Monday, February 21, 2011

Dispatches from an Observer of the Control-F Generation

I’ve spent the last several days up on Mackinac Island with a group of four U of D Jesuit seniors and several adults leading a Kairos retreat for a group of students who live here on the island. This has been a great experience as it has given me a chance to know the students and colleagues in a new way and to bring the gifts and graces of Kairos to another group of students.
I’ve been reflecting over the last few weeks on what I’ve dubbed the “Control-F Generation.” The act of naming a generation serves merely to provide a cipher that offers one handle among many as a way of grasping something that is unique to or characteristic of a group. “Control-F” is more descriptive than, say, “Generation X” in that it indicates in its title something observable: the desire to find answers quickly, even at the detriment of feeding or developing one’s intellectual curiosity. The mindset seems to be, “There is too much information out there to get my mind around, so rather than sift through it I want the easy answer, now, so that I can move on with my life.”

If my description is accurate, if I have caught an element of their intellectual and affective lives, this is not meant to be an indictment. Observing students and being attentive to media reports, it does seem to me that there is a premium placed on “getting the right answers” rather than asking or framing the right questions. The emphasis placed on standardized tests has only served to bolster the belief that our intellectual prowess and ability is measured by a series of dots that get bubbled in: I frequently hear students comparing their ACT and SAT scores, using those rather than other benchmarks as an indicator of student preparedness for collegiate studies and success.

So if “Control-F” captures something true, then it should give us a sense of how to reach our students. Each student is a ‘becoming’ and is in process, growing and maturing in an environment and culture they did not choose but one which they must negotiate. Knowing something about their culture certainly does not foreclose conversation; it gives us, rather, us a point of departure.

As a Catholic educator, one thing I think must be addressed is how our students find information about the Church. With due deference to the ministries already present on-line, I find that many of the “Catholic Answer” sites are more polemical and strident than is necessary. While they do provide quick answers, they do so without introducing any of the inherent ambiguity that pedagogical practice would at least reference. One thing that I would like to see the Society of Jesus do is aggregate its resources into a network that would provide a site where seekers could come to find orthodox-yet-affirming responses to the questions of the human heart.

When a young person does an internet search for a controversial topic, I would love for them to find a site where they encounter the living tradition in a way that empowers and encourages further pursuit. Just as I find it helpful when authors provide guiding questions for readers, I would find it helpful to have resources that provide the Church’s teachings and approaches in a way that both satisfies initial curiosity and encourages further inquiry.

What is necessary is sort of a branching approach: the seeker’s first question should be networked with other commonly asked questions so as to draw the inquirer into the broader system of questions. That is to say that if I search for “Abortion Catholic Church” I find a site that provides the clear and consistent teaching of the Catholic Church in an accessible manner and then provides other questions that might raise the seeker’s awareness of the issues that makes abortion even a thinkable solution. Rather than let a single answer satisfy curiosity, we would have sites that work to increase the intellectual hunger and curiosity of the seeker.

For the Control-F Generation, we cannot simply assume that they will read long blocks of text (like this blog!). We must, rather, find creative ways to intercept them as they roam and search and begin to feed them. I feel like we have a generation of people who don’t even know how hungry they are for truly nourishing food: as the crisis of obesity balloons as our diet moves toward high-calories-low-nutrient food, so our spiritual crisis is growing with easily-accessible-hardly-stimulating answers. Should the Catholic Church wish to find ways to retain an entire generation of seekers, it will need to do so by convincing them that there are subsisting on an insufficient diet. They can have the occasional soda but need to eat their vegetables and exercise!

As I conclude this post, maybe what we need now more than ever is a series of adapted Spiritual Exercises (P-90 SpEx???) that provide intellectual nourishment mind and the cardio that is needed. That is, we need something that will fill the mind and tax the body, engaging both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the human life, in a way that will help people grow their faith lives.

Just as no parent would be content to let a child live off of candy, so too must we in Catholic education (parents, teachers, and all the faithful) find creative and innovative ways to engage our youth. Although they manifest a strong preference for easy answers – instantly satisfying yet without much nutritional content, leaving them empty and fat – we need to reach out to them in a way that is affirming yet challenging. While I would love to be wrong on all counts, I fear that my intuition and observation is fairly accurate. The crisis of faith we see today can be addressed and counteracted, of this I am confident, but we can do so only if we begin to think proactively and creatively now.

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