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The Dark Side of Nostalgia

The Dark Side of Nostalgia

“Kids used to be better.”

“Parenting nowadays, makes it impossible to educate children.”

“The system is broken and there is nothing we can do about.”

Heard any of these lately? One of the most prevalent conversations in education appears to be about nostalgia.  This lunchroom departure or social media rant seems to be more popular as of late. It’s a common misconception that the elements of the past would remedy our current educational problems. “If only students were more like…”, “Twenty years ago parents…”, “Administrators used to…” “This generation is lazier than…” You get the point. Time talking about the past or condemning the present is time that could be used to make plans for the future. If it’s such a distraction to our educational environment or hindrance to our positive learning culture, then why do we do it?

Nostalgia is a break from the pains of the present to re-imagine a better yesterday. It allows us to imagine the past in its best light and removes the stains of context.  It can lead you to believe that your childhood restaurant was a lot tastier than it is, or trick you into thinking that your hike to school was miles longer than the actual distance.

On the other hand, Nostalgia can be beautiful and productive. It can inspire you to treat people with more kindness than current cultural expectations dictate. It can empower you to endure devastating life challenges. Nostalgia has the power to recall the images of a past family member and the beautiful impact they had on your life. The paradox of its power lies in its ability to be a source for stagnation or personal growth.

The worst effect that can come from over-indulging nostalgia is the absolution of our personal responsibility. It starts by giving in to the temptations of powerlessness, and ends with the only thing you can do if you can’t do anything: complain.

Complaining is the act of stating a problem without intention to solve it.  Complaining uses the past to validate stagnation for the present and further justify inaction for the future. “Golden Age Thinking” is the notion that a certain time period is superior to any other previous time period.  This romanticism recalls the time when education was better. Instead of looking forward, we look at what was and conclude that right now can never be as good as back then. Maybe that’s true but it’s almost certain if we do nothing to make it better.


The impacts of complaining often occur on the subconscious level, and professionals are unaware of the residual effect. For instance, most people don’t actually say, “I give up on educating kids”, “I give up on developing teachers” or “I give up on being a good social worker.” On the contrary, we engage in reciting all the reasons that we can’t be effective and that why trying new things never works. It is verbal submission, and who likes to submit to a challenge alone? Not a lot of people want to be the only person complaining. We want company!

Those who know how to masterfully complain do so by indulging in the past with as much positivity as anyone can handle. At the inception of a complaint, it is disguised by talking about a better time, which is something that everyone can get into! It is a masterful process and I have created a 4 point plan to show you how to be a masterful complainer.

Phase 1: Talk about something in the past that everyone can agree was great. Stay seemingly positive!

Phase 2: Compare and Contrast. Make sure to talk about the worst parts of culture. i.e. Compare Miley Cyrus to your favorite artist from the 1980s.

Phase 3: Talk about how things can never be the same.

Phase 4: Use phases 1-3 to justify why education (or anything else) can never be as good.

This four point plan is undoubtedly tongue in cheek, but it  highlights an unhealthy pattern that can lead team members down a stagnate path. Of course, we can’t just complain about complainers. We must offer a replacement behavior. In my next post I will talk about mindfulness, and the ways it can be an antidote to complaining.


About The Author

Charles Barr

School social worker by trade and writer by choice. Founder of Common Ground Education Podcast. My interests include social emotional curriculum, school building culture, mindfulness, poverty, school district polity and all things special education.

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