MILWAUKEE – For students entering college this fall, e-mail is too slow, phones have never had cords and the computers they played with as kids are now in museums.
The Class of 2014 thinks of Clint Eastwood more as a sensitive director than as Dirty Harry urging punks to "go ahead, make my day." Few incoming freshmen know how to write in cursive or have ever worn a wristwatch.
These are among the 75 items on this year's Beloit College Mindset List. The compilation, released Tuesday, is assembled each year by two officials at this private school of about 1,400 students in Beloit, Wis.
The list is meant to remind teachers that cultural references familiar to them might draw blank stares from college freshmen born mostly in 1992.
Of course, it can also have the unintended consequence of making people feel old.
Remember when Dr. Jack Kevorkian, Dan Quayle or Rodney King were in the news? These kids don't.
Ever worry about a Russian missile strike on the U.S.? During these students' lives, Russians and Americans have always been living together in outer space.
Being aware of the generation gap helps professors craft lesson plans that are more meaningful, said Ron Nief, a former public affairs director at Beloit College and one of the list's creators.
Nief and English professor Tom McBride have assembled the Mindset List for 13 years. They say it's given them an unusual perspective on cultural shifts.
With far edgier content available today, such as "South Park" or online videos that push the envelope, there's something quaint about recalling the hand-wringing that the MTV cartoon prompted, Nief said.
"I think we do that with every generation — we look back and say, what were we getting so upset about?" he said. "A, kids outgrow it and B, in retrospect we realize it really wasn't that bad."
Another Mindset List item reflects a possible shift in Hollywood attitudes. Item No. 12 notes: "Clint Eastwood is better known as a sensitive director than as Dirty Harry."
A number of incoming freshmen said they partially agreed with the item, noting they were familiar with Eastwood's work as an actor even if they hadn't seen his films.
"I know he directed movies but I also know he's supposed to be sort of bad-ass," said Aaron Ziontz, 18, from Seattle.
Jessica Peck, a 17-year-old from Portland, Ore., disagreed with two items on the list — one that says few students know how to write in cursive, and another that suggests this generation seldom if ever uses snail mail.
"Snail mail's kind of fun. When I have time I like writing letters to friends and family," she said. "It's just a bit more personal. And yes, I write in cursive."
Peck did agree with the item pointing out that most teens have never used telephones with cords.
"Yes, I've used them but only at my grandparents' house," she said.
That's the sort of comment that can make a person feel old. McBride jokes that he's not immune from feeling ancient just because he compiles the items. But the 65-year-old said the lists can also reveal a larger truth about tolerance.
The "Beavis and Butt-head" item suggests that maybe parents shouldn't overreact every time a controversy arises, he noted. For example, maybe it's no big deal if college freshmen misspell words when they text, and maybe their attention spans will be just fine even though they grew up in the Internet age, he said.
"There's something about the resilience of human nature that renders these gloom-and-doom prophesies moot after a while," he said. "I can't say for sure, but it looks like the track record of these very anxious prophets has not been impressive over the years."