Friday, August 20, 2010

Re: the Beloit Mindset List

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.

Related posts
The Beloit Mindset List, 2011 edition
The Beloit Mindset List, again (2012 edition)

[Thanks to Matt Thomas for tweeting about this post.]

comments: 12

Elaine Fine said...

What's so great about Czechoslovakia anyway? In its spot on the earth before 1918 there was the Kingdom of Bohemia, which became part of the Holy Roman Empire, and then was part of the Austrian Empire. There's lots of musical history there, made by others who would never imagine a "Czechoslavkia." There's always been lots of good fiddle wood in those woods, and the region was vital in the development of the Classical Period in music: all the great composers of the time had something to do with Bohemia.

Elaine said...

This was just a wonderful post: great food for thought.

Deeper than the personal 'centrism,' though, I think there lies an ultimate (staggering) lack of intellectual curiosity. People are walking through a world filled with trees, birds, flowers, and see no point in knowing their names, unaware that this means they are missing what makes each one unique...

Michael Leddy said...

Elaine No. 1: Can’t Czechoslovakia catch a break? :)

Elaine No. 2: Thanks for the compliment. I think curiosity is something that has to be encouraged (and modeled). Formal education seems to remove a lot of it along the way.

The critic and scholar Hugh Kenner has a great account of walking with poet Louis and Celia Zukofsky. The Zukofskys could name every flower and tree along the way.

Matt Thomas said...

Thanks for this. I've been waiting for someone to do more than just mindlessly note that this year's list is out and then complain about how old they are. What bugs me most about this list is how hopelessly out of touch it, not the blinkered students it attempts to describe, feels.

"Benny Hill, Sam Kinison, Sam Walton, Bert Parks, and Tony Perkins have always been dead," it notes at the start. Really? Those are the people whose deaths mark the passage of time?

"Clint Eastwood is better known as a sensitive director than as Dirty Harry." Really? My students – at least many of the male ones - know him as the "Man with No Name."

I could go on and on. Maybe I missing something, but I'd take my students' ahistoricism over these guys’ creepy-nerd-uncle humor any day. Most students, I've found, want to learn about the past. These guys are doomed to repeat it in the most cringe-inducing way possible.

Now, where's your post on Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin?

Michael Leddy said...

Cringe-inducing, for sure. Those initial references to Benny Hill and Sam Kinison seem to say more about the list’s makers than they say about the class of 2014. And the Michelangelo virus? “Aack,” as Cathy would say.

Brian Wilson: soon! I got the CD this morning. How about you?

normann said...

To me, Czechoslovakia was a quaint, artificial construction that was premised on the notion that a single nation state could be forged from two kindred peoples with mutually intelligible languages, even though they had no common history. The Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia were bound to dominate the new state, Bohemia especially, as it was the industrial powerhouse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. This lack of a shared past, or more accurately, the existence of two separate pasts, was the tragic flaw of Czechoslovakia, presaging the Velvet Divorce in 1992. The Czechs resented Habsburg rule, especially the fact that the official role of German made Czech speakers second-class citizens in their own country, but could point to a glorious past borne witness to by the stones of Hradčany, Prague's Castle District. The Slovaks chafed under the rule of Hungary, which kept "Upper Hungary" backward. While the Czechs understood Germany to be a threat to their existence (borne out by the dismemberment of Bohemia in 1938, annexation of rump Bohemia and Moravia in 1939 and plans to Arianize the Czechs), the Slovaks got their own Nazi puppet state, such as it was. In brief: The Czechs dislike the Germans intensely, but do not give the Hungarians a second thought (The Czechs work, the Austrians govern and the Hungarians dance); the Slovaks hate the Hungarians, but unlike the Czechs are deutschfreundlich. The claims by the Sudeten German expellees and their descendants are mirrored in the insistence of irridentist Hungarian ultranationalists that Slovakia does not exist. A nation state needs a common enemy, or at least a common existential threat. The Czechs and the Slovaks each had and have one, Czechoslovakia did not.

Michael Leddy said...

Norman, thanks for taking the time to unpack some history here. Would you be willing to pose as an incoming freshman?

Daughter Number Three said...

I think the Beloit list-makers have become victims of their own media success. I imagine a scenario where they regret starting it, but are pressured by administration to keep it up because it's the only time the school's name makes national news.

Michael Leddy said...

I imagine that the iPads-for-all-students schemes announced this past spring were also bids for media attention.

normann said...

Prosím! Není zač!

As to your question whether I could pose as a freshman, I stopped getting carded when I turned 35 (and a passport control officer in Iceland did not believe the date of birth on my passport when I turned 40). My days of passing for callow youth have long passed, so I will have to answer in the negative. Besides, when I was an actual freshman, (as opposed to a ringer), fellow students in History 111 (Italian Renaissance to the French Revolution) told the TA of our discussion section that they did not want me to take an hourly exam, because I would wreck the curve, to which she replied, "What curve?"

Richard said...

Fine piece.

(Oh, and I look forward to your take on Brian W./George G.)

Michael Leddy said...

Norman, I am speechless (though not fingerless) with laughter.

Richard, thanks. A post on BW and GG will be coming in a few days.