For Class of ’09 Computer Viruses Are Nothing New or Unusual

Instead of “hardening of the arteries,” public affairs director Ron Nief, of Beloit College, likes to talk about “hardening of the references.” That’s a polite way to say that some of us get so fixed in how we view the structure of our world that we’re sometimes unable to get into the mindset of our students.

Most entering freshmen this year were born in 1986. So, Beloit College once again shares its annual Mindset List; to shake us up a bit, and to remind us that the “references” we structure our worlds by are not the same as those of our incoming freshmen. For example: To our freshmen class, “’Heeeere’s Johnny!’ is a scary greeting from Jack Nicholson, not a warm welcome from Ed McMahon.”

Can you picture a darkened classroom where a teaching assistant stands up and commandingly waves to the far corner, from which is striding the professor for a 100-level class on its first day this coming semester: As he announces, “Heeeere’s Johnny!” several students from the back rows get up and flee the room in terror?

Well, maybe not. But to this same group, “[c]omputers have always suffered from viruses.” They have no memory of a digital experience without some risk of viral infection. That certainly is a distinctly different reference point to the world than most of us have. You can read the complete Mindset List here.

I was reminded of the differences in references by my oldest daughter’s wedding last Friday. Most of the guests, other than relatives of the bride and groom, were friends of the bride and groom. Solely because we’ve managed to addict my new son-in-law, Nic Spitler, to disc golf at least I know quite a few of their friends as friends, as well. It got rather tiring being constantly referred to as “Mr. Calhoun” by those I don’t know well, but every interaction was enlightening as to just how different their world is.

Since my daughter, Ruth, graduated from Marymount Manhattan College earlier this year, and Nic is a few years older, they’re not really on the same level as incoming freshmen, but they’re close. One major difference, of course, is that they’re now experiencing the burden of student loan debts at a level most of us cannot imagine (unless we have kids that age) and which the incoming freshman probably lack reference points to even worry about.

I guess we’re all lucky that “Oliver North has always been a talk show host and news commentator,” rather than a scary, out-of-control military officer trying to do nefarious deeds, ostensibly on behalf of the United States. I wonder what they all think about that terrifically religious person, Pat Robertson, calling this week for the assassination of Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela.

My guess is that the religious right in the US is currently engaged in destroying its own future with things like this, because it underestimates how much of what it is doing is understood by these freshmen with an entirely different set of references; and will ultimately be rejected.

A far better predictor of which sets of values will triumph in the next 20 years is this fact about our young freshmen: “They have always been comfortable with gay characters on television.”

But how about this? “Cher hasn’t aged a day.” That’s so sad. I can remember being in love with Cher, when it was still ‘Sonny and Cher,’ and how much my first wife actually identified with Cher and did her best to look like her. (It was a pretty good effort.) To those of us who lived through those years, it’s just not possible to think that “Cher hasn’t aged a day.”

“They have suffered through airport security systems since they were in strollers.” Well, that’s certainly a contrast. I can recall flying to New York City with my mother when I was probably around 9 years old. Not only was there no security at the Pittsburgh airport, everyone was dressed up in suits and ties and dresses and people actually smoked on the plane.

Here’s one Beloit College missed, actually: “The entrances to buildings have always stunk like cigarette smoke created by the marmot-like nicotine addicts who pop up and cluster near entrances.” But Beloit did get: “They were never tempted by smokeless cigarettes.”

This year, though, there’s a new Down Under’ Mindset list from Massey University in New Zealand. It offers a slightly different perspective, not to mention the names of several people I’ve never heard of: “The United States has always been fighting terrorists. The Challenger Seven” have always been dead astronauts. Chernobyl has always been a nuclear disaster.”

But, back to the USA: “There have never been any Playboy Clubs.” That’s right, those died out before these kids were born. Of course, we now have Hooters and, even worse, another one that Beloit College missed: “Since we were old enough to care, pretty much any kind of pornography has been available to them, 24x7, via the Internet.”

And. On quite a sad note: “They never saw Roseanne Roseannadanna live on Saturday Night Live.” Sigh.

It’s a fun exercise. I’m grateful to Beloit for putting this together every year. Maybe if we read it a few times and give the Mindset List some thought, we’ll be better able to both understand where these young freshmen are coming from, and also pick up some of their youthfulness to get us through the next month.

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