My problem with this year’s Beloit Mindset List.

August 25th, 2011

I’ve seen a lot of the Beloit Mindset List over the last few days, shared by various Facebook contacts. If you’re not friends with as many college instructors as I am, you may not know about it; it’s an annual list of facts about the incoming college freshman class, designed to help understand what the new generation is thinking.

It’s a good idea, and it could serve a useful purpose, but in recent years I’ve been more and more disappointed in the list. It’s gotten to be less a useful treatment of generational differences, and more a roll-call of pop-culture trivia from 18 years ago.

Part of my problem with the list is that the writing style is convoluted and awkward, word choices that seem designed to be hip and funny but miss the mark. The writers seem to like “always” and “never” statements, and I kind of get why. An incisive statement on culture could be like those from Beloit’s Class of 2003 list–to say that in their lifetime, there has always been at least one female justice in the Supreme Court, or there has never been a Yugoslavia.

But when they try to press that sentence form onto a factoid, it leads to rough sentences like All their lives, Whitney Houston has always been declaring “I Will Always Love You.” or Women have always been Venusians; men, Martians. Of course, those statements were written to say that a certain song and a certain book were released before they were born, but it’s not like Whitney was hooked up to a 24-hour singing machine, constantly looped to the one song, and it’s not like the psychology-lite insights in John Gray’s book have been uniformly accurate and influential. Sometimes the sentence format just makes it illogical: Amazon has never been just a river in South America. I presume it’s saying they were born after the online bookstore, but really, “Amazon” has always had more than one meaning–a mythical warrior woman, or any woman seen as physically imposing. Why do the writers say it this way, and not, “They were born after the opening of”?

The real problem with the list, though, is that its pop-culture focus seems to be mostly through Baby Boomer eyes, not Millennial eyes. Sure, these young people are too young to remember Cheers, the Sears Big Book, or President Carter. What insight do we get from that? What does it tell us about their values? Pretty much nothing. The list seems to me like a group of over-thirties reminiscing, like, “Remember when you had to go to a midnight movie to see Rocky Horror? These kids don’t!” “Remember the McDonalds hot-coffee trial? They don’t!” Even the ones that are specific to their generation seem infantilizing–pogs, Mouseketeers, Tickle-Me Elmo. How does it help us relate to them, to understand who they are now, to be reminded that the catchphrases “Been there, done that” and “yadda yadda yadda” were popular when they were babies? If it simply reminds you not to use 1990s catchphrases in class, that’s really a small step. If you need a reminder that Lorena Bobbitt jokes will fly over the heads of 18-year-olds, I think it’s better as a reminder that Bobbitt jokes were never funny in the first place.

Every year, I get insights and surprises from my students. I find out how they see the world, what is significant to them and how it differs. That’s something the Beloit Mindset List could do, could help with, could start conversations. But it seems in this form to be less a conversation-starter than a conversation-closer. “Don’t bother talking to them about Andy Warhol,” it seems to say. “They don’t know him and don’t care.”

There’s one note on this list that could have been developed into an insight: The only significant labor disputes in their lifetimes have been in major league sports. But, well, I’m not certain that’s true, or true as such. Considering that this list comes from a university in Wisconsin I think the claim calls for a little more scrutiny.

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