Since the beginning of the Republic, the nation has been afflicted with a breed of scholars, social critics and thinkers who take indecent relish in predicting the decline, even the imminent demise, of the United States.
I've always thought this a harmless kind of nuttery, akin to the doomsayers who predict, as they seem to do with increasing frequency, the end of the world. Right now, people who cannot read ancient Mayan, and know nothing of the Mayans' religion or culture, let alone their track record for scientific accuracy, are saying the world will end this Dec. 21.
Why? Because the Mayan calendar says so. And how do they know this? Because they saw it on the Internet somewhere or heard it on late-night AM radio.
They are ignoring a more worrisome signs of long-term decline. In 2008, only 30.7 percent of 16-year-old drivers got their licenses compared with 44.7 percent in 1988.
What is wrong with these kids? Don't they know this is an essential rite of passage?
The day I turned 16, I tried to get my learner's permit but failed the vision test, badly. We rallied my uncle the ophthalmologist and his friend the optometrist and a few days later I presented myself again to the state police sporting a dorky-looking set of glasses that should have got me passed on compassionate grounds alone.
I could already drive, sort of, because my aunt surreptitiously let me drive her '52 Olds station wagon around our yard and on close-by streets. I bugged my parents to go driving with me and took lessons from an imperturbable instructor named Frank in a standard transmission '57 Plymouth with the gearshift mounted on the steering column. It pretty much handled like an overloaded sailboat in light winds — ideal training as it turned out for some of the cars I would subsequently own.
My first legal solo trip was to pick up my girlfriend. Life was good.
My oldest son was like me, although I had the good sense not to provoke an argument with my mother that once I had a license I would be driving to school every day. My son was bargaining from a weak position since he didn't even have a learner's permit at the time. But he might have been at the end of the generation for which a driver's license was a must-have document.
The speculation is that we now have a generation consumed by social media, smartphones and Skype whose members don't have to go anywhere to see someone. Besides, they've grown up having their parents drive them everywhere.
That might have been the case with my second son. He seemed absolutely indifferent to driving. He walked and took the subway to school and football practice, returning home late, filthy and exhausted. I made him get a license when I had to start driving him everywhere.
Some theorize that the new "graduated" system of licensing is discouraging younger drivers — you have to be a certain age to drive at night or with just another minor in the car. Besides, the driver's tests are harder and schools don't teach driver's ed any more.
Maybe age has dimmed my memory, but I can't see any 16-year-old from the '50s and '60s letting these obstacles stand in the way of their driving. Perhaps times are different, but just the same, if I were a 16-year-old today I'd do my best to get my license before next Dec. 21. You never know.
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Dale McFeatters writes a syndicated column for the Scripps Howard News Service.