‘Entitled generation’ not better, just very different

Published 12:25 pm Monday, May 17, 2010

Different. Not better. Not worse. Just different.

Last week was spent on a college campus. It wasn’t the first time I’d been at a Mississippi university in 23 years, but it was the first time I had spent a whole week interacting with students and faculty.

The school is the University of Mississippi and, in terms of outward appearances, it mirrors most of the other seven I’ve visited from time to time. New buildings — funded by donors and bond funds — are imposing, stately, pristine and impressive. They are also everywhere. A new honors dorm at Ole Miss is about the size of a city block and another one just like it is under construction. The Gertrude Ford Center, where the first presidential debate was held in 2008, is not as storied, but is far superior in many ways to such performance venues as Carnegie Hall. Sports complexes are awesome, as are classrooms — climate-controlled theater seating with Internet access, computer consoles for instructors and incredible gizmos to aid lectures. I found myself wondering if there was a piece of chalk or a blackboard anywhere on campus.

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The campus is also an enclave of cleanliness. No litter anywhere. I have a suspicion that more than a few dorm rooms are still the rat nests of yesteryear, but on the outside landscaping is flawless.

There was also a profound difference in the attitude or bearing of undergraduates.

They are members of what I have dubbed — not disparagingly — the “entitlement generation.”

Let me explain. I had parents who took me to ball practice, piano lessons and such — but they didn’t have any bumper stickers on their car proclaiming my greatness, nor did they display my uniform number on the window glass. I may have been the center of their universe, but they didn’t tell me every minute.

Today’s families are far more child-centered. Young people are made to feel more important. It’s that simple. And it reflects in their demeanors.

When I was on a university faculty in the 1980s, the undergrads seemed more relaxed, less intense.

Today’s students seem more focused, more directed, more self-centered (not selfish) and much more self-aware.

They are also “connected.” It’s not just that their cell phones facilitate nonstop social networking. Information on any topic doesn’t have to be mined from moldy volumes on a library shelf. A few clicks on a keyboard pops up anything they need to know, whether it’s their bank balance or the reactive properties of zinc oxide.

As did their parents, today’s students prefer everything served up on the proverbial silver platter. The more an instructor will do to take the burden off them the better. But it’s not just that they now prefer this, they believe it’s their due. They deal better with facts than concepts.

Their insistence that their time not be wasted might be connected to today’s costs. They seem very aware of the financial burden and sacrifice associated with their pursuit of a college diploma.

Faculty seem about the same — except that everywhere looms the prospect that 2001 state allocations are expected to be down 23 percent from last year’s. “Where can we cut?” is the center of every conversation.

But the biggest difference is in the students themselves. They reflect a sense of importance and to some degree a sense of purpose I didn’t expect.

That’s different. Not better. Not worse. Just different.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail cmitchell@vicksburgpost.com.