As someone who deals with language and its vagaries on a daily basis, I am sometimes amazed at the way certain widely-used terms creep into–or unexplainably flee from–the vernacular.
And it’s even more fascinating to see that some terms–in spite of morals, values and beliefs that have shifted radically over the years–seem to survive. One such term is the adjective “cool,” where it denotes that something is really good or excellent.
Surely it means more than that, however. There is a sense of excitement, a sense that the object of coolness is uniquely timely and hip, a sense that this person or thing is excellent on a very subtle level that nonetheless resonates strongly with us. Coolness is a state unto itself, a way of life, the Golden Calf of the modern age–which is to say that we worship it in spite of its being unknowable.
Why should this be? For one thing, coolness makes us feel good. It validates us among our peers and those who are not are peers. It is happy juice for the ego. All of this coolness engenders in us the knowing smile, the affirming head nod, the thumbs up, the high five, the fist bump, the tipped hat or some variation of the horns created by extended pinky and thumb. Why, the expressions of coolness are almost as numerous as its definitions!
Has there been a more enduring piece of slang on the planet in the last 60 years or so than the term “cool”? Big bands and jitterbugs were cool in the 1940s, Elvis and poodle skirts were cool in the 1950s, hippies and mind-altering drugs were cool in the 1960s, disco dancing and flared pants were cool in the 1970s, big hair and greed were cool in the 1980s, and the Internet was cool in the 1990s.
Here’s the point: When it comes to the popularity of anything, never underestimate the “cool” factor. Especially when it comes to young impressionable minds, there is perhaps no greater motivating force than the belief that a person, creation, idea or course of action is cool. Come to think of it, coolness is a pretty powerful motivator for many of us with less impressionable minds.
So why all this cool talk? A recent article in Computerworld noted that the college-level computer science graduating class of 2007 is the smallest of any year this decade. According to this piece, in the 2006-2007 academic year, only 8,021 students graduated with computer science degrees from the 170 institutions surveyed. Compare this to 2003-2004, when 14,185 students earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science, the article notes.
Clearly, computer technology is playing an increasingly critical part in nearly every aspect of modern life, so why do our young learners seem less and less interested? To me, the answer seems obvious: Technology just isn’t as cool as it used to be.