Generation on a Tightrope: A Review

I just finished reading Arthur Levine and Diane R Deane's excellent Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Student (Jossey-Bass: 2012), a follow-up of Arthur Levine's earlier works looking at the college students in the 70s (When Dreams and Heroes Died, Jossey-Bass, 1980) and in the 1990s (When Hope and Fear Collide, co-authored with Jeanette S Cureton, Jossey-Bass, 1998). Just like the previous volumes, this is an insightful read, covering institutions across America and exploring the life of American undergraduate students. The most pleasant thing about this, however, is its optimism: It is not one of those books decrying the state of education or the non-engagement of today's graduates. Instead, this talks about the challenges (that today's graduates are less attentive in the classroom, more likely to plagiarise, talks global but would fail to recognise the names of world leaders, etc.) and follow-up with analysis why this may be so and what the institutions do to make education worthwhile. The book represents graduate voice side by side with that of the Administrators and the Faculty, and though the tone of the college administrators may be one of exasperation, the book's broad message is to understand the student aspirations and life realities more closely and a clarion call, as in the previous volumes, to design a better education appropriate for these students.

Though this book covers similar grounds as Howard Gardner and Katie Davis' The App Generation (my review here), and comes to similar conclusions, this piece of research looks into how student behaviour shapes Academics, life outside the classroom, multiculturalism, parent involvement and design of future education offerings. The picture that emerges from both the works is a nuanced one of a 'Digital Native', who is attention poor yet engrossed in a digital tribe, connected with Facebook peers yet awkward with classmates, transfixed with premature identity yet dependent on the parents on more issues than one, concerned about privacy yet somewhat oblivious about appropriateness.

"On average, today's students are the following
  • Digital Natives
  • Weak in face-to-face social skills
  • Tribal in their relationships
  • Immature, needy, timid, protected, and tethered to their parents, who are their heroes
  • Self-absorbed, polite, rule observers, and good with adults
  • Hard hit by recession
  • Pragmatic, Career Oriented, and determined to do well
  • Hard working, but confuse the quantity of the work they do with the quality of the product
  • Consumer oriented and entitled
  • Optimistic about their personal futures
  • Pessimistic about the future of the country
  • Demanding of change
  • Disenchanted with politics and the nation's social institutions
  • Issue oriented rather than ideological
  • Global talkers, green thinkers, and local actors
  • Engaged in service and wanting to do good
  • Little involved in campus life
  • Sexually active but interpersonally awkward
  • Abusers of alcohol and heavy users of psychological counselling services
  • Weak in basic skills and cultural knowledge
  • Lacking in decorum related to technology and understanding of academic rules and values
  • More comfortable with racial, ethnic, and gender differences
  • Desperately committed to American dream

This is the generation which grew up in boom-time yet attended college in the middle of a recession, observes Levine and Dean, and while they are optimistic about their own future, they are gloomy about their country's. The authors acknowledge that this generation will inherit the world at a breakpoint, just as the generation of people growing up in the 1840s perhaps did, and their approach will shape the future in more profound ways than their predecessors. And, indeed, often understated observation of the authors is that today's institutions are mostly failing this generation, as the universities in late-Nineteenth Century or Early Twentieth century, teaching classics in the middle of an industrial expansion, might have done. As in the past, when the gap was filled by For-profits offering vocationally oriented but mostly poor education (such as in Medicine), a similar trend is visible today. 

Levine and Dean make suggestions about what college education should be like for these twenty-first century graduates. These suggestions are common, but put in context of the research, they make a lot of sense - and worth reading in detail by everyone interested in Higher Education. Their suggestions focus on changes in Higher Education in five important areas:

  • "Educate students to live in a time of profound change": The authors suggest a focus on Critical Thinking, Creativity and Continual Learning. These are part of mainstream discussion about Higher Education today, and despite the talk, it is still very hard to understand and implement for many institutions. 
  • "Educate Students for Life in a Digital Society": This may also sound like common sense, but this may involve deep paradigm shifts in education. The authors cite collaboration and sharing, which is common in life in a digital society, yet uncited content sharing is usually seen as plagiarism and individual excellence is preferred over collaborative capability in most academic settings. More importantly, authors explore another area of divergence between the universities and their digital native students: The universities focus on the 'process of education', "exposing students to instruction for a specific length of time, whereas digital natives are more concerned with the outcomes of education, learning, and the mastery of content in the manner of games". The authors also suggest that curriculum must meet the students where they are, and that it makes little sense to tie education to a common process.
  • "Educate Students for Life in a Diverse, Global Society":  The reality of globalisation and multiculturalism may have arrived in the universities later than they should have, but this is perhaps an irreversible process. The students need to be 'socially adept and cross-culturally fluent', and this should sit at the heart of an effective education, contend the authors.
  • "Education for Life in an Evolving Information Economy": The authors suggest a curriculum with an Enriched Major, with cross-disciplinary exposition and focus on application, supplemented by Practical Minors - covering Professional Applications (courses on HR for Psychology majors, authors suggest) - and a 'Career Service on the steroids'. This reflects the emerging consensus about T-Skills, and would surely sound as most appropriate to most employers.
  • "Education for Civic Engagement": And, finally, authors suggest, that an education fit for twenty-first century must seek to do more to augment civic skills, such as Communication, and deep understandings of Human Heritage (intellectual history, religion etc), The Environment, Individual Roles and Values.
Overall, Generation on A Tightrope is an engaging, timely, insightful read, about Higher Education in America. There are indeed significant differences among the countries, and the British undergraduates, only very recently exposed to graduate debts, may have a significantly different view of education (explaining perhaps why students year after year still cite the social experience of the campus their top reason to choose an university). However, this work still presents a significant piece of research, and read alongside the preceding volumes, is a great work of education history of America. On that merit alone, this will be a recommended read for everyone thinking about Higher Education.


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