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Teaching Millennials

Students often surprise their teachers. Today’s students are no exception. After a few decades of fretting about student cynicism and apathy, educators are confronted with a generation of students described variously as “optimistic,” “confident,” and even “comfortable with authority.” This is the so-called “Millennial” Generation, which includes those born in the mid-1980s and later. Every generation develops in response to the conditions of the age and ends up puzzling its elders. So, what has made the “Millennials” into what they are? Obviously, the existence of the Internet and other information technologies is a factor. For today’s students, the world is available at their fingertips in a matter of seconds. They plug a computer into a data port in their dorm or log-on to a wireless signal while sitting in the quad and gain access to almost any information in the world. This has created a different kind of student. With so much available, Millennials have learned to consume information and dispose of it rapidly. They can find so much information on any given topic that, instead of searching through an article or a book for the most useful section, they rely primarily on a process of eliminating articles by the hundreds until they find the few that give them everything they need in the most accessible form.

This skill at filtering is important in their personals lives as well. Millennials are bombarded with white noise, some of it commercial, some of it personal, some of it just plain noise. They have cell phones at the ready to interrupt any conversation.  Most can’t sit at a computer without turning on an Instant Message program that will bombard them with stunted salutations from distant friends and families. To cope with these distractions, they develop their own sorts of survival skills.  They learn how to rearrange the noise to their liking. Instead of listening to whatever is playing on the radio, Millennials download the songs they want to hear onto their iPods and slap on little white headphones so that they don’t have to hear anything else.

This is not meant as a lament for a lost generation. I leave that to others. In his last novel, I am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe drew an ugly portrait of students on today’s elite university campuses. In Wolfe’s telling, Millennials are self-absorbed and spoiled. Their college days are a period of extended adolescence during which they feed insatiable appetites for sex, drugs, and popularity. A curious lot they are not. Wolfe seems appalled by a generation that has no noble passions, no compassion, and—perhaps worst of all for Wolfe—no sense of style. These are not the students I have come to know. I like today’s students. It is true that they are an optimistic and confident group. They have seen the world (if only through their computer monitors), and they saw nothing of which to be afraid. This untutored worldliness—even if often naïve—makes many of these students eager to learn and open to new experiences. Yet these students do present new challenges.

Among these challenges is the Millennials’ belief that they have seen it all. In some ways, they have. Every sort of life-style is on display somewhere on one of thousands of television shows on hundreds of cable channels. Any sort of ideological tract or tirade can be downloaded in a moment from anywhere in the world. There is little mystery left in a world that is always available at the end of your fingertips. The Millennials’ world is disenchanted—barren of surprise. “Been there. Done that,” is their mantra.

This leads to another, more serious problem. When one is used to a world in which so much is readily available, it becomes difficult to appreciate things that are less immediately accessible. Our students are great with information. They know how to grab tiny pieces of the world and rearrange them to suit their own preferences and purposes. They are not so good with wisdom—with powerful minds who challenge them, with ideas that are less useful than they are transformative. Unfortunately, so much of what a university education can offer students is not something easily and quickly achieved. I assign Plato’s Republic almost every semester. My strategy toward teaching this dialog is simple. I try to pique my students’ interest in this difficult text by helping them understand what is at stake. I can demonstrate appropriate interpretive tools and help them to ask the right questions, but I don’t believe that I can truly teach the Republic. At least, I cannot teach it in the sense of condensing it into easily consumable sound bites. If my students want to learn this dialogue, then they will have to spend hours working through and testing its arguments on their own. It is the kind of learning that requires patience, focus, and discipline. There are no short cuts. “Fine things are hard,” said Socrates.

Perhaps I exaggerate the problem. A number of my students have doggedly engaged even the most difficult texts I have assigned. Maybe the problem is not so new. No doubt, students of all generations have preferred easy assignments to hard, but there is also no doubt that Millennials live in a culture that reinforces their worst tendencies. My students too often remind me of the democratic souls that Socrates describes in the Republic. They are charming, pleasant young men and women—tolerant and uninhibited. They are curious in the sense that they will try anything once. And they are so used to having access to everything, that they seem intent to try it all. They are curious about everything, serious about nothing.

Sometimes teachers should tailor their teaching methods to the tastes of a new generation, but students also can benefit from a more counter-cultural approach. Our classrooms should not always be models of the “Information Age” in which students are bombarded with streams of data from multiple directions. Sometimes, they should be models of a more patient, focused sort of learning. In our classrooms, students should find a refuge from the white noise that fills their world, as well as a place where they are not allowed the benefit of quick and easy Internet answers. We must encourage our students’ curiosity without promoting the expectation that curiosity can always be quickly satisfied. We must teach our students that ideas cannot be rejected because they do not seem immediately useful and accessible.

These are not easy tasks. Each teacher must develop strategies suited to his or her own students and subject matter. In my own classes, I have made a conscious decision to sacrifice breadth for depth. I would rather draw my students more deeply into engagement with one text than expose them to three more. If someday, a former student ever needs a quick summary of some philosopher’s argument, she will be able to find it on the Internet much more easily than she will be able to remember anything from my class. My hope is to help my students learn how to engage these kinds of arguments on their own, how to think patiently and slowly through complex problems—or at least to make them recognize the value in doing so.

Of course, the entire burden does not fall on the student. We cannot make our students patient learners by stamping our feet and demanding that it be so. When asking students to do new and difficult things, teachers must have their students’ trust. Many of our students are unaccustomed to looking for answers without finding them quickly, and as a result they can be dismissive of intellectual tasks that require patience, concentration, and memory. If they are going to learn to think this way, they will have to trust the teachers who ask them to do new and strange things. We earn this trust by recognizing how difficult the task will be for many of them and by having reasonable expectations. Our students must trust that we will not embarrass them if they make mistakes and that we will not reject reasonable arguments simply because they differ from our own. Sometimes, we earn this trust simply by being available and helpful. These are the most basic elements of good teaching, but they are particularly important today. If we earn this trust, we can show our students the value of a kind of thought that to them seems useless and outdated. It is true that these students have surprised us. Hopefully, we have some surprises left for them.


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