On Millennials: Defining a Generation

Mar 8, 2013 3:20:47 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr. Michael Woolf

“Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

- - -

Over the last few months I've become increasingly bothered and disturbed by the notion of “millennial” students without really being able to articulate this unease. I also haven’t recognized the cluster of negative associations that have accumulated around this designation in the students I've encountered, nor do I identify these traits in my own children who are of this generation. I've recently tried to focus on the root of my unease and have realized a number of things:

a) The Garden of Eden
Our characterization of millennials is a manifestation of an impulse that is, and has been, rooted in the psyche of educators for generations. I think of it as the Eden complex: then (whenever then was) was better than now (whenever now is). Educators live with a myth of decline; in the Eden of our youth education was better, more serious, more profound than it is in the bleaker reality of the present – a consequence of expulsion from the perfection of the Garden. Educators have always believed this (even old Socrates who was closer to Eden than we are). I've always believed that although Eden was a beautiful myth it was not a very reliable grand narrative by which to explain our reality. It is true that we may know things that are not part of the intellectual ethos of the young but they, I suspect, know things that we do not know. Who without arrogance can assert the supremacy of one form of knowledge over another?

b) Stereotyping
Another source of my unease is the collective label by which we seek to describe a generation. I mistrust such generalizations especially when they are used to delineate largely negative characteristics. This unease became clearer to me when I tried a simple substitution exercise. Try writing a sentence that begins “Millennials are....,” and then use the adjectives that frequently used in the discussion of what makes the millennial student. Then, replace the word millennial with Jews, Blacks, Gypsies, Catholics, Women, the Old and so on. We are quite simply in the area of thoughtless stereotyping and indiscriminate generalization that is close to bigotry.

c) In Dublin and Florence
Two recent episodes brought further focus:

In Dublin an education abroad professional was ridiculing American students who, according to him, hadn't known that Eire was a separate country. I should have said (but didn't that this was his/our fault. We didn't teach them properly. We are responsible for the education of the young. If they are ill-prepared it’s your fault, my fault, our fault. These are our children.

In Florence I attended classes at our program there. In one of those classes, the professor was teaching complex and challenging material relating to Russia in the 1920s. The concepts weren't easy; the material disturbing. The students were profoundly absorbed in a world absolutely beyond their experience. The professor had created an environment of curiosity, psychological safety and empathy, and collective exploration that was inspirational for all of us in the room. After the class I asked her about the relative innocence of the students and their lack of background knowledge. What she said was a great corrective to the cynicism and disdain that reverberates round discussions of “millennials”:

“What matters is the point of arrival, not the point of departure.”

That reminds me of why we do our work and is why I wish we would stop crudely characterizing “millennials”.

Topics: International Education