COMMENTARY: Survey Shows Generation Gap

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My generation was the first never to know life without television.

My parents, survivors of the Great Depression and World War II, used radio as their cultural touchstone to connect them with the rest of the country and the world.

And their parents were the first generation to clamor to get their own home telephones.

The college class of 2015 will acknowledge different touchstones in their lives.

For example, they have never known life without the Internet.

Beloit College has released a so-called Mindset List since 1998 to express the cultural consciousness of freshmen entering college in the United States each fall.

This year’s list of 75 items provides enormous insight into how different each generation’s frame of reference for the people, places and things that shape our lives can be.

For example, as we prepare to dedicate the new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. (The ceremony was delayed by Hurricane Irene), we realize the class of 2015 has never seen a state refuse to celebrate Martin Luther King Day.

Surely that is some measure of societal progress.

On the other hand, throughout their young lifetimes, there has always been a shortage of nurses, fake Christmas trees have always outsold the real thing and parents have always been concerned about their lack of empathy and concentration because of their obsession with all things cyberspace.

Not all the cultural touchstones are bad.

Among the more whimsical indications that the class of 2015 has a different mindset are their references to basketball star LeBron James, not former President Lyndon Baines Johnson, as “LBJ.” Their parents have some vague remembrance of a now-nonexistent store called Woolworth’s.

And they don’t remember Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake as former Mouseketeers.

Is this just some small liberal arts college’s gambit to get into the national headlines? Not necessarily.

Professor of the Humanities Tom McBride was one of the creators of the Mindset List.

The original purpose was to nudge the faculty in the ribs to make sure they didn’t try to teach today’s students with dated references that lack meaning and clarity for those students.

Additionally, unbeknownst to the world outside of academia, there has been a clash of ideas about the value of popular culture as a subject of serious pedagogical study.

Some academicians consider it to be a frivolous waste of time and effort.

Others consider it imperative to examine these ever-changing benchmarks as teaching tools to help students better understand history, sociology, philosophy and a host of other disciplines.

For example, if a professor can draw a viable analogy between something relevant to the student’s current cultural climate and something experienced by people in another era, whether it’s the ancient Romans, the pioneers of the Old West or the civil rights heroes of the 1950s and 1960s, doesn’t that promote learning and understanding?

Especially as so many of their elders are scrambling to catch up with the technological advances they have taken for granted all their lives, it behooves us to remember there was a time when we, as children, could not relate to Hitler, Joe McCarthy, iron lungs or ration stamps.
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