Thursday, February 21, 2008

Whither Gen Y?

The authors of The Fourth Turning, William Strauss and Neil Howe, see the current generation of students I am teaching as the saviors of an America soon to face an as yet unrealized crisis ushering in a "fourth turning" of American historical cycles. The last fourth turning occurred in the late 1920s at the end of the Roaring 20s with its wide open spending and polarized classes which ended with a bang in the stock market crash followed by a Great Depression and a second world war. The last Gen Y cohort was called "the Greatest Generation" by the spokesperson for its successor generation, the Lost Generation, NBC newsman Tom Brokaw. Prior to that, the previous Gen Y cohort fought the American Civil War.

Strauss and Howe believe the Millenials, the other name for Gen Y, have the potential to meet this crisis if they can ever escape their tendencies toward solipsism and self-focus. Others are not so sure. Jean Twenge in Generation Me tends to lump Xers and Ys together into a progressive case of narcissism. And clearly "It's all about me" resonates with a large group of students who have bought into consumer industries which have convinced them they somehow have a right to tune out the world through headsets or cell phones even for as short a period as it takes to walk across a parking lot.

Some days I'm not so sure which of these two pictures will prove prescient. Yesterday, a young woman, a former student who did well in my class, came to my office to discuss the state of the world and how she wants to be part of the change she feels simply must happen. Her soft spoken confidence and concern makes me feel like perhaps the Millenial description of Strauss and Howe is on target. She spoke of how she and a group of friends have created and maintain a bulletin board of articles about everything from global warming to the current presidential elections to the ever encroaching role of technology in our lives. She said they get together weekly, a small community, determined to make changes, the changes we Boomers saw as necessary 40 years ago before we sold out to corporate consumerism in a haze of yuppie cash and Hummer fumes.

But she was followed later that day by a nice young man, infinitely respectful, who nonetheless had come to make the case that he simply didn't feel the worksheets I create for my classes were worth his time. "They're too long so I just didn't do them." Now, this is genuinely nice kid and a decent student. But he has confused the notion of what he wants to do and is willing to spend time on with what students need to do in a class as determined by the educational professional they've hired to make those decisions.

This hardly means that instructors are never wrong. Lord knows I've made some dillies of mistakes over the 20 years I've taught college courses. But it does mean that students are not consumers, that classes are not Burger King, assignments are not created with "have it your way" in mind. Moreover, because there are only so many hours in a week, working nearly a full time load and then taking a full time class load inevitably means time has to be cut somewhere. Often it's in the form of sleep leading to being snagged by the nasty versions of colds and flu that begin to circulate around campus about midterm. None of that is the problem or the concern of an instructor doing his job, creating assignments based upon the general rule of two hours prep for every hour of class time. Students do get to choose classes. But they don’t get to determine how the classes are executed any more than clients get to tell their lawyers what legal motions to make at trial or patients get to tell their surgeons where to cut. It's not all about you.

By the end of the day, I'm beat, headed for my car as the sun is setting across the four story parking garages. The student government elections are in full swing. Lord, have our kids ever learned the smarmier aspects of American politics. Students are greeted by freshly scrubbed frat boys in matching brightly colored tee shirts. Each party has their own laptop computer set for students to use in voting all over the campus (G-d forbid students might actually have to go to one central location to vote - curb side service is the only way to get even the 13% of the student body to vote who actually did vote this time). As a reward for their vote, presumably for the party providing the portable poll, the student voter is entitled to Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the mornings and Domino's pizza in the afternoon. At least the bribes are out in the open.

The winning party in this year's student election ran on a platform of student entitlement: a new parking garage, a local bar shuttle so drunk students don't have to walk home with a buzz, triple the amount of free condoms and fighting to protect what the young politicos described as "the right to tailgate" (i.e., get drunk at picnics before football games and concerts at the campus). In all fairness, there were a few planks actually aimed at education: more teachers and classes (to lower UCF's highest student/teacher ratio in the nation), $200,000 in scholarships and an exclusively student run FM station on campus. But overall, it sounds like Twenge's Generation Me might yet prove the winner.

So, whither Generation Y? Will it take the crisis Strauss and Howe predict to awaken this sleeping giant from their beer buzzes and headset solipsism? Do we Boomers, who recognized the problems with our world in the 1960s only to sell out to the mind numbing materialism and emptiness of soulless suburbia as adults, even have the right to demand that our Y kids live into their potential?

I want to say that I believe in the potential of this generation to change the world. The question that days like today leave me with is simply whether this generation, unlike my own, will endure the pain, bide the time and exert the requisite energy to achieve it. If Strauss and Howe are right, we better hope they do.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bites.

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