What the old year tells us about the new

Last week, as the snow sifted gently into the hemlock trees outside my window in the Maine woods, I took a couple of days to reread what I'd written last year. I kept in mind two questions: What was 1984 all about, and where are we going in 1985? One man's view, admittedly -- which is why this column is less like a formal treatise and more like a post card. But as the past year came into focus, it revealed some patterns worth pointing out. One of them, not surprisingly, is that columnists are not unerring -- as several of you have pointed out in your letters and comments. My apologies, then, for some inaccurate forecasts (in prophesying that environmental issues would be a major factor in the presidential campaign); for some tones more strident than necessary (in lambasting ``Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom''); for some apparently confusing explanations of deeply held positions (on the ``color analysis'' fad, on television's coverage of the Olympics), and for just plain getting the facts wrong (in saying that Lincolnville, Maine, was named after Abraham Lincoln rather than a Revolutionary War soldier, Gen. Benjamin Lincoln).

Mistakes aside, though, what were some significant movements of 1984? Three things come to mind:

Patriotism. Symbolically, 1984 was the year of the flag -- with flag-wavers shaking up a storm at the Olympics and the two political conventions, and with flagmakers chalking up one of their best sales years.

Educational reform. As the year began, the flow of reports on the sorry state of American education continued. By year's end, it was evident that the movement to reform education had really taken hold -- that the reports were not simply being shelved but were beginning to have an impact right at the classroom desk and the kitchen table.

Conservatism. A year ago, while there were signs of a strong rightward shift by the nation's youth, the extent of the movement was unclear. By year's end, President Reagan had captured some 60 percent of voters between ages 18 and 24, and the shift was undeniable.

These, however, are only the surface manifestations of what appears to be the year's larger and deeper movement: the increasing desire, voiced on every side, for greater stability. If that sounds strange -- if stability seems such a sine qua non of society that it can hardly be described as a current trend -- consider the last decade. In the news during the 1970s were Vietnam, campus rebellions, and Watergate; underneath seethed the turmoil of dissolving marriage, the generation gap, and Me-Generation ethics. Stability, hardly a priority, was conspicuous by its absence.

That absence has become a remarkable presence in the 1980s: During 1984, the longing for stability seems to have coalesced into a clear trend. It is more than an evolution of hippie into yuppie, although that is part of it. The call for stability was felt in the President's State of the Union message last January, with its emphasis on what he called ``a rededication to bedrock values of faith, family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom.'' It cropped up in one of the year's most significant polls (``The Mood of American Youth,'' by the National Association of Secondary School Principals), which found that the generation gap has been reduced to ``a simple hairline scratch'' and that most students get on well with their families. It figured in one of the year's more thought-provoking books (``The War Over the Family: Capturing the Middle Ground''), whose authors, Brigitte and Peter Berger, argued that stability, along with love, are the two essentials for successful child-rearing. And it spoke clearly through the pages of ``Forecast 2000,'' in which George Gallup Jr., after polling nearly 1,400 of America's movers and shakers, concluded that one of the ``basic ingredients identified by our opinion leaders'' as essential to a sound future was ``mature commitment.''

Where will that lead us in 1985? Toward great promise -- and significant dangers. Having made stability a priority, we'll be better placed than we were in the 1970s to cope with such destabilizing factors as the accelerating pace of technological innovation, the overload of information, economic frenzy, the arms race, and international terrorism. But the longing for stability can also spawn subtle counterfeits: idolatry of the status quo, bland acceptance of oppression and injustice, tolerance for monopoly in place of diversity, and an apathetic surrender of individuality in the face of group-think.

In 1984, we rediscovered our need for stability. It remains to be seen whether, in 1985, we mold it into a blessing or a blight. A Monday column

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