The importance of pop culture

My friend Anna, who is Hungarian, told me once that when she was in school in Hungary, studying English, she took a course on doing business in America.  (Maybe that wasn’t the title, but that was the topic.)    One of  the things they stressed as a key to being successful in business dealings with Americans was to be familiar with the names and current records of sports teams.   Because there is no better way ‘in’ than , “Hey, how about those [fill in name of appropriate sports team here]?  Think they can go all the way this year?”

When I started working here in New York in 1990, the water cooler talk was all about Beverly Hills 90210.    Now it might be American Idol, or Dancing With the Stars.   You may despise such shows, but in relating to people, there is no better ice-breaker than current pop culture.    I heard Ellen Degeneres tell a joke once where she said that if there is ever a pause in conversation that becomes awkward, all you have to do is talk about Gloria Estefan’s hair.   It’s a little dated, but basically true.   Now you could talk about Justin Bieber’s hair instead.

It pains me when I hear fellow members of the homeschooling community speaking with disdain about any type of pop culture.   Yes, their kids may be able to talk at length about the pharoahs of Ancient Egypt or the process of photosynthesis, but successfully working those topics in to a social gathering where people are chit-chatting,  the way they do to get comfortable with one another, is a difficult task.   One of the running jokes on the series “Friends” is that whenever Ross begins talking about some aspect of paleontology, everyone else begins to snore or  finds something really important they need to do in another room.  (And if you don’t know who Ross on “Friends” is, then you are missing out.)

Pop culture is just another aspect of life learning.   We live around it and among it – especially here in New York, where on any given day you might be asked to wait for a moment before entering, say, the American Museum of Natural History because the show “White Collar” is shooting a scene at the planetarium entrance.    This actually happened to us, and I was completely appalled that I’d never heard of the show or its’ stars, Matthew Bomer and Tim DeKay, both of whom were in the scene.    You can bet that when I got home I looked up the show and its’ stars on

Is this knowledge important?  Well, no, not in the way that solving climate change is important or protecting the people you love from harm is important.  It’s not IMPORTANT.   But it’s not irrelevant.   It plays a large role in our society and like it or not, if you aren’t somewhat in the know you are often at a disadvantage.    If nothing else, pop culture knowledge can keep you from breaking out in a sweat in an awkward social situation.  (Just a tip; People magazine is like getting pop culture cliff notes on music, tv and movies.  Very handy.)

So yes, right now my kids could fill you in on more details about Spongebob or the Biggest Loser than they could about ancient Egypt.   Maybe someday ancient Egypt and its’ pharoahs will fascinate them and they’ll immerse themselves in books and artifacts and museum trips to learn more.   That would be great.   But I expect they’ll also know what Matt LeBlanc = Joey from “Friends”, is up to these days.    And that will be ok too.

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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