Back in the embattled 1970s, Americans were deluged by demands for ''relevant theater,'' ''relevant education,'' ''relevant music,'' even ''relevant welfare.'' We didn't wake up until confronted with ''relevant diets.''
Now, ''relevant'' is mocked out of usage. Like most language jTC victories, however, the triumph was short-lived. Instead of ''relevant,'' we have ''suitable role model.''
What America's young need, we are incessantly told, are ''suitable role models.'' We may have produced a generation lacking literacy, skill, even a sense of style. Do not despair. It's nothing a good ''role model'' can't cure.
No one knows exactly what a ''role model'' is or what makes one ''suitable.'' And no one really knows why the young need them. That hasn't stopped volunteers from bravely stepping forward.
A professional athlete earning millions of dollars to prolong adolescent fantasies speaks in reverent tones of the awesome responsibility he feels as a designated role model.
The vice president castigates a fictitious television anchorwoman because, pregnant but unwed, she is not a
''suitable role model.''
Being a ''suitable role model'' is even a requirement for parenthood. When I became a father almost 30 years ago, I was expected to love, nurture and protect my children, to work for a decent society in which they could grow up safely. I'm a father, not a damn model.
Anyone can become a ''role model,'' or so we are told by those who believe ''suitable role models'' will save the nation's young.
Maybe so -- but I cannot envision Daryl Strawberry or Charles Barkley being called upon to serve as ''suitable role models'' were they short-order cooks.
The truth is -- and it is a more serious truth than simply taking potshots at Dan Quayle's banalities -- that nothing is more unsuitable to the needs of the young than ''suitable role models.''
The idea that ''role models'' can make a substantial contribution to the prospects of the young -- an idea, let me note in fairness, voiced more often by the liberal Jesse Jackson than by the conservative Dan Quayle -- is nonsense.
Instead, we should be talking about their need for education, skills, training, jobs. The nation's young, like the nation's old and middle-aged, want what past generations of Americans have wanted: the chance to create meaningful lives through purposeful work.
Give them learning and opportunity instead of ''suitable role models.''
Leonard Kriegel is a writer in New York.