Sign of the generation gap: Profs try watch historical references

TURLOCK -- This year's college freshmen might know very little, if anything, about the Berlin Wall or Nelson Mandela's fight for equality, unlike older people who experienced these events as they happened.

As 8,600 students at California State University, Stanislaus, started the school year Wednesday, they were sometimes reminded of a generation gap with their professors. Most of today's college students were born and raised in a post-Cold War climate.

As professors age, students entering college remain the same age.

"The longer I'm here, the younger they are," said Walter Doraz, 65, sociology professor at Stanislaus State who studies aging. "I was in the military from 1963 to 1967. (My students) weren't even born. They look at me like I'm something out of the Neanderthal period."

The gap can manifest itself in the classroom when professors are trying to relate concepts to students using dated references or examples.

Wisconsin's Beloit College Mindset List tries to bridge the gap by illustrating the world view of 18-year-olds to older generations. This year's freshmen, for the most part, were born in 1989. In general, they were introduced to actor Jack Nicholson as "The Joker"; drove their parents crazy with the Beavis and Butt-head laugh; and were too young to remember seeing Johnny Carson live on TV, according to the list.

Springer, yes; Mandela, no

Stanislaus State freshman Hugo Garcia, 18, recognized talk show host Jerry Springer but not South African civil rights activist Nelson Mandela. Waiting to attend his first class at the university Wednesday, Garcia said he noticed a generation gap with his high school teachers.

While he remembers blank stares on his face and those of his classmates, Garcia said they understood his teachers' messages most of the time.

Sociology sophomore Reyna Navarrete, 19, said she and many of her friends have had to ask professors for clarification on certain references.

"(Professors) have lots of years of experience, but sometimes they don't know how to communicate with a lot of new students who come in," she said.

Stanislaus State student leaders have tried to address the generation gap by holding forums with students and professors. Coming up this month is "America's Borders and Barriers -- Who are the 'Real' Disenfranchised?"

The goal of such discussions and the Mindset List is to bring students and professors closer together and maximize learning.

"Professors shouldn't assume their students know these historical references," said Andrew Janz, student body president who's pursuing a master's in public policy. "We recognize it. It's not a problem, but it is something that exists."

On the Net: www.beloit.edu/~pubaff/mindset

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.