MANDELA 12, MADONNA O: Portrait of a College Class–& Their Parents

by Tom McBride

Mandela 12, Madonna 0

Tom McBride and Ron Nief

A quarter of a century ago the author Bill Bryson found himself back in his home state after two decades abroad, and—quite by accident—on the campus of University of Iowa. While there, he got quite a shock.

An old friend he was visiting in Iowa City explained to Bryson that these kids he was encountering around town, who to them looked to be about 14, were no longer “smoking dope” but were actually—wonder of wonders—“trying to get an education…so that they could become insurance salesmen and computer programmers…and make a lot of money so they can buy more penny loafers and Madonna albums.”

Bryson, who reported all this in The Lost Continent, was “terrified.” This was not his notion of “college students.”

Fast forward to the present. Today, these once surprisingly studious college students are in their mid-40s and sending their own kids to college. Are they as perplexed by their own children as Bryson was by them?

The younger generation has a way of shaking us up. College staff and faculty know this best of all. These young people do seem to keep getting younger. And no, they just won’t conform to our beau ideal of what they should be like. Any conversation that starts, “When I was your age,” may well end badly.

After all, as our Mindset List for the class of 2018 reminds us, theirs is a generation that has always seen HIV cases go up while AIDS cases have always been going down. The incidence of diabetes has also always been rising, and not coincidentally they’ve been told to “eat healthy” all their lives, with notably mixed results.

If their parents wanted to earn a lot of money, they themselves are just hoping, post-recession, to find any decent entry-level job, and they are unprecedented in how often they have heard about what majors pay off and what majors don’t.

If their parents didn’t smoke dope as much as the previous generation did (a trend Bryson’s buddy attributed to the Regan-era “war on drugs”), these new students, whether they smoke it or not, think it should be legalized. “Multi-cultural” and “gay marriage?” These are not, exactly, things they tolerate. For many of them, they are just “normal.”

An older generation would have been puzzled by ads that warn, “No text is worth dying for”—isn’t the Bible a text worth dying for? But for this generation it’s a dire admonition about the dangers of multi-tasking. For their once-terrifying parents, “multi-tasking” consisted of reading a textbook while on the commode.

Did the parents of the Class of 2018 ever earn enough to buy oodles of Madonna albums? Did they ever dream, back then, that they’d be paying so much tuition for offspring who, today, have barely taken notice of Madonna, except to perhaps note her daughter among their classmates at the University of Michigan? Meanwhile, during their kids’ lifetimes twelve actors have played Nelson Mandela, while not a single one, other than Madonna herself, has played Madonna.

Someday, in about 2040, today’s “kids” will be sending their own children to college, with their Madonna-loving grandparents looking lovingly on. And then it will be their turn to become terrified.

Meanwhile, the goals of education—knowledge, perspective, judgment, and wisdom—remain the same. And the meaning of these words, and the means to achieve them in practice, will always be under review.

Meanwhile, what do you think of when you see wire-rimmed glasses? If it’s John Lennon and not Harry Potter, you need to think again. When are you going to get with the program?

Tom McBride and Ron Nief are co-authors of the Beloit College Mindset List, and of the forthcoming Mindset List of the Obscure (Sourcebooks, 2014), on sale September 2nd.

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