork of her sister, Cassandra, offers a simple glimpse of a brilliant thinker. I especially love the back pose that leaves the author’s expression to the viewer’s imagination. The world may not enjoy many original portraits of Jane Austen, but her novels paint strong and enduring pictures of human and worldly relationships. Men and women have always looked for opportunities to meet one another. Rituals of courtship can be sensitive. Young adventurers are skittish, clumsy, and unsure.

Helping to form the characters of the young, and readying them for adulthood, is a critical task. A great place to practice decorous behavior and conversation is at the dinner table, though the ritual of family mealtime itself seems to be slipping into obscurity.

Driving home the other day, my husband and I noticed a teenage boy pacing at the end of his driveway. He appeared so peevish that we grew worried for his mental health. His hair was greasy, he was wearing pajama pants and furry slippers, and he flipped his head back constantly only to return a downward gaze to his phone. Then, his Doordash arrived. Realizing that the source of his angst was related to the wait for fast-food delivery, my husband commented, “That kid was old enough to make himself some lunch, or at least drive himself to get some, and at the very least, get dressed by late afternoon! What kind of kids are we raising in this country?”

Could it be that regardless of great prosperity, we as a society are experiencing a dearth of all the best stuff? America has enjoyed abundance, but what do we choose to indulge in lately? Increasingly, it seems that children are overexposed to video games, junk food, and sexual content, but underexposed to fine literature, classical music, basic manners, and more genteel encounters. The messages presented in rap songs and the like about male-female relationships are startlingly inappropriate to my older ears. The clothing and manners of young people are so casual, it seems they often don’t dress, and rarely interact outside of cyberspace. So much of a young person’s social experience has turned into an electronic interface.

The girls raised my attention to the contrast between a Jane Austen storybook dance and the reality of social interactions today. I couldn’t help but see that in some respects, society did a better job guiding courtship and social enterprises in generations past. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to over-glorify the good old days. I know that good and evil have existed for as long as man, and every generation has its strengths and weaknesses. I’m glad that women, minorities, and less affluent persons have more freedom to learn and succeed in society now. Upward mobility made possible by the American dream is a great addition to our lives and times. But, not all change is for the better, and many customs of the past were very good.

People Need People

Today, we have more freedom, but freedom can be a double-edged sword. Coupled with a well-formed conscience and disciplined will, freedom may flourish. Wielded in unrefined licentiousness, freedom may simply lead to epic failure. Modern society has certainly loosened its structure. Language, style, and etiquette are less elegant. While education is more universally accessible, the reading skills and historical and philosophical knowledge of the “educated” are more narrow and incomplete. I have heard from many young people that they struggle to understand the writing of Jane Austen, let alone Shakespeare or Cervantes. Attention spans are short. The current screen culture has encouraged a lack of authentic growth and intercourse.

Recently, I was speaking to a psychologist friend who specializes in Christian vocational counseling. Ordinarily an indomitably joyful woman, I couldn’t help but note the expression of worry on her face as she explained: “Once, I mainly counseled people through the trauma of pre and extramarital liaisons. Such infidelities leave scars that are slow to heal. But now, I see something worse. Many young people aren’t experiencing true human relationships at all. Their personal, social, and sexual interactions are isolated to screens. The damage that causes is harder to work through than anything old-fashioned.”

People need people. We need to interact and to do so in wholesome ways. Our children are growing up in an environment of screens like the world has never seen. “Talking,” I have learned, is a state of pre-dating that takes place nearly entirely via apps such as SnapChat or by text. Written communications are a time-tested method of courtship, but most texting doesn’t even involve sentences anymore. Reflecting upon the use of telegrams, letters, and emails as a basis for interactions, I’m not discouraged by all modern methods; I just think our kids need more guidance. We need to restore decorum.

To this end, I set a rule for my older children: If they are going to text, they must use proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling to the best of their abilities. I encourage my teens to consider meaningful topics, too, and to set up real-life visits with their friends.

If our kids are going to interact through texts and screens, may they do it in a positive way, and only as a segue to more human interactions. Authentic human relationships are guided by family and community. Adults need to focus on being strong leaders and examples for our children. They are calling out for something more, a dance with better structure—interactions that are harmonious, human, and beautiful. Let’s help them find a more refined and heartening way.

Andrea Nutt Falce is a happy wife and mother of four. She is also a Florentine-trained classical realist artist and author of the children’s book, “It’s a Jungle Out There.” Her work can be found at
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