Video: What do college freshmen really know?

updated 8/21/2007 7:52:14 PM ET 2007-08-21T23:52:14

The Berlin Wall? What Berlin Wall?

The class of students entering college this month is the first post-Cold War class, according to the Beloit College Mindset List, a compilation of the events, technology, people and social trends that shaped the incoming crop of freshmen.

To them, it’s always been normal for Russia to have multiple political parties and U.S. rock bands to stop in Moscow on their tours, according to the list released Tuesday by the private school in this city that hugs the Wisconsin-Illinois border.

“In many ways, their world view is less frightening than ours,” said Beloit College humanities professor Tom McBride, who has helped compile the list for a decade. “They grew up during an era of good feelings in the 1990s, when everyone was making a lot of money and there weren’t a lot of wars.”

Despite the threat of terrorism and the war in Iraq, McBride said, the incoming freshmen “have had a comparably tame time of things,” compared to previous generations who fought World War II and in Vietnam and clashed over civil rights. Professors might want to assign texts on darker subjects to give them a wakeup call, he suggested.

For those in the class of 2011 needing to brush up, the Berlin Wall separated West and East Berlin until its destruction in 1989, the year most of these students were born. Its fall symbolically ended the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, a decades-long fight for supremacy between the two superpowers.

“I actually visited the Berlin Wall with my parents when I was in fifth grade,” said Jacob Williams, 18, of Louisville Ky., who is going through freshmen orientation at Beloit this week. “I didn’t know a lot about the history, but I think it was a great piece of architecture.”

Williams and others said the Cold War was such a thing of the past that many students wore T-shirts about communism to be funny.

“You feel that you can joke about it now,” said freshman Jenny Posh, 18, of Menomonee Falls, Wis., who said her only knowledge of the Cold War came from studying it during high school.

At home in a world of money and data
These students witnessed an age of triumphant capitalism when stadiums were named for companies, product placement became ubiquitous in movies and Wal-Mart has always been a bigger retailer than Sears.

And then there’s technology: They use the online encyclopedia Wikipedia for research, grew up telling the world about themselves on MySpace and Facebook and are constantly talking (or texting) on their cell phones.

“I text message all day long,” said Sarah Stanciu, 18, of Chicago, who memorized the keys so well that she sends messages without looking at her phone.

The students have also seen advances for women: Many of their mothers worked full-time, they’re used to women being hired as police chiefs of major cities, and they’ll have about the same number of male and female professors through college.

Katie Couric and Wolf Blitzer have always been on the air, but these students are more likely to get their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the fake newscasters on Comedy Central.

Michael Moore has always been making films, while Rush Limbaugh has been blasting liberals on a daily basis. They never saw Johnny Carson on live television, but they have gotten their fill of Jerry Springer.

The list, which is in its 10th year, has helped the college of 1,200 students market itself. School spokesman Ron Nief said the list “is the most popular back-to-school topic” in higher education. He said everyone from professors to military officials used the list to try to better relate to young people.

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