I’ve been thinking about the Millennials — that is, the generation that pretty much came of age and entered the workforce as the Y2K panic was ending. I was 10 years before that, so I think I belong to the prior generation. But a friend of mine was sharing an article on Facebook about how spoiled and incompetent they are, and I thought to myself, That doesn’t really ring true to me. (Even Business Insider said something different about it).
When I thought about it, I realized that I could think of four things which might have had a serious and detrimental effect on their growing up and their early education. I don’t mean to suggest that these things mean that Millennials are spoiled and incompetent, or to suggest that these are the reasons that Millennials should be called spoiled and incompetent. I’m simply pointing out that there were four themes or ongoing changes in America at the time that the Millennials were in school, and that maybe, just maybe, these had an effect on them.
I should also say that I haven’t really researched these yet, and this is very much a back-of-the-envelope estimation; I could be off by 4-8 years in my guesswork.
Here they are.
- The end of Shop, Home Economics, Drafting, and other technical classes. Outside of technical high schools, most American schools bought into the idea that ‘everyone must go to college’. As a result, schools began to shut down their technical classes, sell the drill presses and band saws. This coincides with a wave of retirements for shop teachers; the guy who taught my shop class retired in 1982… and I think he’d started working at my school the year the school opened, as well, in 1961 or something like that. Retired, or transferred, and never replaced. Given what I do these days, that’s a big one — but it also strikes me as a major blow against kids developing practical experience in mathematics. I learned weights, measures, angles, volume, and more from Home Economics and Shop and Drafting… and I don’t think I’d understand them today without that initial training. Eliminate these classes, and you’d eliminate that practical, hands-on experience.
- The dramatic increase in testing. I remember sitting for two major examinations when I was in junior high school and high school: the SSAT, for admission to a private high school in 10th grade; and the SAT, for admission to a college. I took that exam in 11th and 12th grade; the SSAT in 9th. There were also AP examinations in 11th and 12th grade. On average, tests consume about 20-25 hours of school time, or about three weeks of a school year, plus prep-time and review. I don’t even think I took the SSATs or SATs during the school day; the AP exams were a half-day at most, and they were final exams for college-credited classes (sorta.)
- The Rapid Expansion of Cable Television. As Cable Television came online, and the number of available channels climbed, it came to be that reading, which was the first or second most important leisure activity in the country, became the fifth or sixth; and despite Harry Potter and the Books of the Restricted Section, (who wouldn’t read that one??) and all its actual sequels, the quality of reading material for young people has gone into a steady tailspin. Come to think of it, the expansion of cable came at the expense of not just bookstores, but also newspapers — who were losing revenue even before the Internet really exploded on-scene in about 1996. So the Millennials were the first generation to experience massive changes to the reading experience as a major form of entertainment. And this has presented major challenges to literacy-as-a-skill in the same way that eliminating shop classes was a major challenge to numeracy-as-a-skill.
- The Information Firehose. Milennials, it seems to me, were the first generation subject to the Information Firehose. (A superhighway has always struck me as the wrong metaphor — on a highway you travel fast… but on the Information Superhighway you go nowhere… everything comes at you immediately… rather like a firehose). The textbook companies made the textbooks for every subject enormous; I had flimsy, 200-page textbooks for most of my classes in high school. I still have the 256-page textbook on the ancient world from 10th grade —jam-packed with diagrams and black-and-white photos on how to tell a krater from an hydria, how to tell a Minoan palace from a Mycenaean fortress, and how a Roman legion was organized. The text explains in detail how Rome became a Republic, then a Dictatorship, then an Empire… and how it fell. By contrast, the same era of history in the current textbook my school uses has 12 pages, explains nothing so detailed as what I’ve just explained, and has well over a thousand pages on all cultures and histories. I’m not saying that we should study Greece and Rome to the exclusion of all other histories… but we need to explore some elements of history in greater depth than current textbooks do, so that students have something other than a 30,000-foot view of the past.
In any case, there’s the four areas in which the Millennials have been subjected to a quite-different regime of learning and education than the generations that went before them. And I think that these may be signposts, as it were, pointing to what may have gone wrong. In each case, there’s someone who profits from the new system — testing companies, cable companies, insurance companies and textbook publishing companies — and the results of the changes are subtle and longterm, far too long-term for most principals, superintendents and even some teachers to observe them.
However, the consequences of these changes are long-lasting, and I think that we haven’t seen the end of this particular set of rabbit-holes.