Culture And Criticism

Do College Students Really Think Beethoven Is A Dog?

St. Bernard dog

This is a St. Bernard. Just like Beethoven. The dog, not the composer. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com

Every year, Beloit College releases its "mindset list" for its incoming freshman class. The idea, says the school, was to create "a reminder to faculty to be aware of dated references." But, as it says, it "quickly became a catalog of the rapidly changing worldview of each new generation."

Now, the list is out for the class of 2014, and Beloit College brings you the following news flash: To this generation, Benny Hill has always been dead.

I'm sorry ... Benny Hill?

I was a member of the college class of 1993 — almost ten years before Beloit started its list — and I certainly could not have told you in 1989, when I went to college, whether Benny Hill was dead or alive. This year's list also includes the always-dead status of Bert Parks, Tony Perkins, and Sam Walton. Ditto, ditto, and ... I'm not sure whether I knew who Sam Walton was.

There's nothing wrong with startling adults with how terribly old they are; it makes for a lovely little joke between 40-year-olds: "Wait, that movie came out that long ago? I am so old that I am going to go out immediately and price coffins." (Happy 30th Birthday, Airplane!)

But the fact that we feel old is not the responsibility of the class of 2014. Our sense of displacement when we realize how many years have passed since the last time we checked on something — how old Scott Baio got while we were off getting jobs and having families and voting for a series of presidents — isn't their burden to bear, and assuming that they have ignored everything that happened before they were born is an awfully blunt way to measure "mindset."

Here's an example: Item Number 58 is "Beethoven has always been a dog." Really? When I entered college, Ludwig van Beethoven had been dead for 162 years. He has now been dead for 183 years. My guess is that the class of 2014 sees Ludwig van Beethoven largely as the class of 1993 did: as a long-dead guy who wrote classical music, whom you know a little something about if you've studied music, and whom you know very little about if you haven't. I profoundly doubt that the intervention of a series of family comedies means that if you said, "Now, this piece was written by Beethoven," they would say, "Wow, that must have been, like, the smartest dog ever."

Yes, yes, they text and they tweet, and they use toothpaste tubes that stand up on their caps (thanks, Item Number 50!), but their mindset is not necessarily a cultural black hole prior to the year they were born, followed by a set of immovable assumptions encompassing everything that's always been true in their lifetimes.

Furthermore, it's instructive to look back at Beloit's lists in previous years.

The very first list, for the Class of 2002, says, "They have never feared a nuclear war. 'The Day After' is a pill to them — not a movie."

This year's list says, "They have never worried about a Russian missile strike on the U.S."

The very first list says, "The Tonight Show has always been with Jay Leno."

This year's list says, "Leno and Letterman have always been trading insults on opposing networks."

The very first list says, "They do not care who shot J.R. and have no idea who J.R. is."

This year's list says, "J.R. Ewing has always been dead and gone. Hasn’t he?"

The very first list says, "Most have never seen a TV set with only 13 channels, nor have they seen a black & white TV."

This year's list says, "Having hundreds of cable channels but nothing to watch has always been routine."

Twelve years apart, and the two lists share that much? If the list is to demonstrate how rapidly generations change, then why is it preoccupied with the same things? Now they don't worry about nuclear war. Now Johnny Carson isn't on. Now Dallas isn't on. Now they have so many channels. And those same things come back, over and over, as every new class is redefined not by its mindset, but by what is not its mindset: by the fact that it still doesn't have Johnny Carson and constant fears of nuclear war.

This list isn't about the mindset of the class of 2014. It's about the mindset of the people who write it. It's about what makes them feel ancient. It's not about how college students think at 18; it's about how we think at 40 and 50 and 60. It's about how we think about the markers we once drove into the ground to mark what we considered Now, and how alarming it is to note that they are farther away than they used to be.

Griping about texting is just this year's griping about how hard it is to program a VCR so it doesn't blink "12:00, 12:00, 12:00." Fear of terrorism isn't so alienatingly different from fear of the Cold War. Lady Gaga isn't so different from what Madonna once was.

My guess about the actual mindset of the Class of 2014? They are nervous about college. They will miss home. Some of them have very specific plans about what they want to do with their lives; most of those plans will change. Some of them are trying to figure out whether to keep or drop a boyfriend or a girlfriend who's far away now. Some of their roommates will stay out too late, have people over too often, and leave too much stuff on the floor. Some high achievers will fail a class this year for the first time. Some will drink too much. Hearts will break, fights will be had, professors will be admired and despised, and the vegetarians will probably be really unhappy about the dry, pitiful veggie burgers in the dining hall, because unsatisfying on-campus vegetarian options, unlike Benny Hill, are eternal.

Sure, just like Neil deGrasse Tyson once told me, you want to know a little about what they care about. But at the same time, don't put too much artificial distance between yourself and the class of 2014. I'm willing to bet most of them know who Beethoven is.

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