Thursday, August 23, 2012

Class of 2016: Running on empty mindsets?

I guess I’ll go all lemming-like, too. The Internet has been awash with back-to-school talk about the Beloit College Mindset List. The list looks at this year’s entering college class of 2016. It is fascinating and a bit frightening.

Here's a sampling:
For this generation of entering college students, born in 1994, Kurt Cobain, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Richard Nixon have always been dead. They have always lived in cyberspace, addicted to a new generation of “electronic narcotics.” The Biblical sources of terms such as “Forbidden Fruit,” “The writing on the wall,” “Good Samaritan,” and “The Promised Land” are unknown to most of them. Robert De Niro is thought of as Greg Focker's long-suffering father-in-law, not as Vito Corleone. They have never seen an airplane “ticket.” Having grown up with MP3s and iPods, they really have no use for radio at all. Probably the most tribal generation in history, they despise being separated from contact with their similar-aged friends. The Twilight Zone involves vampires, not Rod Serling. Two-thirds of the independent bookstores in America have closed for good during their lifetimes.
Who knows what this mindset actually means or where it will lead this nascent generation. But think about it. From their understandable perspective, everything that occurred before the 90s is not only history – but antiquity. I can already hear them say in unison: “John Lennon who?” Rigged with laptops (instead of notebook and pen) for class, most have never seen a typewriter let alone used one (not that I wish it on anyone).

Nor have these kids ever been without cell phones, GPS or the ability to "Google it." But when confronting two roads diverging “in a yellow wood,” as the poet Robert Frost penned, they’ve never taken the “one less traveled” and reveled in discovery because, well, their iMap app says it’s a longer haul. Nor would they know the joy of being lost on some lovely back-country road surrounded by sunflower fields, laughably armed with a paper map and reduced to trusting one’s fate to serendipity. As Frost knew, it “(makes) all the difference.”

The Class of 2016 is social networked to within an inch of its life. Evidently, its members (and everyone else hooked on this digital cocaine) prefer it that way. Yet, I bet they've never spent a cozy evening with friends for the simple pleasures of conversation, cigarettes, cognac and Coltrane -- with no possibility of sabotage by texting or ringtones.

Facebook and Foursquare have conspired to put privacy and the accidental encounter on the endangered species list. iTunes has done the same to quietude. The sublimity of silence, it seems, is avoided at all costs. How often, I wonder, do these kids remove their earbuds long enough to listen to the wind or the patter of raindrops against a windowpane?

All of that said, I'd still vote against turning the clock back to simpler times. Access to knowledge (and to each other) is nearly boundless now. Technology has indeed set us free. Life as we know it today is safer, healthier, greener, more diverse, more tolerant and vastly more convenient. But I do wonder whether it is much emptier, too.

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