This morning I met with a large group of my university’s incoming first year students for an orientation session; tomorrow (as you are reading this), I’ll be meeting with another. They were all bright, eager, respectful—and excited to be starting their college experience. They seemed kind, engaged, smart. Many stayed behind after my presentation to say hello, shake my hand, thank me for my words. In short, they were lovely. And I can’t wait to get back to the classroom.
Maybe it’s odd to say that college students are “lovely.” Nobody seems to much. Indeed, when I googled “what’s wrong with college students today,” I got 48 million hits. The gist you’ve already heard: millennials are awful, and post-millenials/GenZ (or whatever we’re going to decide to call all the kids born between 1997-2012—which, note, are all the kids in college today) are just the worst. We’re told that they are entitled, they are overly-fixated on their phones and social media, they need instant gratification, they all want a trophy because they participated. They are narcissistic selfie-takers and precious snowflakes, unprepared and under-educated for the rigors of life and school. Clearly, we “can’t even” with this bunch. Ugh—bring back the good old days when people did actually did the assigned reading, right?
The problem is I’m not sure when that Golden Age was. If you’ve ever read my musings here on The Twelve, you’ll know that my favorite novel is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. This summer I traveled to England for an international conference commemorating Eliot’s bicentennial, where I presented a paper on teaching that novel. In my preparatory research, I came across an essay by a very distinguished scholar who characterized her students thusly:
Modern American students reading Middlemarch usually have no equivalent frame of reference to bring to their study. Surrounded by electronic gadgetry of every description—television sets, VCRs, Walkmans, and boomboxes—they more often than not have little or no knowledge of the classics, mythology, foreign language, history, or the nineteenth century and its social or political issues. They often bring indifferent reading skills to their tasks. This observation should not be construed as a criticism of students: they are necessarily the products of their times and the laxness of the current American educational system.
Some of the technology references probably give it away, but the essay was not written recently. In fact, it was written in 1990: the year I graduated from college. This, then, is a description of my late-1980s generation: distracted by technology, bad readers, “products of their times and the laxness of the current American educational system.”
And the people say: “Amen–thus has it ever been.”
And yet, post-millennials are different in some important regards to those of us who came before: for one thing, they are more diverse and better-educated. A Pew Research Center’s study last fall found that not only are 48% of American post-millennials racial or ethnic minorities, but as a group, they are pursuing college at higher rates than previous generations. They are a generation trained on the massive novels of J.K. Rowling—they may read and write a lot on their devices, but they’re still reading books, too. That’s good news.
The always fascinating “Mindset List,” now administered by Marist College, is an excellent reminder of what these college students’ childhoods were actually like: they’ve always had wifi and Google, they’ve never licked a stamp, their every moment was videotaped by camcorder-clutching parents. Why would posting to Instagram be weird when your parents had already “curated” every day of your life so far?
Perhaps the criticism post-millennials receive, however, is that they are “snowflakes”—too sensitive for their own good. It’s true that this generational cohort seems less resilient and reports record rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. The same Pew study I mentioned above found that 3 in 10 teens feel tense, nervous or wish they had more friends every single day. Publications, such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, regularly report on the “anxiety crisis” in American universities. In July, one article noted that “33% of students felt so depressed sometime in the last 12 months that it was difficult to function.” And I heard recently that over 60% of first year students this year will come to college with a prescription for anti-anxiety or anti-depression medication.
This kind of suffering saddens and sobers me. I’m grateful that our campus takes so seriously our call to come alongside students whether in the classroom or dorm, chapel or counseling center. But I’m puzzled by more typical media responses of ridicule and dismissal, of eye-rolling and “kids these days.” Maybe we should think about how and why this beautiful, brilliant generation is so full of fear. (And here I want to be clear that I am not dismissing or diminishing the mental health issues that also need to be addressed). Maybe it’s because during my time in high school, we had one bomb threat that everyone took as a prank (it was), but during Gen Z’s lifetime so far it has been Columbine and Sandy Hook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas (and that’s a tiny fraction and only the schools, not the churches and synagogues, theaters and Walmart stores, concerts and festivals). I practiced hiding occasionally under my desk for tornados, never regularly for an active shooter. Hijackings happened infrequently, but no one slammed planes into buildings when I was a kindergartener. We were told to “give a hoot, don’t pollute,” not face an imminent future where climate change would bring massive ecological devastation. We went to college generously underwritten by the taxpayers and left with little or no debt, instead of coping with the biggest state defunding of higher education in decades. Diplomacy seems to be dead, religion is fast losing any credible witness, institutions are failing, the economy wobbles, hate predominates—anxiety seems like a pretty rational response, to be honest.
But what I love about my college students, what makes me so hopeful and so happy to work with them, is that anxiety isn’t their only response: I’m impressed that they still care deeply about the world, even when they’re seeing it in a very sorry state. I’m impressed that they are excited to prepare themselves to make that world better. I’m impressed how they care deeply about and for each other as well as for the marginalized and the oppressed. And I’m impressed that they care deeply about suffering and injustice—and want to make it right. They crave authenticity and connection and a faith that animates life, not one that’s about acquisitions or power or social status or membership in a sociological club.
I used to think about Psalm 145:4, “One generation commends your works to another; they tell of your mighty acts” as a one-way verse describing older generations’ job to testify to the younger. Looking at it again, I think that’s much too limited. Certainly, we olds have a role to reassure with “noli timere” and “all shall be well,” as we can, and to tell of faithfulness along the long road, but what if we listened to what post-millennials were commending to us about the “mighty acts” they see God doing? What might be revealed? How might our vision of “church” change?
They’re calling us to attention. It’s why I start the school year as a learner, too. What a privilege!
Because if it is Gen Z’s insistence on kindness and concern and compassion that makes them snowflakes, I say: let it snow.