Generation on a Tightrope

19 Aug

I have recently purchased the book, Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student by Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean, 2012 (it’s part of the Jossey-Bass Higher Education Series).  I bought it in hardback, new.  That’s how much I liked it.

It is the best book I’ve discovered in enabling a clearer understanding of today’s college students.

I’ve read a fair amount in this area over my 35-year run as a campus pastor.  But no book tells it like it is as this one.  I believe it should be required reading for all campus pastors and other leaders in higher education before they hit the ground running.  But it will help even seasoned professionals and “newbies” (first three years) already in the field:  never too late to learn.

Levine was a recent past president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and a professor of education. He was also a lecturer in the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Currently he resides at Princeton University.  Diane R. Dean is Associate Professor for Higher Education at Illinois University.

What I found most fascinating is the authors’ critique of today’s college students in addition to their strengths.  He coins a new word to describe them:  diphobic.  It means “fear of not having a digital device.”  If you have ever wandered across a campus lately, you know what they mean.  Many students are texting as they walk, heads down, busily scrolling through their e-mail or seeing what their friends are posting (photos especially) on Facebook.  According to the authors’ surveys (which encompassed 31 colleges), this is what these students feel is the most influential factor in shaping their lives ~ not 9/11 or even the economy/jobmarket (this was #2).  They are “digital natives” in a university shaped by the “old world” of blackboards and lectures.  They are right at home with this newer emerging technology.

The authors’ major conclusions are isolated in pps. xii – xvii for an easy read.  For more depth, complete with footnotes and statistical tables, you can dig into the chapters that follow.

One conclusion that pivoted me around was that these students (2006-2011) are more diverse and connected yet also more isolated.  While they have the latest skills and devices for keeping in touch with what their friends are saying or doing, these same students are “weak in interpersonal skills, face-to-face communication skills, and problem-solving skills.”  This is a “red flag for parents, schools, colleges and employers” ~ and for these young leaders in our future wider world.

Perhaps the most devastating finding was that today’s students are “more immature, dependent, coddled, and entitled” than previous generations.  I’m sure students will bristle at this assertion.  But the authors offer examples to buttress their contention and conclusion.  Their parents are described as helicopter parents who descend upon deans and demand preferences for their offspring.  Their kids are over-protected and have not been allowed to “scrape their knees” in this rough-and-tumble world.

In fairness, today’s college students come with a variety of gifts.  They expect change and, unlike their forebears, do not resist but welcome it.  Their world is changing rapidly and many seem eager to take up the challenge.  Yet the plentiful jobs their parents’ world enjoyed is no longer present for them.  Their expectations may be outrunning reality.  [A side-note:  a pastor friend of mine cannot find an opening for fulltime ministry with churches shrinking and closing rather than new missions proliferating as they did in previous generations like mine].  They want jobs but are now in an increasing competition to get them.

There is much more in this perceptive book.  I hope I have touched on enough to entice you to read it and even buy it.

Paul WalleyPaul Walley
New Paltz, New York
Parttime Pastor ~ St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church, West Camp, NY
Formerly Ecumenical Campus Pastor at SUNY New Paltz (retired 2007)
and most recently past president of NCMA


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