Monday, August 30, 2010

The Mindset List

Here is today's column in Small Town Newspaper—you can read the entire 75-point mindset list here.

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Every August, in anticipation of a new batch of wide-eyed freshmen, Beloit College in Wisconsin releases what it calls the Mindset List, a list of characteristics peculiar to the incoming class. Faculty started compiling this list over a decade ago to help professors tailor their references to fit a 21st-century mindset, and to help them better understand a digital generation.

This year’s class members rarely wear wristwatches because they use cell phones as clocks, so pointing to your wrist doesn’t register as a gesture for asking the time. They have never seen a Kodachrome slide show, they have always had access to hundreds of television channels and most have never learned to write in cursive. It seems these cultural details have shaped their worldview and made them a unique generation.

I realize that technology and society have advanced exponentially in recent years so that there might be gaping differences between the mindset of the graduating class of 2014 and that of someone in their parents’ generation, but I can’t help wondering if what we perceive as differences between the generations is really just a matter of semantics.

My high school graduating class recently celebrated its 30th reunion and some of my aging classmates met to toast to their history. Those are our kids entering school and being observed by professors striving to be relevant, so I took a look back at world events and pop culture in the late 1970s to see what shaped our mindsets. What I found points to similarities more so than to differences.

Today’s students are entering school at a time when their country is angrily debating immigration issues, is keeping a wary eye on Iran and is cleaning up after a major offshore oil disaster. Automakers like Chrysler have been bailed out, Afghanistan is exploding and Michael Jackson’s physician continues to be investigated following the death of The King of Pop.

A generation ago, more than 125,000 Cuban refugees were making their way to Miami hoping for asylum, and thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” landed in the U.S. and were detained while we debated their future. Iraq had invaded Iran, a country that held 52 U.S. citizens hostage, and the blowout of an oil well spilled 140 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

In the late 1970s, Chrysler petitioned the government for a loan of $1.5 billion, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and Elvis Presley’s physician was being investigated following the death of The King of Rock and Roll.

Despite our differences, today’s students share a great deal of similarities with the previous generation. According to the Mindset List, “They have never twisted the coiled handset wire aimlessly around their wrists while chatting on the phone,” but they spend hours communicating with friends just as their parents did 30 years ago. The first home computer they touched may have been an early model Apple, a computer that hadn’t been invented when their parents were students, but both generations thoroughly embrace the latest models today. Unlike their parents, they aren’t afraid of a Russian missile strike, but they have grown up being taught to fear terrorists with the same vague uneasiness.

This new generation may know Betty Ford as a clinic and not a First Lady entering one. To them, to “drink the Kool-Aid” is to blindly follow a leader and not how Jim Jones’ disciples committed suicide. And they know Russians and Americans as living peaceably together in a space station instead of facing off in a bitter Cold War. But the class of 2014 and the class of 1980 share common threads despite the style of telephones they have always used or the enemies they fear.

The staff at Beloit College state, “The college class of 2014 reminds us, once again, that a generation comes and goes in the blink of our eyes.” Generations do come and go in the blink of an eye, but they have enduring goals and dreams in common regardless of the details surrounding them. No matter their terminology or their gadgets, let’s hope this new batch of students has a mindset to learn from the history of their parents and to live out the best of our shared goals, despite a lack of penmanship.

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