ROOM 101 in George Orwell's "1984" was a nightmare room, a place where each person confronted "the worst thing in the world." For Winston Smith it was rats, for others it was "burial alive or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or 50 other deaths."
But in recent years a new fear has emerged, one that many would argue is now swifly becoming a reality: a fear of students, of having to face a room 101-ful of illiterate, ignorant and insolent adolescents who eschew assignments and attendance, expect As, accept Bs and go to grievance committees for Cs. A mortarboard jungle. By 1984, who knows what sorts of students will be enrolling in college?
If the child is indeed the father of the man, then to begin to formulate an answer we need to look at the members of the freshman class of 1984 as they exist today -- as middle school and junior high scholl students. Since I recently taught for a number of years in the public schools, I believe I can describe fairly accurately the nature of the beasts that now inhabit suburban secondary schools.
In many ways, students have not changed all that much from the days of real education when we were in school. The old stereotypes still thrive: the girl you could have sworn was 19 -- and might have to in a court of law if your're not careful; the kid who carries a briefcase, pencil box and enviable lunch -- and who can name every dinosaur that ever sloshed through a swamp; the shrieking girls in gym class whose vocal chords are activated by any movement of their legs; the 12-year-old who shaves twice a day and who 12-year-old girl's father fears will appear on the doorstep some evening asking if Suzie can "play" outside; the kid who wears the same sweater for 182 consecutive days and whose name you can never quite remember. Smaller versions of ourselves-when-young are there, too: you know, the shockingly attractive kids who get straight As, edit the school newspaper, preside over the coin club and student council, and captain the football or cheerleading squad.
What today's young people like to do after school is not all the different, either. After wending their anfractuous ways home, they shoot baskets in a driveway, ride bikes precariously close to traffic, or practice cheerleading or baton-twirling in full view of the entire neighborhood and of any scouts for the Dallas Cowgirls who just might be cruising the area.
And in the evening they flop down in front of the TV, or try convince Dad they don't have any homework, or beg to be driven to McDonald's or to the shopping mall, or tie up the phone, or punch their little brothers for no discernible reason.
But if kids are still basically like that, why are college faculties having conference on the students of the 1980's and why does CBS News ask "Is Anyone Out There Learning?"
Kids are different today, different not only from you and me, but different from their counterparts of only five or ten years ago. They will come to college with different knowledge, different attitudes and different values.
They will come, first of all, embodying even more perplexingly the paradox of simultaneous tribalism and individualism. I once counted 20 pairs of identical Adidas sneakers in my class of 24 youngsters, causing me to conclude that pedal cloning had been successfully accomplished. But I often heard in that same room the most startling expressions, of individuality.
They will come having owned and broken more things than any generation in memory. Equipped with phone, TV, stereo, vaguely obscene posters and assorted audiovisual materials, many young adolescents' rooms today are contemporary versions of Brer Rabbit's briar patch -- as is the punishment of sending them there the equivalent of Brer Bear's hurling Brer Rabbit into his prickly paradise.
They will come having spent more hours in front of a TV set than in a classroom. Some claim that those hours have created a generation that is passive, functionally illiterate, unable to attend to anything that does not snap, crackle or pop.
My own observation is that while TV may not be the Luminous Lord of Illiteracy that its critics claim, the kids I taught most recently (with many notable exceptions) were more passive, were less willing to commit themselves to anything resembling a school activity, did quit more readily than their older brothers and sisters, were harder to interest in schoolwork. Put simply, a child who is watching TV is not doing something else -- reading, reflecting, talking with his family.
The putative effects of TV viewing notwithstanding, there are indications of a general change in the learning styles of the young. Some communications theorists have called this generation an "aural tribal" culture, ours a "visual literate" one; and if these theorists are right, then kids today don't learn from books and prints as efficiently as we do; they get their information, their attitudes, their values -- indeed, they experience the world -- through the media that are most directly accessible to them: TV, radio, records, film.
Ironically, they've learned many of the literate things we'd like them to learn in nonliterate ways -- the "I-saw-the-movie" syndrome. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, asked subjects to identify literary works from pictures representing scenes or characters from those works. In such a manner 72 percent of the 13-year-olds tested correctly identified "Alice in Wonderland." But it would take quite a leap of imagination to conclude therefrom that hundreds of thousands of mommies and daddies sat in rocking chairs on wintry evenings before crackling fires patiently reading Lewis Carroll's work to wide-eyed youngsters, pausing only to toast a marshmallow or adjust the afghan. A more accurate image would probably be Mom hauling Billy's guests down to the plaza to see Walt Disney's "alice" for the third time. A more telling indication of this illiterate literacy is that a number of National Assessment subjects identified a picture of Don Quixote as "Man of LaMancha." And a final irony remains; the National Assessment's requiring youngsters to identify literary works by pictures rather than passages.
They will come having experimented with artificial stimulants, depressants and sex (which can be both). Conservations I've had with students in recent years indicate that these kids have undertandings about human anatomy and sexual acrobatics that my own 12-year-old brain would have refused to compute. To these who choose to view these as pubescent fantasies, be informed that last year several of our sixth-grade girls were whisked to the emergency room -- OD'd on some funny-looking red pills that a classmate had given them at lunchtime. Or check the statistics on venereal disease.
