Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Beloit's Mindset List

Every year for the past 11 years, Beloit college has released a list that, in words of its authors, "provides a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college."

Here's the beginning of this years list:
  1. Harry Potter could be a classmate, playing on their Quidditch team.
  2. Since they were in diapers, karaoke machines have been annoying people at parties.
  3. They have always been looking for Carmen Sandiego.
  4. GPS satellite navigation systems have always been available.
  5. Coke and Pepsi have always used recycled plastic bottles.
  6. Shampoo and conditioner have always been available in the same bottle.
  7. Gas stations have never fixed flats, but most serve cappuccino.
  8. Their parents may have dropped them in shock when they heard George Bush announce “tax revenue increases.”
  9. Electronic filing of tax returns has always been an option.
  10. (Click here to see the rest of the list)
Of course I get the usual chuckle when I see this. It is funny to be reminded that events that are so clear in my memory that they could have happened yesterday were never part of the cultural landscape of our incoming students. It is fun to be reminded about life circa 1990 when I was already an adult.

Something has always bothered me about the list, though. For starters, the list is more about us teachers than the students since the cultural markers it references are mostly for adults (i.e., Martha Stewart). Secondly, the list is mostly about pop culture, which is fine and sometimes extremely important, but it limits the scope of what the authors mean when they say "Mindset List." Does knowing who Rosanne Barr is determine one's mindset? Somewhat perhaps, but to me it would be much more interesting to say that these children probably didn't benefit from welfare because Bill Clinton "ended Welfare as we know it." It would be more interesting and revealing to say that these children have only known Defense budgets that increased and education budgets that mostly decreased. It would be more telling to note that today's youth are more likely to have grown up poor than their parents. You get my drift, right?

Finally, look at the list. It is really from a White middle-class perspective. That does not come close to representing the ever more diverse U.S.

Yes, I know, my "list" would a bit heavy, but there could be some good things to it too: Today's students have always known an openly gay character on TV. Today's students are not scared by terms like "cold war" (just GWOT!).

My point is that if we're going to talk about mindsets, let's talk about the institutions and structures that have as deep or deeper connection to the existences of everyone rather than sticking to the cultural references like TV and shampoo. Let's also try to make our list a little more culturally informed with references to people other than, say, Martha Stewart.

Maybe I should make my own list. Hmmm.

Nah. I'll just be a curmudgeon.