Friday, June 20, 2008

Kids Nowadays

I've just returned from Florida where, along with several hundred other English teachers, I helped to score the approximately 900,000 Advanced Placement test essays taken this year by high school juniors. I had the unusual privilege of working on two questions this year--the vast majority of "readers" (as we are called) have to see the same essay for seven consecutive days. One of the essays I was assigned is top secret; it was given to students who missed the regular test for whatever reason, and the testing service wants to leave the option open of using it again in the future. After we finished those essays, I moved to reading a question about the use of advertising and corporate influence in schools. While there were certainly some terrific essays exploring the complexity of the issue, there were many others where students, bereft of anything substantial to say about the issue, were forced to contrive arguments. One of my favorites included the notion that if corporate logos weren't displayed in high school gyms, athletes would be unprepared to cope with them when they made the pros. Also, while I know that violence is a real problem in some schools, I'm skeptical of the argument made by one student that people could end up getting shot because their school is sponsored by a corporation rival to an assailant's school's corporate sponsor.

I'm certain that these essays, though perhaps only partially reflective of the actual beliefs of America's teen-agers, offer a lot of sociological and anthropological insight. The corporations they named, the celebrities they cited, and the books they shoehorned into the discussion all present a picture of what is foremost in their minds, what they are being influenced by. As many of them told me repeatedly, teen-agers are "bombarded by media," so what emerges and sticks from that bombardment is noteworthy.

However, as I had a job to do in reading and scoring the essays, I didn't have the ability to be very reflective about these issues. What I couldn't help but notice, though, was the re-occurrence of certain phrases and language patterns. I will list some of them here, along with a brief interpretation of what I think they mean:

"Nowadays": I've discussed this phenomenon before on this very blog last week. Our culture inculcates in the young the notion that things are different (and usually worse) than they used to be. These essays were evidence of the effectiveness of this inculcation.

"Slowly" or "Slowly but surely": This adverb is certainly subtle, but once I picked up on it, I noticed it over and over again. To the American teen-ager, nothing happens rapidly. Everything is a gradual process. I can't say that this is necessarily a bad idea to possess, and its probably more true than the alternative, but I wonder where it comes from. Perhaps when you are only cognizant of less than a ten year time period (most of these kids would have only vague memories of the Clinton administration), even something that occurs relatively quickly seems gradual.

"Win-win situation": This phrase was used absurdly often to describe the process by which a school and corporation can both benefit from a partnership. Perhaps it speaks well to the influence of Sesame Street. When I was a kid I watched that show religiously and therefore to me "co-operation" was the greatest of all virtues. Slightly more advanced students would use the term "mutually beneficial," while those who sought to impress used the word "mutualistic." Some of the more scientific minded discussed "symbiotic" relationships, while the more cynical regarded them as "parasitic."

"The pros outweigh the cons" or vice-versa: Since the question asked students to evaluate "pros" and "cons," then to choose a side that is more convincing, it isn't surprising that this phrase kept showing up over and over again. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

"So be it.": This was a phrase commonly used when the student felt that the pros of corporate involvement in schools outweighed the cons. An example: "If students have to be subjected to advertising in order to get a new computer lab, so be it." The authoritative tone of this phrase makes me a little nervous. It sounds like a pronouncement of a monarch or even of a divinity. I would be curious to see a longitudinal study of teen-agers speech patterns and find out if previous generations had such certitude of assertion, or whether it is unique to young people nowadays. Perhaps it was a change that took place slowly over time. I'm sure finding that information out would be a win-win situation, but I'm afraid that for me the cons of reading another few hundred essays outweigh the pros.


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