The Next Generation


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The Next Generation

Note from the author: I introduced Steven in a message to the campus last year. He has inspired me to think about some ideas for the next generation of students searching for a college.

One of the greatest risks in flying these days has nothing to do with weather conditions, hi-tech equipment or pilot training – it’s the people seated around you. Slowly making my way back to seat 23D through the obstacle course of travelers stuffing overhead compartments, I spied an elderly gentleman occupying my seat. I thought it was likely a temporary move, allowing people to settle in before finding his place. As I approached, however, he appeared far too comfortable and it became clear he was taking a “name it and claim it” approach to airline seating. I smiled and noted I was destined for 23D, and an eager young mother stepped forward to offer me her seat (23C) noting it was also an aisle one. She clearly knew the gentleman and his wife, and appeared quite willing to sit with them. Blessed are the peacemakers.

As I made myself comfortable in seat 23C a clear pattern was beginning to form. Too many of the people seated around me were talking to each other with far more than the usual pleasantries. Further, half of the seats surrounding me were occupied by children under the age of six. You guessed it. I was smack in the middle of a family reunion heading to Florida and Grandpa was sitting in my seat.

The beginning of the flight was relatively calm as the kids focused on the processes of taxi and take-off. The flight wore on with the monotonous tone of engines humming in the background until my seat mate, Steven (age 5), and his cousins soon found new and creative ways to transform rigid airline seating into a rich playground full of fun. Gradually that section of the plane became open seating, as family members migrated to manage kids and engage in conversation. That is, with the exception of seat 23C. It was then I decided that on the eighth day God created noise-canceling headphones and mine had become a most precious and sacred possession.

However, as my tunes flowed, I couldn’t stop thinking about Steven. As a long-time observer of higher education, I have become increasingly conscious that in a few short years children like Steven and his cousins will gradually move from crawling under seats to occupying seats of influence and authority. The desire to restrain them at a young age is understandable, but perhaps misguided. Conforming to our expectations may not be the right path. Maybe we need to let kids be kids. For Steven right now it’s about playing with his cousins. Before long, however, he will likely be approaching a college or university campus with anxiety and anticipation as he prepares for a future only he can define. What do we do then to enable him to find playfulness in his path to the future?

Whenever I have the chance to speak to a group of students or parents, I offer three ideas that are substantially different from the model of conformity and constraint we generally present.  Perhaps it’s the equivalent of play for a young adult.

Slow down. Don’t be in a hurry.

High school students constantly hear the same question over and over again, “What are you going to major in?” It’s an obvious question – an easy conversation starter – but it does more damage than we realize. I find many students just pick something to have an answer. It’s like wearing an arm cast and constantly being asked, “How did you break your arm?” We tempt them to make up creative answers just to keep life interesting. Let’s try a different approach and encourage students to not settle on a major until they have had a chance to really explore.

Focus on the “being” question.

We are completely preoccupied with doing. Frankly, it’s dangerous. My concern for higher education and the wider society is growing as we have become more and more enamored with checking boxes. Somehow we believe the accumulation of credits, courses, credentials and careers is the highest and best outcome for an educational experience. I would argue just “being” is another form of play critical to sustained success in adulthood. Whether we find this in our higher learning institutions, in family contexts or in faith communities, we desperately need our students to play with the questions of being that can never be easily answered, generalized or reduced.

Prepare for an uncertain future; don’t follow a script.

The challenge for our emerging generation today is that we’ve gone way beyond planning to scripting. Students’ entire lives are scripted, and too many of them seem content to simply play the roles in which we have cast them. Interestingly, those of us who have had many years of life to our credit would be the first to say that the script does not really reflect reality. The journey of life takes many unexpected turns. The difference between planning and preparing is that planning is focused on the intended. Preparing is acknowledging the unintended. Preparing is like playing. By preparing, we try on many things. In this space, failure is as important as success.

I think Steven has the right idea. Don’t sit in your seat and be quiet. Crawl around. Climb higher. Try everything. Ask questions. And don’t worry about the guy wearing a tie in seat 23C. He won’t be defining the next generation. You will.

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12 responses to “The Next Generation”

  1. Tej Dhawan says:

    Mark — I love the ending as it applies equally to our Entrepreneurial students as well as my elementary school children.

    It is amazing how many of these thoughts permeate throughout a Montessori education experienced by a lucky minority in the world. Imagine the world where these principles could guide us rather than a regimented curricula.

    • Adam Hines says:

      Tej – about 10 years ago I sat on the Board as a student rep. and I remember listening to you speak and I thought, wow, this guy is right. I teach middle schoolers for a living. Middle schoolers dislike school for one reason — rigidity. I spent 20 months working on my master’s degree with one focus – “how can I create a classroom where students enjoy learning?” Students live in a manipulative world. They can control almost every aspect of their lives – except school – and then we expect them to sit and learn in a 19th century classroom? Now, my 7th graders spend almost the entire school year building a ficticious country from the ground up based upon something they are interested in. My end of the year evaluations were much different from what I had in the past. When we let kids be kids and do what they do best – which is investigate and manipulate – great things will happen.

