I have an interesting teaching gig this semester. I have a class of high school students who are dual enrolled in my college class. Because there are so many students who are dual enrolled, they’ve arranged to have the class at their high school instead of on the college campus where I teach the rest of my classes.
Currently, these students are writing (or learning about writing) what’s called an Observation Essay, which is exactly what it sounds like: you observe something or someone and try to create meaning out of what you see. The point is to try to see something that isn’t obvious, to use one’s detective skills and analytical brain to see something everyday as something out of the ordinary.
I find a good way to get their wheels turning is for them to consider how life has changed over the years and whether it’s been for the better or for the worse. To illustrate this, we read a story which lamented the disappearing (if not disappeared entirely) tradition of sitting on one’s front porch. Technology has made it so we no longer need to sit outside to stay cool, nor are we interested in hearing the local gossip since our television tells us the news and entertains us in other ways. Instead, we’ve invested in our garages, and we move from inside the house to the garage to drive off and see friends elsewhere or find adventure outside of our own neighborhood. It was a reflection on how we’ve lost the sense of community in the places where we live.
So the homework I assign is to investigate the generation gap between themselves and their parents, grandparents, maybe siblings who have quite an age gap. This is the first year I attempted this assignment, so the results of how it would go were unknown. Oftentimes, I feel more like a psychology major running social experiments on my students than I do an English instructor.
The results of this particular experiment were shocking.
Every essay that was turned into me the next class meeting (every essay but one) talked about what a horrible generation their generation was. They idealized the generation of their parents and grandparents. They thought people back then were nicer, had better manners, were harder workers, were more social, used their time more wisely, were less wasteful, and essentially lived life more fully.
I even had a female student, a rather intelligent and thoughtful student, admit that though women didn’t have it so great back then, at least they had all these other good things, and maybe it would have been worth it to be oppressed (my word, not hers) in order to live in a world like the one described above.
This pretty much floored me.
Granted, for two straight years, I immersed myself completely in ‘50s housewife culture while I investigated and wrote my Master’s thesis. So I am probably more educated in the harsh realities of the past than she or any of my other students are.
As another experiment, then, for the next class, I reminded my students that observation essays are not about saying what everyone else says (and everyone in that class said their generation was terrible) but about what everyone else isn’t saying. So I asked them to get in groups and try to think up reasons why they are the BEST generation instead of the worst.
You would have thought I had asked them to try to climb Mount Everest. They struggled to come up with any reasons. When all was said and done, I had maybe six legitimate reasons written on the board, and each one came with a caveat: “We’re more environmentally aware, BUT we are too lazy to recycle.” “We’re more open-minded about sexual orientation, BUT there are still a lot of people who don’t want gay people to marry.”
I had started my experiment thinking that these kids would be tickled with all the advantages their generation offered them. They have the best technology, the best health care (and there are now provisions in place to assure that they will always have health care available to them), women can literally do anything a man can do now (and she’s fighting to get paid the same for it), they won’t enter the job force during an economic depression, and most importantly, they can take college classes while still in high school IN their own high school. I mean, talk about education at your fingertips.
And the best advantage they could think up on their own was that they didn’t have to send letters anymore and wait three days to get a response.
After listening to all their reasons about why they are the worst generation, I really started believing that they ARE the worst generation. For what good are all these advantages if they don’t appreciate them or take advantage of them?
Let me tell you, they are a pain in my butt. They are always looking down at their crotches, surfing facebook on their phone under the desk. Or worse, as with this class, they look at their phones blatantly on TOP of their desk, completely ignoring me most of the time. Half the students have iPhone ear buds plugged in their heads even while I’m teaching. I had to yell at a student for singing aloud while I was in the middle of a lecture. They show up in their sweatpants and they scribble nonsense for their homework because they didn’t listen to what the assignment was so they guess.
It makes me think that this country is on its way to hell in a handbasket if these kids will rule the world one day.
And yet these students are taking an advanced college English class while they’re in high school. This is not their first college class, either. I’m pretty sure all of those students have already been accepted to colleges. A lot of them are involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. One student even has a full ride to a university on a lacrosse scholarship. These students are, by any generation’s standards, pretty magnificent kids.
Even the troublemakers every now and again stun me with a thoughtful observation, a beautiful sentence, a poetic vulnerability. So I guess I can’t give up on them yet.
If they don’t yet realize how intelligent, how advanced, how lucky they are right now, maybe that’s okay. I mean, what kid realizes how good they’ve got it? What kid doesn’t take things for granted? What kid doesn’t need a swift kick in the butt before they realize it’s time to grow up?
With any luck, perhaps I’ll be the professor that can provide that swift kick. And I’ll wait patiently to see what good comes of it.