Educating the Generation Called ``X''

by Douglas Brinkley

Each year I teach a college credit course at Hofstra University called ``American Odyssey: Art and Culture Across America.'' Thirty or so students and I spend 10 weeks traveling America by bus, studying our nation's heritage and experiencing its diversity. We read Mark Twain along the Mississippi River and Willa Cather in Nebraska, study the cold war at the Harry Truman Library in Independence, Mo., and the civil rights movement at Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthplace in Atlanta. We hold seminars on South Dakota ranches and in Chicago slums and sit around a campfire at the Gates of the Mountain park in Montana, reading from Lewis and Clark's journals on the very spot on which their expedition camped nearly 200 years ago. In this course, there is little evidence of the apathy, cynicism and general dumbness that are the supposed hallmarks of today's college students.

The intense, experiential nature of the course has enabled me to get to know my students, to share their anticipation and anxiety about the nation's future - and their place in it. If my students have taught me anything, it is their loathing of the label ``Generation X'', which they feel stigmatizes them. ``We're not all watching MTV,'' a 25-year-old marketing consultant recently told USA Today, ``we don't even consider ourselves a generation.'' The sentiment is echoed by nearly all of my students.

The term Generation X has become a derisive media batchphrase, a snide put-down for those, like me, who were born between 1961 and 1981 - children of Baby Boomers. This group is, we're told, ``numb and dumb,'' lazy underachievers, apathetic ``boomerangers'' who slink home to the parental nest after graduating from college, as if being born into an era of reduced economic expectations is a character defect.

Generations are, of course, labeled all the time by historians, novelists and journalist in an attempt to capture the spirit or essence of an era. But the term ``Generation X'' carries all the germs of propaganda and stereotype.

It is important to ask who is doing the labeling. When Gertrude Stein told Ernest Hemingway, ``You're all a lost generation,'' she was part of it. When Jack Kerouac coined the term ``the beat generation,'' he saw himself as a ``beat.'' Originally, ``Generation X'' was the title of a 1965 British self-improvement manual for young adults by two English educators, Charles Hamblett and Jane Deverson. Its purpose was to defend the Mod culture. Billy Idol, a British rock star - a Baby Boomer himself - saw the book and named his band after it. Although ``X'' was meant to refer to the '60s generation, by the time the term came to the United States it began to be used by the Boomers to explain their own bewildering children.

Let's examine a recent example of the ways the stereotype is used against the young: the cover of the February 1994 anniversary issue of the New Yorker. There, an archetypal X-er - a young, witless, bebimpled hip-hopper with ears pierced and baseball cap on backwards - reads a handbill for a Times Square sex show. The hormone-driven adolescent has deposed Eustace Tilley - the snooty, urbane, aristocratic dandy who has graced every previous anniversary cover since February, 1925. The message: Seattle grunge bands, Beavis and Butthead and their friends have taken over American culture. Whether there is any truth to this assertion is irrelevant to New Yorker editor Tina Brown, since she aims for a cover that will generate more sales than the necrotic Eustace ever did.

The vivid image helps us focus on the content of the stereotype: a hapless, lower- middle-class youth whose SAT score correlates inversely with hours of MTV watched. My mention of SAT scores is not capricious. The fact is that, for a myriad of reasons - from differing urban idioms to an onslaught of immigration -- young people as a group have not been performing well on tests. And P-SATs, SATs, LSATs, GREs and their like continue to spew form the giant computers in Princeton, serving as gatekeepers to success.

But these tests do not tell the whole story. It is important not to let ourselves become driven by test-taking as the be-all and end-all of education. It is also crucial that we not buy into the trend of pigeon-holing an entire generation as underachievers. The practice is destructive in the extreme, for once teachers believe that apathy and laziness are essentially inborn generational traits, they fail to demand academic excellence and go easy on their ``slacker'' students who, they are led to believe, represent an inevitable historical decline in learning. This kind of stereotyping then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; academic performance and ambition wane, student morale sinks, and educational standards deteriorate.

The educator has an additional duty: to reach out and understand the students' points of view, and not try to force them into some procrustean bed of preconceived notions of learning, for there have always been generational differences between the teacher and the taught.

What are some of the points of view I have found to prevail among my students? They are surprisingly typical of every generation that tries to forge ahead and shed the old ways: First, they are skeptical of government and education today. We can all offer a litany of socioeconomic, political causes (with some new twists - divorce, television and the puncturing of the American Dream that promised a better life than one's parents'). They are turned off by the lies and hypocrisy in traditional history textbooks, newspapers, political campaigns and, of course, in their own parents' lives.