  2. Paul Kovacovic says:

    Thanks, Mark, for sharing your vision and observations. I think the creativity of children is inspiration. I remember playing with my younger brother. All we had was a giant bowl of Cheerios, but it was a bowl of endless possibilities. We created an earthquake by shaking the bowl and drowning the figurines within. What happens to us that we don’t think that way anymore?

  3. Don Huffman says:

    Mark, you raise some interesting points regarding the more desirable qualities and characteristics of future college students. These are not new issues, but are important and frequently encountered in attempts to find the “ideal” student -in itself easier to define than to recognize. It is difficult enough to recognize and foster these elusive factors in large families, much less in larger populations. I appreciate your focus on the three ideas: “slow down, focus on being, and prepare for uncertainty.” Most of the really outstanding former students I can think of often changed their minds about college majors and favorite courses, they frequently entered graduate work in areas other than their undergraduate majors, and succeeded professionally more as a result of personal qualities of character rather than by doing the expected, or following a script.
    Perhaps in our admissions recruitment, and certainly in our teaching, we should be more concerned about interactions from personal interviews and discussions and less about ACT, SAT, MCAT or other standardized test scores. Some schools and graduate areas have tried this with at least some success, but it would be a very difficult chore for those who look upon standardized exam scores as the holy grail of potential student assessment.

  4. Paul janssen says:

    Dr. Putnam, (we’ve never met so ” Mark” feels false to me, and besides, I’m from the East where we’re a wee bit mire formal)
    Upon reading the blurb, I thought of the difference between terminus and a terminal. They sound similar, but a terminus is an end. For many, I suppose, the B.A. is an end of education, a terminus. Parents have discharged their responsibility to society and can get on with saving again….But for others, a college education is A terminal. It’s a stopping point, a transfer between destinations……one that could lead to several termini—-who knows where they may land, and for how long, before moving on? There is a basic set of understandings that accompany the joyful traveler. These, one acquires during the college years. Understandings that include, but extend beyond, the ones you name.
    Take this as literally or as metaphorically as you like. It works either way.
    Peace be with you, staff, faculty, students, and community as you travel on.

  5. Lisa Harsh says:

    Dr. Putnam,

    I really enjoyed your observations about young people. I am a career advisor at a community college and I told a young woman (exploring majors) similar ideas today. She really enjoyed hearing that sometimes life takes turns and curves and some of our careers are the result of “happenstance”. I think it is exciting to think that many of our college students will be in careers that are not even invented yet. I really enjoy your blogs and glad you are at the helm of Central College. I enjoyed my time at Central and had a chance to visit the campus this summer with my teenagers. They loved the campus and of course the bakeries where I had to buy them a cream filled bismarck that gave me the “freshmen 15” back in the day. Thanks for sharing your fresh insights and wisdom.

  6. I’d like to share a favorite poem in response to your post (a bit mushed together so unlike how it is printed).

    From Mary Oliver: The Summer Day

    Who made the world?
    Who made the swan and the black bear?
    Who made the grasshopper?
    This grasshopper, I mean–the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
    the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

    Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open and floats away.

    I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
    I do know how to pay attention,
    how to fall down into the grass,
    how to kneel down in the grass,
    how to be idle and blessed,
    how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day.

    Tell me, what else should I have done?
    Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
    Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

    • jkisner says:

      Thanks for the poem, Lois! Our CUI mentors also taught us about the importance of being rather than doing, which is precisely what Oliver’s subject is.

  7. Lois, and Dr. P:
    Lois, first of all, thanks for the grea poem–I’m copying it and putting it on my bulletin board, called quotes of the week.

    Dr. P: as always you have the uncanny ablity to “hit the nail on the head” and always at a time in which I need to remind my students of their path. Right now, we are exploring our beliefs for an assignment that I know both NIACC and Central use. It really is focuasing on the Being of your education, not the terminal (thanks also to Paul J). I think this “mark my words” wilk also go on the bulletin board–for all of us to contemplate.

  8. Elizabeth Thoms says:

    As a parent of two of your current students, I cannot tell you how grateful I am that you see a college education in such broad terms. It reaffirms my belief that Central is offering an education in the best sense of the word.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The next generation won’t be able to afford to go to Central College. This needs to change, now. Do something, President Putnam. Make a Central College education worth the thousands of dollars of debt and the financial crisis that will follow graduation.
    The liberal arts aren’t as marketable as they once were, and they will continue to decline in necessity as the growth on online tech schools continues.

    Here is my proposal, create a new liberal arts education. Stop making students take pointless classes that do not benefit them. Instead, introduce a new system where the students take a mandatory class over the subject area. For example, instead of a student taking a 100 level history class where they cram for tests and dump that information the second after the final never to be used again, create a “humanities” introductory course. The goal of this course is to teach the valuable ideas behind historical concepts that have interdisciplinary use and can be applied to life.

    Please, Dr. Putnam, make the college about education again. The status quo will not last into the future. Sustainability is not the answer. Quite frankly, the arrogance of the Central sustainability program is astounding. They are not paving the way for sustainability. They are doing nothing. Do something real, change the way liberal arts education functions. Give students a reason to spend the money they do to receive a Central college education.

  10. ausinės says:

    Wow. This was an amazing review. I myself own these headphones, but I just bought them and used them to listen to music. You went through an experience and a discovery.