Friday, September 23, 2011

Hasn't Margarine Always Looked Like Butter?

In 1998, Beloit College launched its first Mindset List, designed to give faculty and staff insight into the worldview of the incoming freshman class.  It turned out to be startling.  We were told that the class of 2002 couldn’t sound like “a broken record” because it had never owned a record player.  It did not remember the Challenger blowing up, the Cold War, or a world before AIDS or MTV.  Jay Leno had always hosted the Tonight Show,

If you don’t have a clue how strange that all sounds, then you likely graduated after 2002.  If you want a sensation similar to the one I’m feeling, however, this year’s list points out that the class of 2015 has always been able to get American tax forms in Spanish, free music downloads and rides in electric cars.  Ferris Bueller could have been their fathers, and--what’s that you say?-- Amazon is a river in South America?

Needless to say, the Beloit list caught on like wildfire.  Today, the site gets a million hits a year.

The list demonstrates just how quickly the modern world is moving.  But the authors, Professors McBride and Nief, have done us one better in their great new book, The Mindset Lists of American History.  For 150 years, from 1880 to 2030, they simulate the phenomenon of present-mindedness.  “Every chapter,” they note, “is written as though it were composed during the summer following that class’s high school commencement.”  It’s fun and funny, but more than anything, demonstrates that surprising and often radical change has been part of the American experience since the nineteenth century. 

For example, the members of the class of 1898, born in 1880 (including Douglas MacArthur and W.C. Fields), always knew machines that talked, believed that the frontier was closed, saw cities as sewers with omnipresent manure (and untrustworthy Roman Catholics), viewed typewriters as the new “literary pianos,” felt how traumatic Garfield’s assassination was to the country, believed North-South marriages might be slighly acceptable and, unlike their parents, did not find all darkened theaters to be morally unacceptable.  The class of 1898 knew the sweetest whistle in the world was the one that marked the end of the factory day.

There are 50 items in all in this list, with interesting text, but suffice to say that the world of the class of 1898 was remarkably and radically different from that of their parents.

How about the class of 1931, born in 1913?  This would include Richard Nixon and Rosa Parks.  These kids could always make telephone calls across the country, knew the Titanic only as history, played with erector sets, and understood people went to Detroit to make cars.  Their parents were attending a new thing called a “cocktail party” and jazz gave them a most colorful vocabulary.  

For the class of 1970, born in 1952, margarine has always looked just like butter, and many didn't believe they could trust anyone over 30.

The authors highlight ten classes, closing with the class of 2030, born in 2008.  For them,  daily mail is dead.  They have never seen a folded road map, a printed phonebook or a check.  Keys are found in museums.  They may never set foot on the campus of the college they attend.  And, in the cruelest swipe of all, the authors tell us the class of 2030 has never seen the Cubs win the World Series.

Good stuff.  A reminder that we’re not the only generations living with change.  A measure of how fast things are happening, and always have.  And news that even the most popular stars eventually fade.  Just ask Mary Bickford.   Heck, ask Johnny Carson.

For you, class of 2002, he’s here.