Book report: “The Mindset List”




“What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?” — Plato, 4th Century BCE


I ran across this book of lists during my research on college expenses, and I wish I’d read it before our daughter was in high school.

The original “Mindset List” was launched by an informal faculty & staff group at Beloit College in 1998. Several faculty were bemoaning how “out of touch” their freshman students had become over the years, and how little appreciation they had for American history & culture. It looked as though the Internet generation had more bandwidth than any other time in history, yet less awareness than any other time in history. Professional Baby Boomers educators everywhere despaired that they’d be able to show these youngsters what was important in life and modern culture.

That first list explained what had “always” or “never” been true for students born in 1980, who turned 18 in 1998, and who would graduate in the third millennium. It tried to show that these students had just begun their lifetimes of serious learning and could only be reached by appreciating what little life experience they already had. When it was posted on Beloit’s website, it shot to the top of the college’s most-visited list. Now on its own server, the Mindset List is updated every year and gets over a million hits a year.

During their lifetime, the class of 2002 had never had a polio shot and probably didn’t know what it was. Sony Walkmans had “always” existed, as had personal computers and CDs. Elvis Presley has always been dead, along with eight-track cassette players and “dial” telephones.

It turns out that the students were doing just fine, thank you. It was the professors who were out of touch with modern American culture. The students had never studied late-20th-century sociological trends and events because they didn’t see how those had any relevance to their personal lives.




The website is great for a pleasurable hour or two, but the book digs deeper: all the way back to 1898. Education was a little different back then, and only one out of 400 (mostly white upperclass males) would have actually gone to college. Back then it was “normal” to leave school after eighth grade to start a career, and only about 10% graduated from the new “high” schools. (Especially out West, high schools were only common in big cities with a reasonably short commute– by carriage or by foot.) Civil War veterans were everywhere when this generation was born in 1880, and a few veterans of the War of 1812 were still around. High-tech advances produced better brakes (which meant that trains could go faster) and telephones. This generation was accustomed to tech because phonographs and lightbulbs had always existed, although not necessarily in their houses. They also worried that the Wild West would be domesticated before they were able to go there to make their fortune.

Each chapter spends 20-30 pages covering that generation’s attitudes and experiences with burgeoning equality in race, gender, and religion (all three still have a long way to go) along with sociological and technological trends. The book covers the high-school classes of 1918, ’31, ’44, ’57, ’70, ’83, ’96, 2009… and 2026.

Our daughter graduated high school in 2010, so we’re all too familiar with her blissful ignorance lack of appreciation for our version of “history”. She always marveled at our corded telephone (for hurricane readiness) and was skeptical about our stories of Grandma & Grandpa owning one that you could “dial”.  She was one of the last kids in our neighborhood to ride a car where you could “roll up” a window. She’s never seen the point of driving a standard transmission (although she’s managed to operate one). Her library never had a “card catalog” but she grew up with Harry Potter. The Cold War has always been over and Sesame Street has always existed. TV shows were constantly mangling the rock&roll ballads that we parents felt were so important to our lives, so we homeschooled her on “AP Classic Rock”. (It’s amazing what curriculum you can find from YouTube videos of our favorite late-night TV shows.) She actually had to buy her own cell phone to demonstrate to her clueless parents that all the fuss was worth the expense, and she was absolutely right.

Wait until our daughter has to work with the class of 2026: they’ve never needed a key for anything. They’ve never used a folded roadmap, a printed telephone directory, or a paper check. Mobile wallets are taking over for credit cards, photo IDs, dollar “bills”, and coins. They’ll never understand how many people it takes to change a lightbulb– why would anyone need to do that? And why would they need to use a “light switch” anyway?

Some mindsets haven’t changed: every generation has always been preoccupied with its own lives, obsessed about their own version of the present, and mostly indifferent to the past. Change is also insulting: readers of the Mindset List who are only in their mid-20s report that they suddenly feel old when the latest version is posted. They have to hang up their membership in the “young & cool” club and start trudging down the road to history. But before they get too much further on that journey, they’re seriously going to Google this Plato guy, whenever the 4th century BCE was– and this time they really mean it. Maybe he can tell them what to do with these clueless kids.

As usual with these book reports, you should be able to find The Mindset List at your local library.


Related articles:
Book review: You’re On Your Own
Book review: 1001 Things to Love About Military Life
Book review: Eric Tyson’s “Personal Finance in Your 20s For Dummies”

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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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1 Response to Book report: “The Mindset List”

  1. Doug Nordman says:

    Just got a note from the author– very cool!

    Name: Tom McBride
    Email: mcbridet [at] beloit [dot] edu (not dot com)
    Comment: Thanks ever so much for your review of our book, THE MINDSET LISTS OF AMERICAN HISTORY! If any of your visitors would like an autographed bookplate, free of course, just have them get in touch with me.
    Best, Tom McBride (and Ron Nief)
    Time: Tuesday April 3, 2012 at 6:48 am

    I wish I’d thought of doing this for “The Military Guide”!

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