Matthew Warner

Your Cultural Vocabulary

Today, I finished teaching a week-long creative writing course to high school students. This was my second year teaching it, and aside from getting called on the carpet for using too much salt in my language (yes, I am a potty mouth; I can’t help it), things went well.  My students were chatty, intelligent, and on their way to being good writers.

Only one thing really bothered me about the week. It goes back to what I refer to as our “cultural vocabulary.”  This means, what things in our lives — as 21st century citizens of the world — comprise our vocabulary for understanding that world?  Does your vocabulary consist of stories and icons and symbols?  Of course it does.  And does the menu of stories you refer to when you interpret the world bear any resemblance to the stories people referred to in previous generations?  Well, yes, a little bit, but there have been a whole lotta new “classics” created in the last 50 years, haven’t there?

Maybe I’m being too obscure.  Here’s what I was faced with this week.  At one point, I wished to make a point to my students about the importance of research, so I thought about the books of Michael Crichton.  I asked them, “How many people here have seen the movie Jurassic Park?


Later, I asked how many had seen all the Harry Potter movies or read the books.

“My mother won’t allow me to read or watch those,” one girl said. She also wants to be a fantasy writer.

Star Wars?  Darth Vader?

Only a few were familiar with all of the movies.

Star Trek?  Captain Kirk?


Total Recall.  Lord of the Rings.  The Wizard of fucking Oz.

Definitely not, no, and no.

(Okay, this may have been where I dropped a four-letter word or two. No, I did not use “fucking” before “Oz.”)

On another day, I asked if anyone knew who Orson Welles was.  When I heard crickets again, I gave them a hint by saying he was a movie director.

One girl’s eyes lit up.  “Wait a minute.  Didn’t he direct A Nightmare on Elm Street?”

So I asked them about Justin Bieber and Katy Perry — and finally, reactions.  Eye rolls, “I hate her,” and, “He thinks he’s so cool.” I asked why Justin Bieber combs his mop down to his eyebrows and was told that it’s so he can look cool flicking his hair out of his eyes.

What is these kids’ cultural vocabulary? A whole hell of a lot different than mine.

To be fair, though, my reference points are different from the generation before me. I didn’t see the movies Casablanca and Gone with the Wind until this past year. I recently watched Giant for the first (and last) time. I haven’t yet seen Citizen Kane, but I’ve remedied that by placing it into my Netflix queue. I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t yet read The Fountainhead. (It’s something about an architect, right? Does it have any relation to game Bioshock?)

The generation gap is snaring me its crevasse. Give me a bridge, lawdy lord, give me a bridge. . . .