Halcyon Days

Columns and reflections by Terry Britt

Course Readings as Childhood Experience

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Now that another holiday season is in the books, I’m anxious to start hitting the books again.

I pre-registered for Spring 2014 classes at the University of Texas at Austin back in late October.  Like everyone else in a research-based graduate school program, I was looking for an elective that, I felt, would assist me significantly in moving toward production of my master’s thesis report next year.  I scanned the course offerings in several social sciences departments as well as the School of Journalism and other programs within the Moody College of Communications, as it is now known.

There were a few that seemed potentially helpful, but nothing that was just a sure-fire fit.  I kept searching, and it was late in the game that I found a course with a very simple, yet fascinating, title, and in a department about which I knew nothing at that point:  American Studies (AMS) 390 – Watershed Decade:  The 1970s.

I stopped by the department’s office the next day, emailed the professor for the course, and was later informed a place would be available for me (they have to give priority for seats in the course to American Studies and History students).

And for the next four months, Mondays are bound to be more interesting than ever before.

The course looks at the so-called “Me Decade” from many perspectives – social, political, economic, and cultural, to name a few – but holds another, more unique, attraction for me.

It’s not just a roughly 10-year period of time to be studied and dissected in class discussion and a term paper, it’s my childhood – or the world that I saw as a child.

The history textbooks issued to me through my 12 years of public education rarely got into the mid-1960s, and that was covered only if there was time remaining in the last couple of weeks in the school year.  Even the American History courses I took in 1984 at the collegiate level included little more than a cursory overview of major events in the 1970s.

This upcoming elective graduate course marks the first time I have had the chance to do any in-depth study of a time period I actually experienced.  Throw in the fact that I was a very media-aware child of above-average intellect, and the immersion level takes on a whole new dimension.

While I certainly hope the course does provide valuable information and insight that can help with my research work in the years to come, the bonus might be new understanding and insight about the “me” that existed in the “Me Decade.”

This I know:  That kid started the 1970s as a relatively happy 4-year-old.  By decade’s end, he was struggling through the darkest period of his life – and wondering why to bother.

There is a human tendency to grow nostalgic about the days of our youth.  While I can look back upon certain elements of that time with fondness, there was more than enough bad with the good to relieve me of the desire to ever have it back again.  Anyone who thinks the fashionable retro-merriment of “That 70s Show” is an accurate depiction of the time period never had to contend with runaway food prices with a $2.00 per hour minimum wage and service stations with no gasoline to sell.

There were other aspects of the time that stand out in my memory, things that tend to get overlooked in the shadows of Nixon and Watergate, disco music, and racial unrest.  For me, one of the most important – personally and culturally – was the development of consumer product technologies that formed the foundation of everything we take for granted in the mid-2010s.

The first successfully marketed personal computers were introduced in the 1970s, and the standard by which they would eventually start to “talk” to each other, Ethernet, was developed around the same time (one of the co-inventors of Ethernet, Robert Metcalf, is currently a professor at UT-Austin).  Video game systems?  Another brainchild of the ’70s.  Home video recording devices and microwave ovens made their entrances into the general retail marketplace during this time, too.

Today, I have three personal computers in my home – two desktop PCs and one laptop – three video game systems, an iPad, and a smartphone as powerful as the laptop.  But the whole digital revolution, for me, actually started 35 years ago when my parents presented their three sons with one then-super cool Christmas present:  One of the dedicated Atari Pong consoles with two built-in paddle controllers, four digital paddle-and-ball games, and immeasurable fascination for the five of us.

I imagine I will have a lot to share with my younger classmates.  It’s one thing to study history, but quite another to have lived it – and survive to tell the tale.



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