Too Much Explaining

If you grew up and had a classical education, you didn’t learn how to do a job, you learned how to think. You were introduced to a lot of ideas, people, concepts, books, and philosophies. You weren’t told which were “right” (in some ways, they all were), you learned how to have an opinion and discuss it. There, I’ve said it.

ulyss1_1703249c_2236465cSometimes, when I’m teaching, I realize that classical education is not only old-fashioned, it’s frowned upon. So, a checklist: simplify vocabulary and most of all, simplify references to ideas, people, and philosophies.

Me [to class]: OK, time for a 15-minute break. Be back at 10:15 or we’ll be here till the rosy-fingered dawn appears tomorrow. [Immediately regrets reference to Homer’s Odyssey.]

Student: Is that, like, a song lyric?

Me: Sort of. It’s from a Greek epic poem.

Student: Say what?

Me: [Feeling lost about how much to explain.] It’s one of the long poems from ancient Greece. About a man who leaves home to fight in a war and takes a long, interesting road trip back.

Student: Oh. Who wrote it?

Me: Homer.

Student: [Looking puzzled.]  Simpson?HO_Close_display-1

Me: [Tries not to break down crying.]

I just don’t know when to shut up explaining myself and my now, too-long-ago references that make sense to me, but not to anyone who was born in the last 30 years. OK, 40 years, maybe 45.


Mamie Eisenhower, wife of the 34th President of the U.S.

To a beautician: My bangs are waaaay too long. I’d like something more Natalie Wood but not Mamie Eisenhower.

Beautician: I think I heard of Natalie Wood is, but who is Mamie Eisenhower?

Me: The wife of Dwight Eisenhower.

Beautician: [crickets]

Me: The 34th President of the United State.

Beautician: Oh. Was she, like, famous? For her hair?

And once more, I’m stuck. How much do I explain? How do I not feel like I just fell out from the pages of a yellowed history book? It got worse.


Natalie Wood, movie star. Married to Robert. . . never mind.

Me: Mamie Eisenhower was the First Lady right before Jackie Kennedy.

Beautician: [crickets]

Me: Jackie O?

Beautician: Wasn’t  Jackie O. a famous model–like for sunglasses?

Me: She was beautiful and she wore sunglasses, but she was married to Jack Kennedy. After he was assassinated. . . [slowly starting to cut short the explanation], she married a rich guy in Greece.

Beautician: [Saves the day] So how do you want your bangs?

Next checklist:  Can’t afford a face lift, but can update all references to people, places and things prior to 1990.

—Quinn McDonald is determined not to sound as old as she looks.






47 thoughts on “Too Much Explaining

  1. There’s hope, Quinn. I read this to my 12 year old neighbor and she knew who all those people were without prompting! She couldn’t believe than anyone was so dumb as to not know who Homer was.

  2. I have a “classical” education; I was an English Major and I just turned 52. I go through the same thing, EXCEPT, I married older in life, had my one and only child at age 37, and so now have a 14-year old who just started High School last week. I fight my impatience by trying to be a YOUNG, COOL 52. Not the kind that makes a fool of herself. The kind that really is cool. How do I do this? I’m adventurous. I have an open mind. I try to constantly learn new things, new subjects, new advances, so that my education stays up-to-date (relatively). And I try to be awash in current pop culture so I can converse with people who are in younger generations. I’m not saying you don’t Quinn! I’m just saying it’s how I fight the urge to smack the young ones upside the head. If THEY aren’t making the effort to be well-rounded, I will!

  3. There used to be a site pertinent to this on the web, or maybe it was an email chain. I can’t remember But every year.they would send out a list of the words and phrases and life memories that would have NO resonance with this year’s crop of freshmen entering college or university or the workforce. Things like, “You sound like a broken record…” or “This years crop of students has never lived in a world without the internet. OR personal computers.” To this year’s crop of students, Desert Storm has the same resonance as Vietnam did for Gen-X, which is to say – none. Now I am going out for a shot of Geritol and listen to a Beatle’s album.

