Every fall, educators at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin publish the Mindset List, a rundown of the "cultural touchstones and experiences that have shaped the worldview of students entering colleges and universities". VOA Now host David Byrd caught up with Tom McBride, the Keefer Professor of the Humanities and one of the co-authors of the list.
BYRD: What’s the number one thing that comes to your mind when you think about this group of young people? What is their distinctive characteristic?
McBRIDE: Well, I think one way of understanding this generation is to say that it’s not just that they are interested in technology; it is that they are technology. They really live in this sort of technological universe, they sleep with their smart phones; the first thing that they touch when they get up in the morning is their smart phones. They can use their smart phones to take a photo of a check, a “check selfie” if you will, and the check will be deposited on that basis. They can watch TV everywhere except on old-fashioned TVs, which means that they can “binge watch” any time that they want. They are not very interested in big flat screens; they are interested in little flat screens. They are very much a social network generation, they are able to do thanks to high technology the sorts of things that once upon a time only celebrities and politicians could do which is to manage their own images and invent their own personas. And this is something of course that once upon a time you needed a full entourage of public relations experts and makeup artists to do. Now all you need is to register for Facebook and all you need is a tablet and a mouse. So I would say that technology really does define this generation and it’s no wonder that many of them dream of being the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.
BYRD: One of the things you mention in the list is that Bill Gates has always been the richest man in the United States. How does that kind of media saturation really affect the way that these young people learn and assimilate information?
McBRIDE: Well, I think it affects it in a number of problematical ways. For one thing, with so much information out there, with it being so ubiquitous and so free, it’s harder and harder I think to distinguish between information and knowledge, never mind the difference between knowledge and wisdom. So I think this is very much a generation that has more of a struggle with the hierarchy of knowledge because there’s this kind of sense on the web sort of that all factoids are kind of equal. So I think that that’s one thing.
A second thing I think that is kind of problematical is the distinction between reality and virtual reality. Sherry Turkle, who is a professor at MIT, wrote an essay not too long ago in which she said to her horror she took her kids to a natural history museum and she pointed out to them that the turtles, though they looked real, were actually digital and one of the things that she noticed was that her kids really didn’t care if they were digital or not. So one wonders about the extent to which this is a generation that is going to have good reality testing given that they can live in this kind of virtual reality paradise a good deal of the time. And of course there are other things like, since they don’t meet face to face as often, since they text, you know they really are going to be slow to recognize facial cues and body language and so forth.
Now none of this is proven and all of it I think at this point is speculative and it’s hard to design social science experiments around these questions, but these are in fact some of the concerns. And there are going to be professors and teachers who will tell you anecdotally that these problems are already cropping up – I don’t see how they can know that for sure – but these are in fact some of the anxieties on the part of educators, parents, and others.
BYRD: You mention one item in the list that they prefer “selfies” with a celebrity to an autograph from someone like the football coach or a movie star or someone like that. Do you think that this generation is more or less selfish than other ones?
McBRIDE: Well, I don’t know that it’s that they are more selfish. I would say that the significance of the selfies, I think is that they are more visual, you know they are really not into the so-called John Hancock – which is a term by the way that they may not necessarily know – not so much into the signature or the cursive, they are really into the videos. And of course, you know one of the things that is so wonderful about selfies is that you can again manage your own persona, you can dress up any way that you want, you can have any expression you want and so forth and so on. So, I don’t know that they are more selfish, in fact I think in some ways there is a good deal of evidence that they really are very community minded in some ways. I think they want to do meaningful work, I think many of them are interested in questions of world disease and world hunger. They seem to be a more liberal generation. But they do in fact appear to be a more video and visual generation than they are a kind of literary or cursive generation if you will.
BYRD: How does that (being more visual) affect education? What do you think are some steps that educators like yourself are going to have to take in order for these young people to be productive citizens?
McBRIDE: Well I think there we have a choice. We can either sort of resist some of these trends or we can more or less adapt to them. My view is that probably what education is going to do, what it’s going to be forced to do, what educators are going to be forced to do is to adapt to these changes. I think you are going to have a more visual kind of education: I think you’re going to have more video lectures, I think you’re going to have more podcasted lectures, I think you’re going to have more and more course that are going to have to have more visual illustrations in them. It wouldn’t surprise me if indeed, you know, some kind of video or visual aids are going to be almost required in lectures, both virtual lectures as well as live lectures, over the next 20 years.
So my feeling is that we are going to be much more into a kind of visual world. And I’ll give you one very quick example of that. I was teaching and the subject of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond’s great book came up and I sort of summarized the thesis of that book and I said ‘you know, it’s really kind of too bad that we aren’t able to read this book in this course but we really don’t have time’ and a student raised her hand and said ‘yeah, but there’s a great, 30-minute video on it.’ And nobody had ever said that to me before. I think we’re going to get a lot more of that.