Beloit College has released its annual “Mindset List” which purports to serve as a reminder “of the rapidly changing frame of reference for this new generation.” The list tells us that for today’s young students, Magic Johnson has always been HIV positive. Hopefully students know that he wasn’t born HIV positive, but maybe they don’t.
I find this list frustrating. I mean, what am I supposed to do with this information? Am I expected to relate better to my students once I understand that, as far as they are concerned, salsa has always outsold ketchup? They have never known a world without a Cartoon Network. Does that mean I jettison Hamlet in favour of The Simpsons’ parody of Hamlet?
I also find it insulting. To the students I mean. The implication is that students cannot grasp a world that existed before they were born. They have never known a world without flat-screen TVs! So what? We never had a phonograph in my house, but I knew from childhood what a phonograph was. Surely these young people can figure out what Morse Code was for.
Finally, I find the list disturbing. Disturbing because it seems to imply that it is the job of universities to adapt their curricula to fit the “mindset” of this new generation. The Beloit list tacitly hints that we have to learn to think like them because their minds are already, well, set. I sometimes hear the same ideas from other well-meaning colleagues who think that students should no longer be expected to read books or write long essays because today’s students are used to online resources and instant messages.. To teach them, we have to learn to think like them.
I say exactly the reverse is true. They need to learn to think like us. That’s what they come here for. Not because we are super-human geniuses or gurus, but because in our years of study and research, we have gained some measure of expertise in at least one particular way of thinking. Together, the professoriate encompasses a vast range of knowledge and expertise, and we are doing a disservice to our students unless we challenge them to learn to think broadly, critically, imaginatively, just as our professors challenged us. Students learn to evaluate arguments in philosophy class, to be systematic in math class, to understand culture more profoundly in sociology. If they could do these things well already, the wouldn’t need to come to university.
If they think that women have always outnumbered men in universities (Beloit implies they do), we are here to tell them that it wasn’t always so, and ask that they think about why it wasn’t always so and why it changed. If they don’t know what the KGB is or what Europe was like before the EU, we will tell them and insist they think about what that means for the world and its future. They need to know more than they already know. And they need to be able to think better than they already think.