Young people find themselves compelled to improvise in order to survive: ``Don't philosophize or preach, just deal with what comes.''

This street-wise instinct is ground in disillusionment with many aspects of American life, an understandable reaction which, in kinder times, would have been praised as pragmatism. In our spinning, breathless information society, today's young people embrace deeds, not words; action, not promises. They simply don't want to repeat the mistakes of their parents, and in most circles this is called wisdom. If they appear aloof, it is because they are wary of cliches and propaganda, and because theirs is a legacy of smashed idols. If they seem inclined to take short cuts to reach a desired result, their rationale is that old-fashioned integrity is for those who can afford it.

The young have few heroes, and they are nonpolitical in the traditional two-party sense. Weaned on Watergate, on debunked and deposed political candidates, hyena scholars and yellow journalism, the students in my classes tend to admire those who live by what they preach: consumer advocate Ralph Nader, whose austere lifestyle matches his public convictions; former president Jimmy Carter, who takes up hammer and nails to build homes for the poor; Charles Barkley, who sets his own agenda on and off the basketball court; Morris Dees, who takes on bigots and hate groups in the courts. In other words, respect is granted to those elders who ``walk the talk,'' in Twelve Step parlance. Even outspoken Arizona senator Barry Goldwater is grudgingly admired as an independent mind and a straight shooter who doesn't automatically toe the party line.

If we want to talk about generational accomplishment, consider this. Young people have effectively disposed of two of America's most enduring and time-honored myths: the rags-to-riches ethic of Horatio Alger and the soul-shrinking Puritan work ethic. Perhaps, some will argue, they had no choice, as American society copes with a rapidly changing world economy.

Let's start with the Puritans: The small, fringe cult of Massachusetts religious fanatics hell-bent on plowing from sunrise to sunset were always on oddity. Most people who migrated to America came not to become Protestant work beasts, but to get rich quick, without too much physical exertion. Institutions like slavery, indentured servitude and coolie labor attest to the importance of hard work in saving other people's souls. For better or for worse, young people today see the work ethic as a fraud, and, more than any other generation before them, seem to value personal happiness over monetary rewards.

The Horatio Alger mythology, a metaphor for America's boundless potential, is scoffed at. The only way to go from rags to riches in America, young people say, is to win the lottery, sue someone, screw over your neighbor or get lucky at one of the nation's proliferating casinos.

In the face of a deeply disappointed group of young people, what is the teacher's role? For this high-tech, visually oriented generation with a limited interest in the past (as young novelist Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, recently put it, ``I'm not a wild fan of yesterday''), history teachers especially must work to develop exciting ways to make the classroom come alive, to make history relevant to today's world.

Assigning seminal books should remain the core of a history course - the basics are invaluable - but why not break up the monotony with some participatory learning? After the students read about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, have them act out the events in class. Take field trips to nearby historical sites of interest. When early-20th- century reformism is being discussed, have your class work in a soup kitchen for a day to better appreciate what conditions must have been like in that now distant era. When the civil-rights movement is being studied, invite a local resident who used to work with SNCC and CORE to class to share real-life experiences.

The history teacher must move students to a broader conception of American history. Unfortunately, the history absorbed by most of this emerging generation is composed of lessons from the 1960s and 1970s, with a cold eye focused on the bottom line: the John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X assassinations; numberless Americans and Vietnamese dead in a senseless war; the political crimes of Watergate; AIDS, the final chapter of ``free love'' and sexual liberation. They disdain anyone who sand ``Give Peace a Chance'' as a cheap gesture, but admire the few who devoted their lives to the cause. When someone sings ``We Shall Overcome,'' the focus on ``some day'' as the seminal phrase, and find that anthem a distant, wistful utopian remnant of a time deemed hopelessly naive.

But all in all, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a ``young person is a young person is a young person.'' They are essentially no different from their predecessors; they simply want to be regarded as individuals. By 1998, those born between 1961 and 1981 will comprise the largest voting bloc ever in American history, numbering 80 million strong. They will soon step up to the plate to try to clean up the mess.Their teacher should strive to do what education has traditionally done for the young: Bring out their best, encourage hope and nourish their imaginations.

Douglas Brinkley heads the Eisenhower Center and is an associate professor of history at the University of New Orleans. In addition to biographies of Dean Acheson and James Forrestal, he is author of The Magic Bus: An American Odyssey and the forthcoming Stop Making Sense of Generation X.
From the Washington Post Education Review, 3 April 1994, p. 1