  4. Guilty of the same thing. Making now-obscure references and quoting even Frank Zappa and Tom Waits, trying to hit a middle ground = out-of-touch. It also used to be that the person hearing a reference he/she did not quite understand would step up and learn about it. Not so. So, yes, it behooves us to update our quotations and references so that our point is still heard. *Sigh*

    • That’s very true. When I was young, any adult would correct us, whether it was pronunciation, grammar, etiquette or factual. And we wanted to be smarter and do better. Now we live in a really anti-intellectual society–with all the consequences.

  5. What a kick! Until recently, I worked with kids and I can so relate. Sometimes I’m astounded at things they’re not aware of just from going through life. Like some others said, it’s funny yet sad. I suppose those now young will feel the same way someday. I agree with Linda that school is not so great at creating thinkers. I’m in my 50’s and even when I was in school I often felt we were taught to memorize more than actually think. Also, I notice that people over 50 (very generally speaking) seem to know more about things before “our time” than my children’s generation. Maybe we spent more time listening to and communicating with our elders? Today’s lifestyle doesn’t always seem to offer those opportunities and/or kids aren’t interested. I don’t know, but thanks for providing a much needed laugh today!

    • There are several differences between our childhood and our kids (or grandkids) childhood. Technology has truly changed how we experience the world. At the same time, I think it has made us more impatient, demanding of instant gratification, and not as able to connect with the past (which doesn’t exist on our tablets). We barely understand the present.

  6. Quinn, I’m whimpering. It is the complete decline of Western Civilization as we know it!! My kids would know these – I homeschooled AND had had a classical education. And what you wrote illustrates part of why this country is in such a mess. Character, good morals and refinement are no longer! Look at what passes for modern culture on TV!!
    Sorry. Rant over.

  7. “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
    – Edmund Burke
    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

    I laughed, but it also made me sad. And we wonder how we continue to get in the geopolitical messes we get in.

    I think I read “The Odyssey” in fourth grade, precocious reader that I was. Public school is pretty worthless nowadays, in terms of creating thinkers. My nineteen year old was reading Joseph Campbell and Viktor Frankel at sixteen, but this was outside of school. He never had the reading assignments in school that I did.

    But even back then, there were problems. I changed schools in third grade, since my parents were divorcing. I had been reading since I was four years old, and had a library card for the town library, where I could check out anything I wanted. Nancy Drew mysteries in first grade, Benjamin Franklin in second grade. The new school had a library, divided into first through third grade, and fourth through seventh grade. I saw books in the 4th-7th grade section that I had already read, but they would not let me touch them. Mom had to pay for me to get a city library card (we lived in the county) so that I could continue to educate myself.

  8. “About a man who leaves home to fight in a war and takes a long, interesting road trip back.”
    That is one clear and very concise way to describe the Odyssey, it made me laugh out loud!

  9. You took me back to the 1980s when I was tutoring art history and trying to explain the importance of the painting The Death of Marat to a student. I said something like if there were no cameras, a painting of the assassination of President Kennedy would be important, wouldn’t it? After receiving a blank stare, I shockingly realized the student was not born when Kennedy was assassinated. So I quickly said when John Lennon was killed. Ah, the student got the point and I realized how old I was : – )

    • What I find so shocking is that (in my opinion), there are some events that transcend time–that anyone who is more than 12 years old should know about. Assassinations of Presidents is one. Life shouldn’t just include the things you are interested in, life needs to be a bigger picture, a whole view of culture on a timeline.

  10. oh my God this made me roar with rueful laughter. I live in that world too, where someone who reads books other than romance or crime novels could only be doing that if in school. And obviously wasting time more suited to….

      • TS Eliot should have gone on my reading list on FB! And thanks for reminding me of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock . . . the line “The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,” I can remember how it struck me the first time I read it . . . I knew what it meant, I knew those eyes. And while I don’t wear white flannel trousers, I do walk along the beach with my trouser bottoms rolled.

        What a way to start the day . . . thanks.

        • Good poems age well. I have gotten so much more out of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock than I could ever imagine. And just yesterday, I walked in my street with my trousers rolled–that was a LOT of rain.

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