The Real Generation Gap

By Jennings, Marianne M. | Executive Speeches, February 1999 | Go to article overview

The Real Generation Gap


Jennings, Marianne M., Executive Speeches


Born in 1980, today's college freshmen are part of "Generation X." They came into the world long after Vietnam, Richard Nixon, and Watergate. They never saw Senator Sam Ervin's eyebrows. Can you imagine? They were also born after Saturday Night Fever. They do not know John Travolta has had two movie careers. Nor do they know what it is like to live in a society in which marriage is the predominant social institution. Unfortunately, they do know about broken homes and "single-parent families." And they know what it is like to be the children of child care because 67 percent of them have mothers working outside their homes.

The members of Generation X know a lot about Madonna, Princess Diana, G.I. Jane, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Mike Tyson. They know nothing at all about Kate Smith, Mother Teresa, Rosie the Riveter, John Wayne, Babe Ruth, and Audie Murphy. Almost without exception, their favorite role models are the type of celebrities seen on MTV, ESPN, and the cover of People.

One disturbing poll reveals that nearly 100% of today's youth can name the "Three Stooges," but not even 1 percent can name three justices on the U. S. Supreme Court. Seventy-three percent want to start their own businesses, but 53 percent voted for small business foe Bill Clinton. Only 19 percent attend church regularly. Only 1 percent include a member of the clergy on their lists of most admired individuals.

What all these statistics tell us is that the gap between generations is wider than ever before. There are five areas in which the gap is most pronounced: skills, knowledge, critical thinking, work, and morality.

Iowa test scores have been a standard measurement of academic achievement for many decades. And what they have been measuring lately is frightening. Students who should be scoring at the 90th percentile are barely scoring at the 70th; those who should be at the 70th are hovering between the 30th and 40th. Between 70 and 90 percent of all students entering the California State University system have to take some form of remedial course work in basic subjects like English and math. Eighty seven percent of students entering New York community colleges flunk the placement test--they can't even pass the test that would put them into remedial courses! As New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani observed several years ago, if skills actually determined entrance into the New York system of higher education, three of every four students would probably be denied admission. (The state has recently begun to administer such tests, and it appears that Guiliani was right.) It is also a matter of public record that national ACT and SAT college entrance test scores are steadily declining despite "adjustments" designed to boost them artificially.

Yet one-third of many high schools' students maintain 4.0 (straight A) grade point averages. Why? Because grade inflation, which occurs at every level of education, is rampant. My daughter Sarah has been in the public school system since the third grade, and she is living proof. She has consistently received good grades without the benefit of a good education.

When she enrolled in an algebra class in the eighth grade, I offered to help her with her homework. She took me up on this offer one evening when we were sitting together at the kitchen table. The first problem was: "What is 10 percent of 470?" I was stunned to discover that Sarah couldn't solve it without the aid of a calculator. Another problem involved determining 25 percent of a given figure. She not only didn't know the answer, but she didn't know that this percentage could be expressed as "one-quarter" or "one-fourth."

Here was my own flesh and blood--my straight "A" student! I couldn't help asking, "Are the other kids this dumb?" Without missing a beat, Sarah replied, "Oh, they're much dumber." She may be right. On the most recent international Math and Science Survey, which tests students from 42 countries, one-third of all American high school seniors could not compute the price of a $1,250 stereo that was discounted by 20 percent. …

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