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For new university students, Jerry Garcia has always been dead

By Kristina Chew, The Guardian
Wednesday, August 21, 2013 0:27 EDT
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As professors, we realize that our students stay the same age, but we don’t. Keeping up with the latest is tough

Every fall the same thing happens: I say “salvete!” (hello in Latin) to a classroom of college students. The students are roughly the same age as they were last year, the year before, and all the other years back to the 1990s when I started teaching.

But I’m older, now the age of their parents. Sometimes I console myself that at least I’m not the age of their grandparents, but I know it’s only a matter of time.

At many a training session for faculty, mention is made of the Mindset List, which seeks to reveal the world view and values of today’s 18-something year olds. Tom McBride and Ron Nief, an English professor and a now-retired administrator at Wisconsin’s Beloit College, started compiling the list in 1998 to gently remind ageing professors like me that saying “groovy!” probably wouldn’t get us very far with students.

The list for the Class of 2017 (freshmen born in 1995) came out today. Like previous lists, this year’s remarks on the ephemerality of pop culture figures, the mutability of language and the myriad of ways that technology is intertwined (entrenched) in our lives.

To students entering the class of 2017, Jerry Garcia has always been dead.

They don’t hear “chicken pox” and think “extremely painful and unpleasant childhood rite of passage”. But Chicken Little? Oh yeah, that kid who got knocked out of American Idol a couple years ago.

To the class of 2017, Java doesn’t mean coffee but software.

GM is something eco-people say we shouldn’t eat.

Lockdown drills are as routine as fire drills: these students were babies when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred and toddlers when the Columbine High shooting happened.

Their family pet has a microchip and they’ve had an “electronic lifeline” (a cell phone) to mom and dad since middle school.

In their lifetime, the US has, as the new list says, “always been trying to figure out which side to back in Middle East conflicts”. They get their news by following the Twitter feeds of activists (and Beloit alumnae) like Maryam and Zainab al-Khawaja (who is currently in prison in Bahrain) or from their own family members in Syria.

Students in the class of 2017 know you do everything on the internet. They chat on Skype and pay via Paypal. Wikipedia has always been there to look things up on.

See a student using a smart phone in class? They may not be texting a friend in the next row or in Kathmandu but “reading the assignment they should have read last night, or … recording every minute of their college experience”.

If you are 40-something-ish like me, reading such items in the most recent Mindset List is bound to make you feel old.

As I’m heading towards middle age, I’ve concluded that any attempt to keep up with my students is futile. I have to face the facts that I make cultural references (Davy Crockett and the pioneers) that no students understand.

I am, though, a classicist. Studying the ancient Greeks and Romans teaches you that some things never change. Young people (the horserace-loving Pheidippides in the 5th century BC, Aristophanes’ satiric comedy, Clouds; the dandy curling and perfuming his hair to increase his sex appeal in Ovid’s Art of Love) have always been baffling the older generation with their newfangled pursuits.

Wanting his son to learn something useful, Strepsiades, Pheidippides’ father, packs him off to the Phrontisterion (“thinking factory”) where the young student learns a bit more than had been bargained for from the resident teacher, Socrates.

The class of 2017 may think “tablet” means an iPad sort of device and not “something you take in the morning” per the new Mindset List. But as I tell my students, a tabula was the wax board that Roman school boys learned their declensions on. Wiped clean it was a tabula rasa or “blank slate”, a phrase that has come to signify an open mind ready to be writ on by experience.

Those entering university today know a lot. Perhaps it’s my job now to teach them an old truth: everything new can be old again.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

 
 
 
 
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