Janus Generation

Are students lazy, technologically sophisticated or both? Jerry Pattengale evaluates the evidence.

January 19, 2010

"Students today are so industrious!" My colleague blurted this after learning students had replaced labels on their water bottles with exact replicas — but with the test answers typed in the ingredients section.

However, another colleague disagreed with any positive attribute for today’s students. She recently summoned a failing Comp 101 student to inquire about his surprisingly excellent final paper. After he repeatedly claimed to have written "every word," she replied, "Then I have just one final question. Young man, exactly when did you have your abortion?" She concluded, "Students today are lazy. For 40 years I’ve caught students copying papers — but at least they had read them first!"

The academy at-large is also divided over this generation’s profile. We tend to classify today’s students as either lazy (putting our country’s future in peril) or industrious and creative (offering national hope). It appears that we have a “Janus Generation;” researchers continually picture its students with contrasting faces, like the two-headed Roman god, Janus.

This discussion of student profiles is hot press — the recent Boston Globe articles on “My Lazy American Students” garnered around 800 blog responses and discussion on this Web site as well. The combined Google entries for any of the topic’s name holders (e.g., Net Generation or Millennials) surpass 200 million. Likewise, the Digital Natives project has drawn a diverse community of collaborators from Harvard University and the University of St. Gallen. Don Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital (1997) and Grown Up Digital (2008) continue to draw considerable attention — though he presents a rather positive view of the same collegians derided elsewhere as "lazy Americans." Michael Wesch’s "A Vision of Students Today" is approaching four million YouTube views and now exceeds 10,000 blog responses; helping to earn him the 2008 Carnegie/CASE Professor of the Year Award — and many others.

During several conference and campus presentations this year, I've found audiences generally negative about student performance, much like responses Wesch notes among his respondents and narrated in "Lazy Americans." However, I also present sharply divided research to frame the discussion. A chart of the leading resources on today’s students helps to categorize negative and positive conclusions.

Student characteristics that appear as "laziness" to some are categorized as "technologically preoccupied" to others. "Entertainment" for one professor is labeled "sophistication" by another. Like Abelard’s Sic et Non, participants are asked to draw their conclusions — but with a utilitarian goal of improving student learning and enhancing student success efforts. Nearly all audiences are struck by studies like that by the University of New Hampshire -- showing no correlation between social networking and grades (n=1,127 UNH students from campus-wide sample).

And some scholars have rather positive perceptions of this much maligned generation, e.g., Marc Prensky (progenitor of "digital natives" and "digital immigrants") and Neil Howe and William Strauss (authors of various millennial studies).

If we consider the Janus Generation as a gathering of neologisms for students born from 1977 through 2001, we can talk generally about those students whose educational experiences overlapped with the modern technological revolution. A few major terms used to describe aspects of these overlapping groups include: Net Generation, Digital Generation, Millennials (b. 1982), Digital Natives (though qualified), Generation Me, Y (and now iY), Screenagers, and Mosaics. The watershed of 9/11 recognizes new socio-religio-politico realities, and Strauss and Howe have already started calling those born after this time "The New Silent Generation" while others prefer "Generation Z" and "iGeneration."

The Janus Generation faced another reality, the coming and going of troops. The two faces of the god Janus had appeared on opposite sides of Rome’s War Gates (or, the Gates of Janus, the god of doorways and beginnings, the namesake of January). Emperors bragged if these gates were shut (time of peace) and not open (time of sending to battle as Janus watched in both directions).

This last connection with Janus struck me while watching Wesch’s video for the first time during an engagement in Ireland. Though this international audience of educators could identify with what Wesch himself observed as "a disheartening portrayal of disengagement," we could also sense the students’ intensity about the human condition.

Painting a Negative Face on the Janus Generation

Kara Miller’s provocative Boston Globe articles remind me of David French’s National Review Online entries "Low Graduation Rates and the Total Lack of Student Effort" and its sequel. These also drew a wave of comments, including one from a high school teacher in Phoenix: “One bright light, ironically enough, is reading (trying to read!) Heart of Darkness with my seniors. Even though they do not "get it" and the majority do not actually read it (Sparknotes!), when we get to the section about "the flabby weak-eyed devil" of laziness, they sit up and take notice. That passage usually generates an interesting discussion about how lazy they actually are."

