The latest version of the Beloit Mindset List has been released and it looks like it’s once again a “compendium of trivia, stereotypes and lazy generalizations.” My faint hope that sociologist Charles Westerberg would bring evidence to bear on the list has not been realized.
Last fall Professor Angry and I were contacted by Zach Brooke from the American Marketing Association, who wanted us to unmask ourselves to comment on the Mindset List for an online piece he was writing. We declined. The piece was published in November as “The Mindset List is Taking Marketers Inside the Minds of Future Generations.”
Here is the first two paragraphs:
Each year, brand executives from all over the globe pore over a simple collection of facts compiled by a trio of researchers at a small Midwestern liberal arts college. Their work, known as the Mindset List, has been incorporated into sales presentations and customer relations policies.
It’s a map for marketers, which can capture the precise moment the recent past becomes the distant past, and suggest a path toward the future.
I can believe the part about the BML being incorporated into sales presentations because its brand of fact-free hokum seems like a good match for the advertising industry. But does anyone in marketing take the BML seriously? Don’t they the skills needed to look up when things happened in relation to when people were born? Brooke provides no evidence that anyone in marketing finds the list useful so perhaps this introduction is just more marketing puffery.
The article repeats many of the familiar canards about the BML. One of the things I didn’t know (or had forgotten) is that “In the past, the authors have helped put together specific Mindset Lists for African-Americans, Mumbaikars, New Zealanders and Jamaicans.” I have yet to find those online, but if anyone has a copy of any of these, please send them our way.
Beloit Mindlessness is described by Brooke as coming “via WordPress” as though our use of a popular content management system bears on our arguments. I don’t know what to make of that. Is there a more authoritative software package we should adopt?
McBride’s response to criticism, as we’re heard before, is that “the list was never intended to be anything beyond a conversation starter,” which essentially undercuts all the highfalutin claims earlier in the article about its precision.
In anticipation of the new Mindset List being unveiled Tuesday, I thought I’d look over some of the stuff the Mindset gang has put out since last August. While Ron Nief and Charles Westerberg apparently have other things going on, Tom McBride seems committed to sharing all of his half-baked thoughts with the world. A quick round-up of items by McBride:
- Mindset lists for Baby Boomers and Generation X, both of which have the same low quality and lack of insight as the annual lists.
- A bizarre screed titled “Is The Mindset List a White Colonial Plot Against Yoko Ono?” It has to be read to be believed. Apparently, a student in a class on “Critical Identity Studies” at a “liberal arts college” (Beloit?) made a poster critiquing this BML item: “A significant other who is a bit ‘too Yoko Ono’ has always created tension.” McBride accuses the poor student of “McCarthysim” and “guilt-by-association,” and calls the poster “defective, anti-intellectual work—an effort of sophomoric propaganda.”
- A history of sex titled The Great American Lay. Clearly McBride is up on the latest slang.
- Weird, fact-free video rants (each posted at least twice on the BML Facebook page). In the strangest, titled “American society is meaningless. Thank God!”, McBride claims that in “modern societies” “we are largely disease-free and pain-free”(!) and, thus, “meaningless.” “Meaningless societies are generally successful societies,” he declares.
I’m sure the Internet is filled with low-quality social analysis along these lines, but it’s sad that McBride couldn’t have used ownership of the Mindset List to produce something more worthwhile.
Presidents have always been denied line item veto power. (Class of 2020, #44)
This complete failure of an item checks the usual sad Mindset List boxes:
1. It refers to something that happened roughly 18 years ago.
2. Very few 18-year-olds are aware of it.
3. It has nothing to do with their “mindset.”
4. The item suggests some important change in society—but only if you’re as ignorant of the topic as the Mindset gang is. (Presidents in the U.S. have never had the line-item veto power—although they seemed to have it between Congress passing the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 and the Supreme Court striking it down in 1998.)
5. It’s not even something that will make its readers feel old because it isn’t a noteworthy historical event.
The Class of 2020 Beloit Mindset List is out and, as usual, it’s awful. And as usual, we’ll be discussing items on the list and media reaction to it.
