By Tom Pepper
Anyone involved in higher education has likely heard the call for a new pedagogy, one better suited to the iGen students reaching college in recent years. For those not involved in education, or perhaps not in America: iGen refers to the generation that has grown up with the internet, with social media, and with smartphones in their hands. They have never experienced a time when video was not streamed, when they communicated in some way other than text messages, or when “text” meant something printed on paper and more than a couple sentences long.
Aspiring high school teachers, and now college professors, are told that they need to adjust their pedagogy for these students, who are likely to fail if subjected to the teaching methods that worked well enough with previous generations. According to Jean Twenge, whose popular book iGen has become the Bible for dealing with this generation, iGen’ers are “likely to fall asleep in class if they don’t participate or at least get to watch a few short videos” (307). In an essay in The National Teaching & Learning Forum, Sweet, Blythe and Carpenter advise that college teaching should now be “fast-paced, interactive, visually oriented, and multimodal—i.e., a dash of the professor, a pinch of technology, some active learning stirred in, and a smidgen of collaboration.” Teaching becomes pure performance, designed to keep uninterested students awake, even at the cost of emphasizing presentation over content.
And why do we need to take such drastic steps for this generation? We are told that they have been done irreparable harm by their smartphones and social media. They are more depressed, more anxious, more likely to attempt suicide. They have drastically shortened attention spans, and are simultaneously immature—afraid of making decision on their own—and confident that the “knowledge” they get from their social media feed is superior to anything that a college professor might offer; as Robert Feldman puts it, they believe that “they know as much as their instructors,” and tend to place “as much credence in their peers as their professors.” Feldman also explains that iGen students falsely believe they can multitask, and believe that academic success is “fixed,” an inborn trait that cannot be modified by effort and application.
What all of these accounts of iGen’ers have in common is that they all assume this is a fait accompli. This entire generation has had their brains shaped by their smartphones, and now it is up to us, the older generation presumably not so hopelessly damaged, to find ways to train them to survive in the world of global capitalism, with its economics of competition and scarcity. We can do this, they suggest. There are abundant medications for their psychological distress, and as Twenge notes, “overall, iGen is good news for managers”(310); they are willing to do more work for less, and so long as managers (apparently also not part of the afflicted generation) will “give them careful instructions for tasks” and serve as “therapists, life coaches, and parents” for their employees, they can be very efficient and profitable workers, willing to put in “extra work” without expecting much compensation.
I don’t want to debate the accuracy of these description of the iGen’ers. Some of them are startlingly contradictory in details anyway, so if one seems to be empirically inaccurate there is always another that will fit. Instead, I want to consider the ideology at work in the calls for a new pedagogy. Althusser considers the educational system to be perhaps the primary ideological state apparatus in modern times. Given the increased time most Americans spend in school, I would say that is even more true than it was fifty years ago. The most important tool for reproducing our social relations is not religion, art, or even the endless streaming videos. The way we educate our children will tell us much more about what kind of social formation we are trying to create and sustain. Althusser argues that the French educational system worked to sort students into the various occupations necessary to keep the economy running. It would seem that our current educational system, here in the U.S., is not only sorting but training, doing the job training that used to be done by various forms of apprenticeship. At the same time, the task is importantly to avoid, during all those years of higher “education,” accidentally producing graduates capable of real critical thought and agency. We need to keep them in school until their mid-twenties, putting them into enormous debt, and offering them training as accountants and physical therapists and software engineers; but the risk is that in all those years of schooling they might learn to think. The new pedagogy, having discovered a generation already disabled by their addiction to technology, sees an opportunity to avoid that risk, to keep them in training without accidentally enabling thought.
Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that the “cultural richness of capitalist modernity…dazzles its greatest admirers, while blinding them to its limitations and horrors, foremost among them the structures of inequality…that condemn so many to poverty, hunger, and exclusion from” those very cultural riches. However, he argues that even those who are not so excluded will often “suffer from a deprivation, one of which they are…commonly unaware. They are inadequately educated in how to make choices” (133, emphasis added). MacIntyre is arguing that we are today robbing many people of their agency, and so of the chance to be fully human. Even affluent children with enormous economic opportunity are left, by our educational system, unable to become fully rational humans, making informed decisions about how they will live their lives. My suggestion is that this is not accidental. This is exactly the goal of the new technology of the internet and the smartphone, and also the goal of the educational system today. The production of good subjects of global capitalism is accomplished without the illusory promise of great wealth offered to the previous generations, and the only cost is that they will have to live a life of misery—depressed, anxious, suicidal, addicted, and medicated at rates never seen before.
Robert Feldman, in as essay on the McGraw-Hill website, simply asserts that “We instructor are not going to be successful in changing the fundamental nature of who our iGen students are. Instead, we need to take advantage of their strengths…and create an environment in which we can capitalize on who they are.” This is not at all surprising, perhaps, on the website of a company that produced digital textbooks. Twenge notes that e-textbooks, which include interactive activities and video clips and “stop covering so many topics in such detail” are ideal for the iGen’ers, with their inability to pay attention or follow long and complex arguments. Personally, I’m not surprised by this, having heard these arguments for the last several years before I finally gave up teaching, as an adjunct, at several local colleges. I couldn’t get with the program, so about two years ago I got out. But from what I hear, the push to change pedagogy to a form of behavioral training has only increased. In at least one school where I used to teach, instructors are now encouraged to use role-playing video games in the classroom.
