Cultural profiling of back-to-schoolers

Posted Aug. 31, 2009, at 7:23 p.m.
This artwork by Mark Weber relates to children going back to school.
This artwork by Mark Weber relates to children going back to school.

Each fall, Beloit College publishes its Mindset List: 75 points of reference for understanding the cultural profile of their incoming freshman class. More than just a core sampling of the historical events which an 18-year-old would, or would not, have experienced, the list holds a mirror up to the formative experiences of the new students — and, therefore, of their professors.

For instance, the Beloit Mindset List for the Class of 2009 included the following items:

1. Boston has been working on the Big Dig for all of their lives.

2. Pay-per-view television has always been an option.

3. Voice mail has always been available.

4. Starbucks has always been just around the corner — every corner.

5. Bill Gates has always been worth at least a billion dollars.

6. The federal budget has always been more than a trillion dollars.

7. Digital cameras have always existed.

8. Tom Landry never coached the Cowboys.

9. It has always been possible to walk from England to mainland Europe on dry land.

10. They don’t remember when “cut and paste” involved scissors.

You get the idea. Based on the list, you can view 360 degrees of the experiences creating the mindset of people of a certain age. I shudder to think of the mindset list for my freshman class, the class of 1978. As I’m fond of telling my children, the laptop I went to school with was an Olivetti portable typewriter.

Since I work in an elementary school, our incoming “freshman” class is 5-years-old. I wondered: What is the kindergarten mindset list for John, Christopher and Bess? What is the kindergarten mindset of kids going to a small rural elementary school in Maine?

Perhaps the list would reveal the rate of change in our cultural mindsets: What are the innovations or changes that have taken place in a quick five years to which we are already acclimated? Perhaps it would give us a core sample of the life of the mind for small-town 5 year olds?

From the sublime to the idiosyncratic, here are a few things that I learned from the class members. Though a few details — well, most of the details — are decidedly local, you can get a sense of the worldview of kids as they begin their march toward that freshman year of postsecondary education.

1. Adams School has always had a green playground structure and timber frame nature center — and a big granite rock by the bike rack. (It was installed in August.)

2. School always begins with a parachute and bagpipes on the common. (We take it one year at a time.)

3. There has never been a merry-go-round or teeter-totter on the playground. (The old playground equipment is gone, alas.)

4. A school computer is called an iBook. (And they probably all know how to do a Google search or Skype daddy.)

5. The flag always flies at half-staff on the 11th of September.

These are, of course, external factors of a mindset — more the adult mindset for kindergartners. To venture inside their mindset, I invited the freshman class to my office for a little interview. Here is an introductory look, in no particular order, for the cultural record. This is where the rubber really meets the road.

1. Charlie drives the bus. I like going home.

2. We have the greatest, greatest time at school.

3. I can do an upside down thing on the playground.

4. I go down backward with my head pointing forward down the slide.

5. We like our teacher.

6. We get to be learned.

7. I’m making a woolly mammoth out of Legos. It evolved into hairless elephants from the Dinophyllus (?) that weighed 14 times as much as a giraffe.

8. The first movie I saw in a theater was “Cars.”

9. My mommy’s name is “Mommy,” and my dad’s name is “Daddy.”

11. Our parents make the best, best ice cream cones and sundaes.

Further interviews may be required to complete my findings and connect the dots. Clearly, this is a complex matrix. Beloit has it easy. On the other hand, I have 12 years to prepare them for Beloit. We’ll get to work today.

Todd R. Nelson is principal of the Adams School in Castine.

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