Cultural literacy, college freshmen, and the curriculum of faithfulness

By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. My family and I will be on vacation through August 25. I will occasionally add new items but for the most part we will repost “the best of the best” — the stories our readers have told us they especially liked over the last ten months.

Over the years—going back to the late 1990s—we’ve periodically talked about what Wisconsin’s Beloit College calls its “Mindset List” for the incoming class which, in this case, will graduate in 2018. It’s a way of tracking the cultural references through which 18-year-olds orient themselves.

Put another way, it’s a way for the faculty (and, through them, us) to grasp what freshmen know (and don’t know), especially what are the “givens” in their lives. For those heading into their first year of college, not surprisingly, their cultural clues are vastly different than those for us who are older.

Since I have not tracked the list annually, I don’t know when it switched its emphasis from reporting what freshmen didn’t know to what has “always been” for them.

For example, way back when (1999, if I remember right), I offered these quotes from a summary of what the incoming freshman at Beloit didn’t know.

Overwhelmingly, these young people had never owned a record player, never dialed a rotary phone, didn’t have the foggiest idea what a “breadbox” is, or ever took a swim and thought about “Jaws.” John Paul II is the only pope they have ever known and Jay Leno the only host of The Tonight Show.

At 18, they were too young to remember the space shuttle Challenger disaster and not only do they not care “Who shot J.R?” they haven’t a clue who J.R. is! [He was a character on “Dallas.”]

Referring to the box office smash of a couple of years back, their response to its basic premise is, “The Titanic was found? I thought we always knew where it was?”

The class of 2018 has “a grasp of their surroundings quite distinct from that of their mentors,” as Profs. Ron Nief and Tom McBride gently put it. This Mindset List, they say, is “providing a look at the cultural touchstones and experiences that have shaped the worldview of students entering colleges and universities in the fall.”

The inspiration for Beloit’s Mindset list, as I understand it, was to make sure professors didn’t use references that would evoke only blank stares from students. They were looking for a way to “ease communication” between the generations.

There are 55 items on the class of 2018 list. Among them, we read, are

  • When they see wire-rimmed glasses, they think Harry Potter, not John Lennon.
  • “Press pound” on the phone is now translated as “hit hashtag.”
  • Celebrity “selfies” are far cooler than autographs.
  • The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has always been the only news program that really “gets it right.”
  • Citizens have always had a constitutional right to a “dignified and humane death.”
  • Attending schools outside their neighborhoods, they gather with friends on Skype, not in their local park. And
  • Good feedback” means getting 30 likes on your last Facebook post in a single afternoon.

On first blush, there are not a lot of “cultural touchstones and experiences” in this 55-item list that would necessarily “shape” a worldview favorable to defending the defenseless. However, as we have discussed pretty much on a daily basis for forever, there are cultural clues everywhere that are nudging the younger generation into the defenders-of-life camp.

Here is a distinction worth elaborating. Pro-abortionists operate on a dual track, neither of which is a long-term winner. On the one hand they hysterically lament what they say will be the effective reversal of Roe (were it only so). This Chicken Little approach typically evokes only eye-rolling on the part of younger feminists who despise being reduced to “victims.”

On the other hand, the abortion crowd is arguing that the sure guarantor of the “right” to abortion is for women to “tell their stories.” This will somehow “normalize” abortion by making it seem such a part of the cultural fabric that it would be impossible to pull on this thread without the whole garment coming unraveled.

Predictably, this attempt to make abortion morally neutral quickly evolved into a passionate insistence that abortion is not only devoid of moral and ethical considerations, but also so sacred that even to raise questions is an act of treason. Abortion, they say, is a positive good, not a “tragic” decision.

At the risk of stating the obvious, pro-abortionists are glorifying selfishness.

The problem here is that is not where the American people are. The more pro-abortionists angrily demand that abortion not be evaluated in a moral framework–indeed be celebrated– the fewer people find them (and their arguments) attractive.

Pro-lifers, by contrast, can and do appeal on many grounds. But the common denominator is a combination of realism—we know crisis pregnancies present a profound challenge—and idealism—we will help you not to make this terrible mistake but if you do, offer a shoulder to cry on and offer a path to healing. The latter is profoundly appealing to almost everyone, but particularly to younger people.

One final reference back to Beloit’s Mindset List. The list is an attempt to find a common realm of language, references, and idioms so that faculty and students alike can dialogue. It’s an admission that each generations will have its own “cultural literacy,” based on their widely differing experiences.

However I would argue that love, selflessness, and our responsibility to the powerless is a language whose vocabulary ultimately wins out six days a week and twice on Sunday. Why?

Simply because these qualities represent transcendent values that will thrive whether we write with a quill or compose on a word processor. They embody our best qualities, rather than appeal to our worst instincts.

They are our common heritage as members of the human family.

And, in their heart of hearts, I suspect even our opponents know this.