I spent last weekend at the Philadelphia Zoo with my boyfriend and his two-year-old nephew, Layne. I hadn't been to the zoo in years, and so a few things came as a bit of a shock to me. One was the price of admission; like everything else, it's risen. A day out at the zoo with your family can set you back almost a hundred dollars but then, I guess the price of polar bear food has probably gone up as well.
I didn't notice the second thing until almost the end of the day. I had promised Layne that we would see lions and tigers and elephants, oh my. Last time I was at the zoo there were at least three of them, including an adorably clumsy baby elephant, and naturally I assumed they would be right where I'd left them so many years ago. After all, at the entrance of the zoo is an enormous stone elephant statue; there had to be actual, living elephants nearby, right?
But I was wrong. Apparently the elephants at the Philadelphia Zoo, like the elephants at so many other zoos, were relocated years ago due to lack of funding or pressure from environmental groups. Now, I don't doubt that those elephants are probably happier at a conservation center where they can walk more than ten feet in one direction, and Layne wasn't terribly disappointed he forgot his desire to see elephants the moment he came face to face with a gorilla picking its nose.
The incident did, however, make me think about some of the things the next generation is going to miss out on, from the trivial to the sublime. There are the obvious things, like smelling the pages of a new book or feeling the ink of a newspaper on one's fingers, or ever knowing that there were once entire buildings devoted to renting videotapes. But those will be replaced by e-readers and iPads, by Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. The next generation will still be able to read and watch movies; they'll just get to be a whole lot lazier about it.
But what about the more insidious things? For example, the next generation will never know the joys and frustrations of having a pointless, long-winded argument about minute, inconsequential details. Can't agree on which actress played the third Charlie's Angel? Whip out your smartphone and shut that argument down! Entire episodes of "Seinfeld" have been made irrelevant by the iPhone (that whole "Moors" vs. "Moops" thing would have been moot within seconds). With the entire Internet and a world of fast, hard facts at their fingertips, how will the next generation of debaters ever learn the fine art of bullthrowing?
Then there's gym and recess. School districts all over the country are trashing both in favor of spending more time and money preparing for a multitude of standardized tests, thanks to George Bush and his so-called "No Child Left Behind" policy. In the midst of an obesity epidemic, can we really afford to take away the only source of exercise many kids have? Are we doomed to becoming the fat, amorphous blobs predicted in the "Wall-E" version of the future? In a society that favors video games over volleyball, where kids' thumbs get more of a workout than any other body part, I'd say it's a definite possibility.
Nearby Upper Darby School District is planning to dispense not only with gym next year, but also art, music, library, and a large portion of language and technology education. I ask you: what will be left? Are we regressing back to the days of "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic"? Parents and teachers are protesting the cuts, but it remains to be seen if it will make any difference. Still, it's nice to know that some people still care. After all, some things really are worth saving for the next generation. I can live with my kids never getting to hold a real book but I can't live with them never getting the education needed to write one.