Friday, February 04, 2011

The Control-F Generation

My post yesterday introduced (to my knowledge) a new way of describing this generation of secondary school students: the "Control-F Generation." Sometimes they are called "Generation Why" but I think this is a total misnomer: they are willing to ask "Why do I have to..." or "Why should I..." but the deeper questions that the word Why should point to are often left unasked. Based on my limited observations - after all, I'm not a researcher nor do I have experience of secondary school students beyond my own experiences teaching here at U of D Jesuit - I do think there are certain traits that mark this generation in a remarkable way.

For instance, I find many students demonstrating a near-fixation on getting the answer and then moving on.   Recently, as I sat in my office with some very bright students in an AP English course, I watched one young man go to the computer and begin searching for "the meaning of...". Given an assignment to interpret a particular poem, he had neither the patience nor (apparently) the time for reflecting on the verses before him. He searched for someone's commentary on the poem, hit "Control-F" and found an image that he wanted to focus on, and built his reflection around what "Control-F" had pointed out. Little attention was paid to the surrounding context: he sought an answer sufficient for the narrow question he had posed and, upon finding it, he moved on to a new assignment. Near as I can tell, the beauty of the poem was left very much unappreciated...and why should any more time be spent if the assignment is completed?

On another occasion, I had to prefect the library during a period. Two students in my senior philosophy class were working on an assignment I had given them on the philosopher Descartes. With both horror and bemusement, I watched them pull up a .pdf of Descartes's text and "Control-F" to find all instances of a particular phrase. Not knowing I was standing behind them, one said to the other that, "...if we use a lot of quotes, he won't know we didn't read the text." Poor little lambs...

I do not place the blame squarely on the kids. I think that they are besieged by unimaginable pressures: six to seven courses, homework, co-curricular activities, sports, training, social life, and family obligations. Add to the mix that their ability to focus is compromised by texting, instant messaging, Facebook, Skype, video games, movies-on-demand, and the seductions of the internet and you have young adults who are overwhelmed. In some ways, the "Control-F" approach to life gives them a sense of control: by searching for one thing, and one thing only, they can limit the amount of material they have to sift through. "Control-F" is a powerful tool (I use it frequently in trying to locate particular quotes) but it also threatens to frustrate an essential component of the learning process: the adventure of sifting and navigating through texts and, while doing so, experiencing one's mind and heart being opened by the discoveries made.

As I indicated yesterday, I suspect this "Control-F" phenomena - the ability to search vast reams of information for very specific words and phrases - contributes to an expectation for easy, straightforward answers. The yearning to know that we are all etched by, the deep questions such as "Why is there anything at all? Why is there something rather than nothing?" are questions that do not admit of easily achieved answers. Indeed, such questions lead us to the door of an incomprehensible Mystery that seems to have intimated itself in the very heart of our reason! These, to my mind, are the religious questions that have to be "lived-through" and cannot simply be Googled or Control-F'd. Students who have grown accustomed to finding the right answer, to getting only enough information as needed and no more, risk all the more being frustrated with the less-than-forthcoming nature of a tradition such as Catholicism (which, contrary to appearances, thrives on Mystery. It is, to my mind, the humbling effect of Mystery that keeps believers from turning into terrorists).

Hence the oft-repeated bromide that "I'm spiritual but not religious." If one has been reared in a context where answers are easily accessible and readily available, then any religion (worth its salt) will fail this test as religions do not give easy answers....or, at least, they shouldn't! Nevertheless, the fact that these are people who describe themselves as 'spiritual' should give us hope: they acknowledge in themselves a restlessness that will impel them to continue seeking and exploring. Our goal, as evangelists, should be to engage them and make thematic that religion does not offer simple answers that can be "Control-F'd". If we could do this, if we could make manifest that an ingrained worldview - that we can search and find anything easily - is something of a lie, we might go a long way in addressing the spiritual hunger that seems to gnaw at so many of our young today.
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