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A Generation of Tools?

Kris Schnee

By now most of us have read the essay by Admissions Director Marilee Jones or seen the juicy excerpts on campus signs telling faculty to “Stand firm through all [our] excuses and whining.” Her words propose a comprehensive plan for university administrators, especially MIT’s own, to bully and subdue students. The core of her argument is a sweeping stereotype of our generation, echoing what other intellectuals are saying about us. Is the stereotype true, and is there anything we can do to avoid being chained to it?

In the essay, available at <http://tute.mit.edu:8002/afs/athena/org/ f/fnl/www/901/marilee_jones.htm>, Jones introduces the idea that the entire MIT undergraduate population is the leading edge of a new generation, and can be defined by a single set of characteristics: “Millennials, the newest generation, are the subject of this article. Born after 1979, they will nearly eclipse the Baby Boomers in size at just under 77 million members ... Their markers [are] OJ, Monica Lewinsky, and multi-culturalism. I would add the Columbine shootings to that list. Key characteristics of this group are neotraditionalism, ritual, optimism, technological adeptness, volunteerism, busyness.”

Our “cultural markers” were chosen before September and the “millennial war,” of course. Jones adds more characteristics to paint the portrait of all MIT students: we are pragmatic, group-oriented, friendly towards authority figures, impatient (“they desire instant gratification”), and irresponsible (“they may not see or accept the consequences of their behavior”). That is, we’re sheep and we need and want to be led.

How fair is it for administrators to paint us this way, and conclude that we’ll “see that they mean business” and back down if they stand up to us? It would be the same as if we described the 1960s generation as follows: “Baby Boomers are all ex-hippies who, in their day, rebelled against rationality and basic hygiene. They believed in free speech and democracy until they took over the universities and government and invented ‘political correctness.’ If they protest, give them drugs and they will back down.”

Of course that’s unfair and rude; it’s also how some of us see Dean Jones’ portrait of our generation. It’s simply inappropriate for a university administration to base its policies on stereotypes of race, class, or generation. But now we see that Jones’ kind of thinking is behind a whole list of nefarious MIT policies -- do I even have to list them? -- which aim to improve our “community” by controlling us for our own good. It is now official policy to treat us like children.

Jones is not alone among American intellectuals in saying such things about us. She bases her essay on the Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing, published in 1997, a document meant to make manipulating people easier. The same ideas appear in “The Organization Kid” <http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/04/brooks-p1.htm>, an April article in The Atlantic Monthly. Author David Brooks interviewed students at Princeton and declared that they are night owls and workaholics who only socialize by appointment. One of Brooks’ sources, in turn, was a 1966 booklet by Brainerd Thresher, a former MIT admissions director. Brooks also wrote a book called Bobos In Paradise, characterizing the slightly older Generation X as obsessed intellectual status-seekers who buy into “the system,” then buy faux African wood-carvings to prove they’re part of the counter-culture. When we let ourselves be pigeonholed, our stereotypical behavior can be used to control us.

How accurate is the stereotype of us “millennials?” It’s true that some of us -- not all -- get too little sleep, make appointments to talk with friends, work on ten projects at once, and apologize before offering anyone criticism. When someone called for a protest against Dean Jones’ master plan at 4:00 one afternoon, no one showed up. Were we all in lab? Do all protests have to be scheduled for between 5:00 and 7:00 on weekdays, because we all find work more important than standing up for ourselves?

The intense work ethic we’re told we have is a strength of modern MIT students, but it can also make us apathetic tools of the administration today, and of our government and employers tomorrow. We will continue being manipulated until those in power see that their policy of “standing up to our whining” no longer works. Maybe the events of this fall will help to change things, by making us reconsider our priorities. When we find a way to assert ourselves, break the stereotypes against us, and stay true to what we find important, then we will be ready to lead instead of follow.