Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

Generation on a Tightrope: A  Portrait of Today’s College Student
by Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean
Jossey-Bass, 2012, $40; 256 pages.

As reviewed by Michael McShane

According to Arthur Levine and Diane Dean, I am a member of a generation on a tightrope.

Millennials like me were born into a rapidly changing world. We are paradoxically connected as well as isolated by technology. We have amassed hundreds of Facebook friends but we hide our faces behind our iPhones at social gatherings.

Ill-prepared by coddling helicopter parents and grade-inflating schools, my generation is entering the workforce with unrealistic expectations about promotion and responsibility, and, according to Levine and Dean, we are in for a fall.

They argue that the way to keep Millennials (the tail end of whom are still in school) and future generations from tumbling off this tightrope is to give them an education that stresses “the three C’s”: critical thinking, creativity, and continual learning.

Generation on a Tightrope reviews a large amount of survey data to track changes in attitudes of college students over time. Fundamentally, I don’t disagree with the authors’ descriptive statements about that segment of my generation. Believe me; I’ve had enough conversations interrupted by someone reading a text message. I just don’t see what the big deal is.

Let me put it this way: if we’re on a tightrope, it isn’t particularly high off the ground.

First, it is awesome to be a Millennial. We were born at the absolute apex of human achievement. Technology has made our lives easier and consumer goods cheaper. My parents’ generation dealt with segregation and its aftermath, Vietnam, and the much harder part of the transition from an industrial to an information economy, when hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs disappeared, leaving entire regions of the country reeling. Their parents’ generation dealt with the Depression, World War II, polio, and the list goes on. Those are tightropes.

Instead, my generation is worried about losing our jobs and moving back in with our parents. We’re socially awkward when not behind a video screen, and we’re too big for our britches in the workplace. The recession made the job market tough? Have you heard of the Dust Bowl? Sure, we’re in for some lean years, but it wasn’t long ago that folks in this country were struggling to figure out how to feed themselves.

Second, the skills the authors say my generation needs to master are not new. My great-grandfather definitely had to be creative when the slow boat from Donegal dropped him off in Baltimore and he had to figure out a way to make a living. I’m pretty sure my grandfather needed strong critical thinking skills as a physician in the 1940s when he lacked most of the diagnostic equipment that we have today. And my father had to continue to learn when the travel industry that he had worked in for decades disappeared nearly overnight with the advent of online airline ticket booking.

By focusing on the need of Millennials to acquire those three vague skills–critical thinking, creativity, and continual learning–the authors overlook what my generation really needs: some tools to deal with our inundation with data.

Many of our parents’ and grandparents’ problems stemmed from a lack of information. Because what they received was limited by the number of column inches in their local newspaper or the finite 30 minutes they got with Walter Cronkite every evening, they only knew so much about the politics and economics of their day. The medical journals that my grandfather read, for example, took years to write and disseminate. People of those days were extremely limited in their ability to make fully informed decisions.

We, on the other hand, are bombarded with information every day. We have too much information, not too little, and we struggle to make sense of it all. What our schools need to teach is how to navigate this data-rich environment.

We will not be better prepared by the vague “critical thinking skills” that this book (and many others, in fairness) calls for. Our schools need to teach the real, discipline-based skills of quantitative data analysis, statistics, political science, and economics much better than they do now if we are to be prepared to wade into this maelstrom of information.

My generation’s tightrope does not span from our parents’ house to the working world.  Rather, it stretches from the immense swirling world of facts and figures to the cognitive processors of our brains.  Failing to cross that expanse is the fall we should look out for, and the fall our schools need to work to try and prevent.

Michael McShane is a research fellow at AEI and co-author of President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political.

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