One quick observation: Although President Obama’s presidency has been tremendously consequential for the Class of 2020—he’s been president for almost half their lives—and it is almost over, the Mindset List still can’t bring itself to mention him. This is because of the list’s guiding assumption, which I have written about before:
Each year’s list is constructed—and this point bears repeating over and over—by a couple guys going to a library and looking at microfiche of things that happened 18 years earlier.
Clearly this makes absolutely no sense. A person’s “mindset”—their understanding of how the world works, their values and interests, and so on—tends to be shaped by things that happened to them once they developed an understanding of their social environment more sophisticated than a newborn’s. Things that happened ten or five or even one year earlier are going to be far more important to an 18-year-old than things than happened 18 years ago.
So Barack Obama has been mentioned only for something that happened before he was elected:
They were born the year Harvard Law Review Editor Barack Obama announced he might run for office some day. (Class of 2011, #17)
I call this the “9-11 problem” since it also applies to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, another tremendously consequential event that the Mindset List that didn’t mention until its Class of 2018 list, possibly in response to our criticism.
To the best of my knowledge, the BML has never mentioned the country electing an African-American President, the First Family, Obamacare or any other of the President’s other policies, or any of the cultural ramifications of his presidency.
It’s completely bizarre, but completely predictable given the list’s ridiculous guiding assumption.
On the eve of the release of the Class of 2020 Beloit Mindset List, I’m publishing this open letter to Charles Westerberg, sociologist and newest member of the BML team, urging him to start basing the List on the best available evidence rather than continuing to just make it up.
As committed as I am to the destruction of the Beloit Mindset List, I was pleased to see that as Ron Neif and Tom McBride contemplate their retirement, they are choosing as their apparent successor a sociologist.
We have a lot in common, you and I, Beloit Mindset List disciple and Beloit Mindset List detractor. We’re sociologists who earned our Ph.Ds. at roughly the same time and region of the country. As sociologists, we are both committed to making accurate statements about the social world based on the best available evidence. That’s what led me to my campaign against the Mindset List.
As you must know—even if you can’t admit it to Messrs. Neif and McBride—the BML’s claims about undergraduates are based on little or no evidence. The list is a “poorly written compendium of trivia, stereotypes and lazy generalizations, insulting to both students and their professors, and based on nothing more than the uninformed speculation of its authors” (to quote our purpose statement).
But bringing a sociologist aboard suggests that there is yet hope that the Beloit Mindset List could become something better—something that could be useful for someone wanting to understand matriculating college students.
I offer to you the following suggestions (building on an earlier post) about how you could do this:
1. Collect data from incoming Beloit College freshman. Instead of just making up what movies, books, celebrities, and so on that entering college freshman care about, send a survey to incoming Beloit freshman and ask them. You can also test all your hypotheses about what the class knows and doesn’t know, has and hasn’t done.
2. “Crowd source” all or part of the list to Beloit College freshman. After a student is accepted at Beloit, they could be sent a password to a Mindset List forum. The students could propose items to the list and other students could vote them up or down in conjunction with lively online debate. It would be a great perk to attending Beloit and would produce a list that, whatever its flaws might be, would actually be produced by the people it claims to be speaking about.
3. Involve Beloit College students in researching the list. As part of a research methods class or special seminar, current Beloit students could conduct the research used to produce the list: learning about events that took place 18 years ago, designing a survey, building the on-line forum, reading social science research, and so on. Turning the list into a class project could move it in new and interesting directions.
In your forward to the latest Mindset book, The Millennial Promise, you report the following:
In the spring of 2015 I had the chance to teach the capstone course for graduating seniors in my home discipline of Sociology. In it, I used the Mindset List as a way to talk about what a liberal arts education could be. One of the things I found surprising was that some students resented the List. The chief gripe was that they felt as though the List was reductive of them as a group and provided them with no individual history or story.
This surprised you? I’m surprised that any of your students didn’t resent the list since one of its central features is that it portrays college students as solipsistic idiots. Incorporating students into the creation of the list, in any or all of the three ways I suggest here, would go a long way toward producing a Mindset List that might result in some sort of self-knowledge or self-reflection by college students, rather than completely deserved resentment.