The bulk of the comments on Miller’s op-ed are likewise empathetic with her "lazy" generational attribute, and some laud heroic status on her for such a candid appraisal. However, others note the gaping holes in her logic, or at least the lack of scientific evidence for assertions and comparisons with international students. Miller seems to assume that at some point anecdotes become data sets and data sets reflect anecdotes — but leaves both sides of the equation to researchers.

And she’s correct — researchers abound. A wave of books concur with the essence of her anecdotal reflections. Mark Bauerlein’s title alone stigmatizes our students: The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30). Jean Twinge’s books do the same: Generation Me: Why American Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — And More Miserable than Ever Before and The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Mel Levine highlights students’ lack of preparedness in Ready or Not, Here Life Comes (urging secondary schools to focus on life prep instead of college prep — admissions tests). And for a rather bold stereotype, see Morley Safer’s “The Millennials are Coming” (60 Minutes, parts 1-2, and the various responses by Twixters).

In 1993, Alfie Kohn had tried to warn of these forthcoming college performance ills in his “controversial” Punished by Rewards, a book more likely considered prophetic today. Many think the same about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985).

Painting a Positive Face on the Janus Generation

Judy Woodruff’s national interviews bring to life the depth of many of today’s students, i.e., Generation Next: Speak Up and Be Heard – PBS videos (2007). Don Tapscott and Marc Prensky can easily be aligned with this positive group. And Strauss and Howe’s "Seven Characteristics of Millennials" dominate the Web searches – including hundreds of presentations by others.

These Millennial characteristics include: Special, Sheltered, Confident, Team-oriented, Achieving, Pressured and Conventional. About the only noticeable negative in their study is students’ aversion to taking risks. Similar to the critiques of Twinge’s Me Generation, various reviewers challenge Strauss and Howe’s research for being too narrow and not indicative of national norms.

Kali H. Trzesniewski and her colleagues may not be as overtly positive, but defend this generation against Twinge’s works in Do Today's Young People Really Think They Are So Extraordinary? An Examination of Secular Trends in Narcissism and Self-Enhancement. Based on their research (n=25,000 high school seniors) they concluded that Today’s youth seem to be no more narcissistic and self-aggrandizing than previous generations.” Courtney E. Martin gives a helpful assessment of this revision of Twinge in “Misunderstanding ‘Generation Me’ ” (2008). She surmises that the true picture is likely somewhere in between the two studies, though Trzesniewski’s has a much bigger sample and was from California, "the home of the self-esteem education movement."

Various other studies see the Janus Generation as simply unique, and suggest ways to move forward: The Millennium Matrix (Jossey-Bass, 2004), Serving the Millennial Generation: New Directions for Student Services (Jossey-Bass, 2004), Connecting to the Net Generation: What Higher Education Professionals Need to Know About Today’s College Students (NASPA, 2007), A Brief Guide for Teaching Millennial Learners (Triangle, 2007), Love Is the Killer App. (Crown, 2002).

Doorways and New Beginnings

Janus was also known as the god of doorways and beginnings, and our students need these. From Kohn’s 1993 warning through Jossey-Bass’s recent release, Helping Sophomores Succeed, the key is helping them to find their life calling and sense of purpose. Whether we see the face of laziness or sophistication, nearly all major studies show a student core interested in spirituality and purpose. I have come to conclude that "the dream needs to be stronger than the struggle," and when students commit to causes they deem worthy they are more likely to succeed. The Purpose-Guided Student is my effort to operationalize this in a textbook, and Habitudes, On Course and The Explorer’s Guide are other notable approaches; Strengths Quest (Gallup) accents these efforts, and researchers like Ed St. John (University of Michigan) and Christian Smith (Notre Dame) have contributed valuable research. St. John led the Indiana Project on Academic Success that tracked the purpose-guided approach with 1,700 students and found all positive odds ratios — and 20 percent graduation rate increases over six years.

The profiles of the Janus Generations help to frame and present the questions, and discovering a sense of purpose opens an important doorway.


Jerry Pattengale is assistant provost for scholarship and public engagement at Indiana Wesleyan University.


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