Beloit College this week released the 2010 edition of its Mindset List, a project that attempts to map, year by year, the changing cultural landscape of incoming college freshmen. Several choice bits from this year’s list have turned up again and again in news reports: incoming freshmen have never written in cursive; Clint Eastwood is known as a director, not actor; Nirvana is heard on “the classic oldies station” (whatever that is), and so on. At least some of these bits are debatable: I meet students every semester who have beautiful handwriting, and I doubt that Nirvana can be found on very many “classic rock” or oldies stations. What bothers me about the Beloit list though is not the truthiness of individual items. Nor is it a feeling that the world as I know it is slipping away. Nor is it my persistent error in typing Beliot for Beloit. (Tricky keyboard!)
What bothers me about the Beloit list involves some unspoken assumptions about reality and young adults. The list reads like a nightmare-version of the proposition that begins Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921): “Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.” “The world is all that is the case” — all that is the case, that is, in the life-experience of a hypothetical eighteen-year-old American student. The list seems to accept as a given the kind of thinking that David Foster Wallace warns young adults against in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address:
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. . . . Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV or your monitor. And so on.The Beloit list seems to suggest that if it hasn’t happened during your lifetime, well, it can’t really be real (witness the weirdly Orwellian statement that “Czechoslovakia has never existed”), or, at best, that you cannot be expected to know or care about it. Even the ugly word mindset reinforces that implication: “the established set of attitudes held by someone,” says the Oxford American Dictionary. The OAD illustrates that meaning with a sentence about being stuck.
The tendency to get stuck, to mistake one’s own reality for reality can be a stubborn thing: I’m still surprised when not a single student in a class has even heard of, say, Charlie Chaplin or Woody Guthrie, just as students are sometimes surprised by the bits of film and music I bring in for classroom use. (“Where do you find this stuff?” a student once asked. “Amazon,” said I.) The tendency to dismiss whatever is not of one’s own small moment can be powerfully saddening, even frightening: witness the destruction of Josh Edwards’s 78s by bop-hungry delinquents in The Blackboard Jungle (dir. Richard Brooks, 1955), or, more mildly, the snickers prompted by any display of high emotion in a black-and-white film. Or, again more mildly, the characterization of a two- or three-year-old film as “old.”
My own “mindset” in college probably has something to do with my antipathy toward the Beloit project. I listened almost exclusively to blues and jazz in college, some of it made by musicians who lived and died before I was born. I liked old black-and-white films. And studying literature and philosophy, I spent most of my time reading the work of people who were long, long gone. Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton were way before my time. Which was of course the point, “my” time being, like anyone’s, so limited.
An interviewer once asked the poet David Shapiro to name his favorite living poet. Wallace Stevens, he said. “But Stevens is dead,” the interviewer objected. “But not for me!” Shapiro replied. (Having talked with David Shapiro, I can imagine the insistent energy with which he must have made that declaration.) I suspect that among this year’s incoming freshmen are some for whom Wallace Stevens (or Emily Dickinson, or E.E. Cummings, or Langston Hughes) is still living, for whom a pocket notebook and pen or pencil are tools of thought and introspection, and for whom Czechoslovakia is as real as it gets.
The Beloit Mindset List, 2011 edition
The Beloit Mindset List, again (2012 edition)
[Thanks to Matt Thomas for tweeting about this post.]