4. Form an advisory panel of experts on college freshmen. Plenty of social scientists, journalists and others have expertise on young adults. The Higher Education Research Institute has been surveying college freshman for decades. The Pew Research Center has been conducting research on Millennials. Many of the publications from the National Study of Youth and Religion, like Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, are relevant to understanding college students. Books are regularly published on college students, like Paying for the Party. The Beloit Mindset List could assemble a panel of experts and draw on their knowledge and feedback to create a better publication.
5. Change the format of the list to allow for different types of information, making clear the evidence used to produce each. Instead of just a list of items, think about creating a two- or three-page colorful document (available online as a pdf) with different sections. Some people apparently enjoy the “stuff that happened before college students were born” items. You can keep those, but drop the “always”/“never” language and give them their own section. Have another section reporting college students’ favorite movies, books, etc. drawn from your Beloit entering freshmen. Another section could contain simplified findings from the latest research on young people. Other sections could be developed by your incoming students, BML undergraduate seminar and/or expert advisory panel. This sort of publication would allow you to include the evidence for each of your claims about entering freshman.
(The list already seems to be stumbling in this direction. Last year’s list included (1) the introductory essay with your thoughts about “difficult discussions about privilege, race, and sexual assault,” (2) the list itself, (3) a dreadful appendix attempting to translate youth slang, and (4) the discussion guide.)
6. Have someone else look at the list before it’s published. Year after year the Mindset List includes factual inaccuracies, items that make no sense, horrible jokes, and confusing writing. Let some college students read it over and let you know what parts don’t make sense to them. Have someone do some fact checking. Give a professional editor or someone from your campus writing center a chance to clean up the writing.
I’m by no means convinced that the Beloit Mindset List shouldn’t be destroyed, but if it does survive, it could be much better. And you can make it better.
Maybe I’m completely wrong here. Maybe you’ve already “drunk the Kool-Aid,” to use an expression nobody from the Class of 2000 through the present would understand.
Here’s another passage from your introduction to The Millennial Promise:
The List… urges that in investigating change we need to practice and perfect the skills of curiosity, inquiry, evidence-collecting, and argument….
If that is what you think the Beloit Mindset List is doing now, you may be a lost cause, no different than the List’s founders, who think their evidence-free pronouncements are providing some service to their readers. But if that statement is your vision for what the List could be, then there is still some hope—slim though it may be—for the future of the Beloit Mindset List.
— Disgruntled Prof
This year’s college class was born when Bill Clinton was President of the United States and now Hillary Clinton is running for President! Donald Trump was around back then too! You have to imagine that the Beloit Mindset List is going to go nuts about that.
Judging by stuff the BML gang posts on their Facebook page and the table of contents of their new book, we should also expect lecturing on topics like “Millennials face a growing isolation of ideas and opinions” and “for Millennials the rise of women in positions of leadership has always been ‘normal.’” The blue dress and the death of Florence Griffith Joyner should be there. Maybe Tom McBride’s new roman à clef—about two professors at “Veloit College”—will somehow make an appearance.
Each August since 1998, Beloit College has released the Beloit College Mindset List and, sadly, we expect another one soon. Our Beloit Mindlessness List is created using the same method: Without any assistance from or knowledge about anyone in the Class of 2020, we wrote a list about a bunch of things that happened roughly 18 years ago with some additional items based on lazy stereotypes and trivia of interest to us. Nobody checked it for accuracy or comprehensibility.
The Beloit Mindlessness List for the Class of 2020
For this generation of entering college students, born in 1998, Henny Youngman, Frank Sinatra and Seinfeld have never existed. In fact, the universe might as well have gotten underway in 1997. These freshman are unable to conceive of anything occurring before they were born.
1. They should look around their freshman orientation for the McCaughey septuplets, the Chukwu octuplets and Prince Constantine Alexios of Greece and Denmark.
2. They’ve never used a mouldboard plough.
3. Bill Clinton has always not been having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.
4. Their crib ran on Windows 98.
5. In high school they divided themselves into hipsters, goths, and bronies, not hippies, flappers, and homesteaders.
6. Their parents read them the board book version of The Starr Report.
7. Home run record asterisk has always referred to steroids, not “162 game season.”
8. Sonny Bono is the namesake of the Copyright Term Extension Act. Cher is a singer whose voice needs auto-tuning. What is “I Got You Babe”?
