The New Generation Gap

If I showed you a 1982 Memphis chair from Italy, you wouldn’t identify it as a product of the Dutch De Stijl movement from 1917, would you? Yet a distressingly large number of 20-year-olds are likely to do just that. In fact, such erroneous readings of designed objects—which speak to us about culture, time, and place through their forms and materials—are becoming the rule, not the exception. This fact made grading design history finals this spring a traumatic experience for me, just as receiving their mediocre grades must have been for the students.

I knew something was wrong at the outset of the semester. Only a few students took notes; most handed in weekly papers that were cut-and-paste jobs from Web sites. Class discussions were nearly impossible because of their shallow grasp of the subject and a general lack of interest in the people and the movements that laid the foundation of our design culture and their future professions.

What was different about this group? My class roster began to reveal the new pattern: a large portion of these 25 students came from the Design and Technology department at Parsons, in New York, and their idea of history seems to be something you Google, not something you study slowly and deliberately. Yet here were some superbright kids, navigating easily and creatively through complex software programs, making sophisticated presentations of information and ideas, but unable to connect with the historic information they were assigned to gather and analyze.

Even as I tried to enforce a more rigorous way of learning history, I came to see that my methods—forged through 17 years of teaching the subject and a master’s degree in it—had stopped working. I remembered the old generation gap we never bridged in the 1960s, but this time the gap has been made even wider by technology—those who struggle with it (me) and those whose rhythms are completely defined by it (my students). I now see my students as the outriders of our twenty-first-century frontier, pointing the way to what’s coming up on the horizon. Yet we try to teach them as if the technical revolution was not raging around us.

No modern profession can survive and thrive without a solid foundation of specialized knowledge—a result of rigorous research that builds on historic precedent while exploring current ideas, methods, and materials.

I trust our outriders’ reading of the techno terrain. I consider their skills of great value to those who will follow. And so my faith in the next generation makes me want to find new ways to share my love of history with them, perhaps in a more seamless way than we’re doing now. In the 1960s our picket lines on college campuses shouted for “relevance” in education to the complex midcentury modern lives we were making. Relevance is still a good word.

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