They will come extremely concerned about their images. Some Psychiatrists have said that this generation is role- rather than goal-oriented. The question you ask a kid these days, then, is "Who do you want to be?" not "What are you going to do?" and attempting to answer that question can generate an intolerable amount of anxiety. Furthermore, the millions we have spent on "career education" may have been largely misspent: Such programs answer questions that kids today aren't asking.
This intense concern about image has other implications as well: Kids will no longer tolerate humiliation. I've seen demure sixth-grade girls snap back at a teacher who has embarrassed them and an eight-grade boy take a swing at a music teacher who tried to make him display in front of his friends the effects of puberty on his vocal chords. Gone are the days of the dunce cap or having to wear illegally chewed gum on your nose. Raised again is the old Colonial flag which bears the legend: "Don't tread on me!"
They will come still thinking they're immortal, despite what happens to their friends every year. Recently four of my former students went out canoeing at night on a local lake. For some reason the canoe capsized. Two of the boys, clad in heavy jeans and boots, decided they'd swim for shore. A week later a relative, who had hardly left his rowboat day or night, found them floating in some reeds not far from shore. Shortly thereafter I got word that one of my students was killed on a Moped his folks had just bought him that day -- his 14th birthday. But such accidents have an evanescent effect on the rest of the kids. They perceive death as an aberration; they feel resentful, even betrayed, by their dead companion.
They will come, for the most part, without what we have traditionally considered essential cultural knowledge. They think of Ajax as a cleanser, Electra as a Buick, Plato as a molding clay their little brothers have. They have never read or heard stories from the Bible. (In fact, in a recent survey of reading interests I conducted, middle school students picked "religion" as the reading topic they disliked the most.) They think "Moby Dick" and "The Myth of Sisyphus" sound like dirty books and that a guy with a name like King Lear must have been a voyeur of some importance. In one of my seventh-grade classes two years ago, not one of the students had ever heard the story Jonah. Another talented girl could not explain a referance to Judas. These were suburban children, some of whose parents took then to St. Croix whenever they felt like it. Advantaged kids.
In a recent survey by the National Assessment, fewer than 50 percent of the nation's 13-year-olds could give an adequate description of something they'd read in the last year -- a novel, play, poem, whatever. (Lest we get lugubrious about the passing of literacy among the young, be informed that only about 40 percent of adults could tell anything about a novel they'd read, 9.7 percent a short story.)
Finally, like all new generations they will come unaffected by the moments that defined the lives of their elders. The students. I had in sixth grade two years ago were born in 1968. John Kennedy had been dead five years. The Beatles split up before these kids knew how to talk. The Vietnam War was over before they were in school. They never heard of Spiro Agnew or Mark Rudd or the effete corps of impudent snobs. They were in second grade when Nixon resigned.
A couple of years ago I was with a group of eight graders in Washington. Part of the tour was a visit to the Kennedy gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery. When we got there, all the teachers assumed their solemn attitudes; a few even had tears in their eyes. I know I did. A number of kids were fooling around. Laughing. Talking loudly. I was about to launch into one of my "Look-don't-you-kids-have-any-respect-for-anything" lectures when it hit me: I might as well have asked them to stand in awe before the grave of Chester A. Arthur. Those young people, those future college students, had had no part in the emotional experiences that, at least at times, bind the older generation together.
This is how they would come, then, these students of mine, if they were to enroll in college this year.
We could respond by pointing fingers, blaming one another for the inadequacies of these students; we could talk learnedly about the "new narcissism" of the personalistic psychologies and philosphies that have made ours the only culture reluctant to pass on its history and its literature to its young; we could saute the principal of the local elementary school in the fat of the professor of education who taught him; we could construct competency tests for parents; we could lock up the TV set, throw out the comic books and put the kid in prep school; we could cite statistics on divorce and single-parent homes; we could excoriate religious institutions for substituting encounter groups, hootenannies and hayrides for religious education.
But I recommend a much simpler way to respond, one that over the last few years has worked for me and my 12-year-old students. Accept them. (I told you it was simple.) Then take them from where they are to somewhere else. Believe that they are capable -- because they are. Recognize that they're different, not worse. When students are bound by things, try to free them with ideas. If they learn through television, use it. If they are concerned with their images, try to be sensitive. And fair. If they've never heard of Jonah or Judas, tell them the stories -- and a few others wile you're at it. If they can't write their own names without asking for hints, teach them how. Or give them another. If they can't write as well as their big sisters did, recognize that that makes them more, not less, deserving of your attention and professional skill. (They still do want to write, and they still do have a lot to say. When I felt one school, a student wrote, "And thanks for introducing me to the wonderful world of writing." True, she spelled writing with two t's but that made her message all the more poignant.) And if they function at concrete levels of thought, try to be more concrete in your teaching.
Many times I failed with this philosophy -- gloriously and, as I look back on it, humorously. Just last spring I asked one of my classes to memorize Frost's "The Road Not taken." One young man's version: Two roads divert in the yellow woods And dark the leaves in both. I take the one thats not as traveled To save the other for another day. Even though I will not travel this way again. Hell, he got the idea! I can accept that.
No doubt many of my colleagues have come to similar conclusions about their students -- that acceptance must precede instruction. At any rate, it is a simple prinicple I intend to continue to employ. It does not so much suggest an erosion of standards as it does a modification of approach; it mandates that we discover our students before we can help them reach those standards.