9. They’ve grown up with SpongeBob SquarePants, not Fibber McGee and Molly.
10. Michael Jordon has always been a Washington Wizard. Who are the Chicago Bulls?
11. The 1998 Klang Valley water crisis, the Malaysia–Singapore Second Link, and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport have always been things (Malaysian students only; these things don’t exist for American students).
12. Remember that crazy thing that happened to you when you were in high school back in the 1980s? If you use that as a classroom example, be sure to provide some context for the class of 1998, none of whom were there when it went down.
13. They’ve been catching Pokémon their whole life, but they’ve never had photosensitive epileptic seizures (or ポケモンショック) doing it.
14. They’ve always been thinking “different” and “outside the bun.”
15. Razors have always had three blades, never two or one.
16. They’ve always been listening to mp3s, never phonograph cylinders.
17. They’ve never spoken Mlaḥsô or Bijil Neo-Aramaic.
18. They have completely different memories than you do.
19. The Baltimore Ravens have always played in Ravens Stadium at Camden Yards/PSINet Stadium/M&T Bank Stadium. What’s Memorial Stadium?
20. They’ve never had to worry about whether to have Jack Kevorkian help end their lives.
21. Tinder is an online dating app, not flammable material used for lighting a fire.
— Aug. 14, 2016
Kudos to The Onion’s “A Look At The Class Of 2019,” which effectively sends up the Mindset List.
Some of my favorite items:
- Most were only 12 years old when 2009 happened
- They have never known a time when the majestic woolly mammoth roamed the Great Plains
- Chalkboards, paper books, and VHS tapes are all items they’ve been told they don’t remember or recognize
- Do not personally know anyone who perished in the Y2K disaster
- More or less indistinguishable from the class of 2018
Last year I noted that “almost nobody cares much about the list anymore,” but my summary of commentary on the Mindset List still included eight articles. This year I hadn’t seen anything worth mentioning until Vox.com published this article by Libby Nelson. While conceding that the list does succeed in making people feel old, Nelson calls it a “missed opportunity”:
College campuses are filled with faculty and administrators who seemingly don’t understand 18-year-olds these days, what with their Snapchat and their trigger warnings and their inability to date. If the list actually tried to explain students’ mindset, explain how communication has shifted, or even demonstrate that 18-year-olds, in many important ways, haven’t changed all that much, it would be performing a service.
But it doesn’t.…
The Mindset List assumes that 18-year-olds managed to graduate high school and get into college while remaining unaware of concepts like “history” or “progress,” certain that nothing of import happened before they were born and that life has always been exactly the way it is today. It gives exactly one insight into how college freshmen think, the same insight it offers every year: These people were not alive all the time that you have been alive, and they might not remember things that you remember!
And in doing so, rather than helping students and professors connect, it puts even more distance between them. The list reminds faculty that they are old and out of touch, and that their students are young and with it. It reinforces the idea that the pop culture that matters is the pop culture of a generation ago or more, not whatever 18-year-olds are watching and discussing and creating. It defines a generation by how they relate to the past, not how they’re shaping the present.
Nelson categorizes the items on the list into three categories: “possibly useful information that could come up in class,” “pop culture anniversaries,” and “factoids.” (My eightfold classification is here.)
Given that Vox.com “updates” and re-runs the same stories over and over, I look forward to re-reading Nelson’s story every August until the Mindset List is finally put out of its misery.
They have never licked a postage stamp. (Class of 2019, #3)
Maybe the Beloit College Mindset List can use this item again for the class of 2037 List because the year that the U.S. Post Office announced its plan to discontinue lick-and-stick stamps is 2015.
According to Linn’s Stamp News & Insight, the Postal Service has been experimenting with self-adhesive stamps since 1974 (a couple decades before the birth of the class of 2019) and most stamps have been self-adhesive starting in 2002 so it’s unclear what stamp-related event attracted the attention to the Mindset List gang.
If you have a preference for lickable stamps, they will be available from your local Post Office while supplies last.