Richard who?

In a bid to bridge the generation gap between new students and academics, an American professor devised a list of cultural reference points on incoming students. Jon Marcus reports

September 6, 2009

Tom McBride used to cite the similarities between Richard Nixon and Richard III as a way of making Shakespeare’s plays seem more current to the students in the English literature course he teaches at Beloit College, a small liberal-arts school in Wisconsin. But after a while, he realised these references were having the opposite effect.

If they knew Watergate at all, Dr McBride’s students remembered the Washington office and apartment complex not as the site of the bungled break-in that resulted in Mr Nixon’s downfall in the 1970s, but as the place where Bill Clinton’s presidential intern Monica Lewinsky lived in the 1990s. And even that memory is a bit of a stretch for a generation that was only nine years old when Mr Clinton left office.

This realisation, and others, inspired Dr McBride to create what has become a wildly popular annual guide for fellow university faculty. It explains the historic and pop-cultural references their students are, and are not, likely to grasp.

“If you have to explain every cultural reference and it still remains abstract, it’s no longer an effective teaching tool,” he said.

Dr McBride’s list points out that to students beginning their university courses this month, for example, the European Union has always existed, while the Soviet Union never has. Freddie Mercury and Pan American Airlines have always been dead. Tattoos have always been trendy. Official racial classifications in South Africa have always been outlawed. Northern Ireland has always been relatively peaceful. Televisions have always had flat screens.

News of the list’s relevance has travelled, and the military has asked to use it to help senior officers better relate to newly enlisted men. Clergy who work with young people have also expressed interest and a book is even in the works.

Dr McBride has a collaborator in his project, dubbed the Mindset List: Ron Nief, Beloit’s emeritus director of public affairs, who spends each summer reading newspaper clippings from the era in which arriving students were born. The principal means of research, however, Mr Nief said, is “the research of the blank stare” – the looks of confusion on students’ faces at the mention of a reference they don’t understand.

“Many lecturers are taken aback by the scale of the generation gap,” he said, joking: “We like making them feel old.”

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