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From the Medieval to the Millennials | Professor Mondo

August 14th, 2010 3 Comments » Filed under Acknowledgement

The folks at the Pope Center have provided the platform for Azusa Pacific medievalist Sarah Adams to make a case for the continuing relevance of the liberal arts curriculum. As teachers, we’re professional rhetors, and every good rhetor knows the value of understanding the audience — knowing audiences have their own values and purposes.

Here at Mondoville, my audience is made up primarily of traditional students. Generationally speaking, they’ve been dubbed the Millennials, a grouping of folks born from 1982 to 2000, a group that therefore also includes the Spawn of Mondo. Now every generation loves to decry the perceived flaws of its successors, and the Millennials are already coming in for their slating. Adams observes:

These are the “narcissists” according to San Diego State professor Jean Twenge and the “dumbest generation” according to Emory professor Mark Bauerlein. They are the children who played soccer without scores because scoring would make the losers feel bad and who received trophies simply for participating.

[…]As a Generation X-er myself, I was initially baffled when my students would protest a poor grade on the grounds that “I really, really tried.” More than one of my colleagues confirms that Millennials read “correction” as “personal rejection.”  They are hurt and confused by poor grades rather than challenged.

At the same time, these kids seem to “make life choices based on what will ‘help them to lead more purposeful and meaningful lives.’” It is here that our current system fails them, according to Adams:

[The job-skill based educational] model fails millennial students on two levels. First, they find it impersonal, bereft of the internal meaning and personal satisfaction that drives them. Second, it doesn’t actually prepare students for the real world. Employers have complained for over a decade that college graduates lack basic logic and communication skills. They also lack the ability to see connections between different areas of knowledge, perceptions that are necessary for innovative thinking.

Ironic as it may seem, the truly ancient view of the liberal arts may speak best and most deeply to the Millennials.

Now I’m not entirely sure how many of my students realize all this when they get to Mondoville. I’ve spoken before of the fact that many of my students are first-generation and view higher ed as a means to a stable career — a perfectly honorable goal. But while part of my job is to show them how and why the stuff I talk about matters in ways beyond the immediately utilitarian, Adams (like a good medievalist) uses the liberal arts as a scheme of meeting the Millennial desire for the Meaningful:

The first three disciplines, the Trivium, all deal with linguistic mastery because language allows vague impressions to be processed, articulated and communicated as complex ideas. Thus meaning cannot be accessed or shared without language. Grammar covers language’s mechanics, how to translate ideas into coherent words. Rhetoric deals with style, or the ability to make words eloquent and moving. And Dialectic is logic, the ability to parse competing claims and ideas so that eloquent rhetoric cannot hide poor ideas. The Trivium makes communication foundational to the process of finding meaning.

The Quadrivium is also grounded in the search for meaning. Though it divides the physical world into distinct subjects, each subject asks “Why is this information significant? What does it say about my role in the universe?”

These are the elements of an understanding that matters and an understanding of why it matters. It’s worth considering, and kudos to Prof. Adams for her eloquent rationale.

H/T: Phi Beta Cons

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