What is the alternative? Well, MacIntyre would suggest that it is possible to transform people from mindless automatons responding to stimuli into fully human and rational subjects. There was a time, and not that long ago, when we were told that the goal of a college education was exactly to change our entire subjectivity. That we came into college poor thinkers, with bad habits, and we would be transformed, if we wanted to graduate, into self-directed critical thinkers, able and eager to participate in a level of discourse that as eighteen-year-olds we could not even see the value of much less comprehend. We all had short attentions spans, but that would be trained out of us. We all thought we knew more than adults, but we would find out we were wrong.
Now, I don’t want to sound like an old man waxing nostalgic. Because in my generation, much of this was just empty rhetoric—we weren’t really given the rigorous education we were threatened with, at least not at the kinds of state universities I went to. All I want to point out here is that there is a different way of thinking about the task of education. Today, we treat students like pigeons in a Skinner Box. We assume the can be trained to perform, but cannot achieve the level of self-reflective thought necessary to decide for themselves what they ought to do. Hence, none of the books and articles about the problems they face are directed at them. The very long subtitle of Twenge’s book ends with “and what that means for the rest of us,” and the book is addressed to parents and teachers and other “adults” not hopelessly damaged by the new “super-connected” life we have inflicted on our children.
The problem with behaviorism has always been that it assumes at least one subject (the behaviorist psychologist himself) who is in fact not fully determined by stimulus and response, but is able to escape such determinism in rational thought. This works fine when the subjects are rats and pigeons, but less well when the subject being conditioned is a human, who in fact might have some degree of agency because of her or his capacity for reason. These calls for a new iGen pedagogy are a form of educational behaviorism, and they rely on the assumption that we have used technology to successfully reduce iGen’ers to the level of animals.
Perhaps there is another way to think of the iGen’ers’ boredom with lectures and disdain for their professors’ expertise? I think we can see a clue to this in the assumptions made by all of those calling for a new pedagogy. They all make the assumption that the “traditional lecture” is intended to “repeat in class what students have studied outside of class” (Feldman), that the ideal lecture should “convey information that is helpful to doing well on the exams” (Twenge, 307). That is, they all assume a positivist model of learning, in which the goal is to commit “information” to memory, and be able to repeat it on demand. I would agree that if this is what you are doing when you lecture, you should stop it. In fact, you should probably just be fired from your teaching job.
Of course, I had a lot of those professors in college. They were fond of overhead projectors, and offered us lists of “facts” to be committed to memory. But I sought out the professors who did not do this, whose lectures served a different purpose. There were a few faculty members in just about ever department who had a different concept of education. They saw the lecture as making an argument for a particular way of understanding the causal relationships between the “facts” presented in textbooks. A lecture was an attempt to convince the audience that the relevant facts could be accounted for by some explanation, and were not well accounted for by some other explanation.
This may be a bit obscure, so let me offer a brief example. We might hear one professor argue that the “rise” of the novel in eighteenth-century England was a result of the creative genius of a few men, combined with the increase in literacy and in new printing technology. We might call this the “enlightenment” account of social change. Another professor might suggest that the novel’s “rise” was a result of its suitability as an ideological form for the newly ascendant capitalist class. They would argue using the same novels, which we would be expected to have read. We could then judge, as critical thinkers, which interpretation of the texts and explanation of social change best fit the evidence. The point is, the lecture is not meant to convey information, which we are expected to have already, although it might call attention to some additional information that we might be unaware of. Instead, the goal of the lecture is to engage us as critical thinkers, to bring us into a debate about the causal relationships operating in social phenomena, with the hope that we might be able to gain some rational control over our use of those phenomena in our lives.
Clearly, the basic assumptions of the calls for a new pedagogy work to prevent this kind of teaching. The goal is to make our children profitable dwellers in corporate cubicles, and if one effect of this is that they will live lives of abject misery that’s just a price we’re willing to pay. The risk of relieving their misery is that they might become fully human rational agents, capable of understanding and influencing the world around them—and that is a risk we apparently don’t want to take.
The assumption here, of course, was that we were all literate at a level almost no high-school graduate is today. So perhaps the first task is to offer them the gift of literacy. Twenge mentions a professor whose students find an eight-page popular press article “too much” reading, unsuited to their limited attention spans. The solution is to “cover a little less,” to “cover the cool stuff and leave everything else out”(308). What this approach does is deny the student the opportunity to work hard to become literate. There are many kinds of complex arguments that can only be made in long texts. This is why literacy has enabled such enormous increases in our scientific knowledge and human productive power. If we just consign the next generation to their illiteracy, leaving them to their iPhones, then we are depriving them of the chance to gain an essential tool in understanding how the world works and how they can change it. Most of the workings of the global economy, or of the human mind, cannot be explained in a text message or a YouTube video. We are then creating a world in which the literate few will have control over the smartphone-addicted majority.
We need most of all to stop thinking that we must cater to the kinds of subjects we have made our children into, or at least have allowed them to be made into. Instead, we must realize that the goal of education is exactly to make them into the kinds of subjects we would like them to be. And to give them the reasoning power to, eventually, decide for themselves what kind of subjects they might want to become.
When my daughter gets to college age in six years, I’ll be looking for a school where they haven’t adopted an “iGen pedagogy.” I can only hope one still exists.
I would ask anyone reading this to consider contributing their own thoughts on the ideology of pedagogy. What kind of subjects are produced by the forms of education we use today? Are they different for different classes? In different countries? Is there any hope for our educational system?
Feldman, Richard S. “Teaching iGen Students: It’s Not Them…It’s Us” https://www.mheducation.com/highered/insights-ideas/teaching-igen-students.html
MacIntyre, Alisdair. Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: And Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
Sweet, C., Blythe, H., and Carpenter, R. “Creating an iGen Pedagogy.” The National Teaching & Learning Forum. Volume 28, number 6. October, 2016.
Twenge, Jean M. iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What That Means for the Rest of Us). New York: Atria Paperback, 2017.