yuck. “mindset” lists suck.

My friend Ira recently got me riled up. On his blog, he posted about a “Mindset List” recently pub­lished by Hillel.

In case you’re unfa­mil­iar: Beloit College, a liberal-arts school in south­ern Wisconsin, puts out this thing every year called the Mindset List. A few human­i­ties or social sci­ences pro­fes­sors sit around and list a whole bunch of cul­tural ref­er­ences that, while famil­iar to adults, are not famil­iar to 18 year-old freshman.

Professors will teach by refer­ring to cul­tural infor­ma­tion for pur­poses of anal­ogy or illus­tra­tion,” Beloit College human­i­ties pro­fes­sor Tom McBride, one of two who devel­oped the list, told the AP a few years ago. “But the kind of infor­ma­tion they’re using may sim­ply not be rel­e­vant to 18-year-old minds.”

This year, Hillel joined in on the fun by releas­ing a “Jewish Mindset List” of their own. Theirs is titled, “What Are Jewish First-Year Students Thinking?” and it’s intro­duced with the line, “Here, then, are the Jewish ideas that are kick­ing around in the minds of today’s first-year students.”

The entire con­cept of a “mind­set” list is stu­pid. Here are four rea­sons why:

1. College kids aren’t all dumb. Mindset lists assume that col­lege fresh­men are obliv­i­ous to any­thing that hap­pened before their time and that they have no appre­ci­a­tion for that fact that the world changes. The Beloit Mindset List for this year men­tions that “Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always sat on the Supreme Court,” and (in keep­ing with a sim­i­lar theme) Hillel’s Mindset List informs us that, in the minds of incom­ing fresh­men, “Women have always been rabbis.”

Yes, dur­ing the life­times of aver­age incom­ing fresh­men, RB Ginsburg has always been on the Supreme Court and women have always been rabbis.

But are the authors of these lists really sug­gest­ing that 18 year-olds have no sense that women now have oppor­tu­ni­ties that their moth­ers or grand­moth­ers didn’t have?

First, I’d argue that 18 year-olds (espe­cially 18 year-olds who attend top col­leges like Beloit or reg­u­larly attend Hillel) have more sense of his­tory than the lists’ authors assume.

Second, if incom­ing fresh­men do indeed lack the appro­pri­ate his­tor­i­cal con­text to appre­ci­ate their par­tic­u­lar place in the world, then the mind­set lists sure don’t help. I’d think it would be more use­ful to say some­thing like, “Because they’ve grown up in a world that affords women vir­tu­ally all the oppor­tu­ni­ties afforded to men, this year’s incom­ing fresh­men may not appre­ci­ate the sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance of hav­ing three women sit­ting on the Supreme Court,” or, “Unlike their grand­par­ents’ or par­ents’ gen­er­a­tions, this year’s incom­ing fresh­men may be com­pletely com­fort­able with the idea of hav­ing a woman on the bimah.”

(Another exam­ple: I grew up in a world far removed from Jim Crow, separate-but-equal, seg­re­ga­tion, and the civil rights move­ment. That doesn’t mean I was unable to appre­ci­ate the sig­nif­i­cance of a black man becom­ing president.)

2. Much of the lists are irrel­e­vant. Does it really mat­ter that (accord­ing to the Beloit list) fresh­men asso­ciate the nick­name “Fergie” with a pop singer and not with Sarah, Duchess of York? Or that (accord­ing to the Hillel list) Oreos have always been kosher?

Do either of those things tell us any­thing about incom­ing fresh­men? Do these help pro­fes­sors (or oth­ers who work with col­lege kids) in any mean­ing­ful way?

Of course, it would be very dan­ger­ous if a col­lege pro­fes­sor were to (gasp!) refer to a time when the Real World wasn’t on TV, so Jews had to pass their time munch­ing on Hydrox while read­ing about Fergie, the red­headed royal.

3. Much of the lists are silly, ridicu­lous, or just plain false. The Beloit list explains that, “Few in the class know how to write in cur­sive.” That’s almost def­i­nitely untrue. Most of those stu­dents were taught to write in cur­sive in around third grade. That they have cho­sen for most of their lives to either (a) write in print, or (b) type every­thing is a com­pletely dif­fer­ent story.

The Hillel list sug­gests that for these new col­lege stu­dents, “‘Dylan’ is Jakob, not Bob.”

I’m pretty sure that far more incom­ing col­lege fresh­men are famil­iar with Bob Dylan — one of the most pro­lific and influ­en­tial American singer-songwriters of all-time — than his son Jakob, a B-List musi­cian and front­man of a band that last made waves in 1996 (when this year’s fresh­men were about four years-old). And no one refers to Jakob Dylan as sim­ply, “Dylan.”

There are lots more exam­ples. All of them boil down to the lists’ authors try­ing to look clever or cute and fail­ing… mis­er­ably. The Beloit list has a really stu­pid ref­er­ence to the let­ter E at the end of the word potato that must have been writ­ten by Dan Quayle him­self. The Hillel list sug­gests that 18 year-olds “learned the con­cept of Bar/Bat Mitzvah from Krusty the Clown,” a ref­er­ence to a sin­gle episode of The Simpsons that con­tained humor specif­i­cally meant to be appre­ci­ated by peo­ple who were already famil­iar with the ceremony.

4. The lists have noth­ing to do with “mind­set.” In fact, it’s patently ridicu­lous (not to men­tion offen­sive and dan­ger­ous) to sug­gest that you can learn any­thing mean­ing­ful about someone’s “mind­set” by com­pil­ing a list of cul­tural ref­er­ences with which they are or are not familiar.

Making sweep­ing gen­er­al­iza­tions about a whole gen­er­a­tion is bad enough, but to do it sim­ply by com­pil­ing a list of ref­er­ences — and not by actu­ally get­ting to know mem­bers of said gen­er­a­tion — is offen­sive. It belit­tles incom­ing col­lege fresh­men, and it stinks of supe­ri­or­ity (on the part of boomers who read the list).

There are some sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences about the way young peo­ple and their elders see the world. There are some impor­tant and pro­found obser­va­tions to be made about a gen­er­a­tion that’s grown up with infor­ma­tion at its fin­ger­tips, with nat­ural resources read­ily avail­able, with the seem­ingly enor­mous gap between East and West (and with­out the Cold War).

Why do I have so much to say about this?

I guess I’m just fas­ci­nated that Beloit College and Hillel are so ready to put their name on these lists. The real truth of the mat­ter — and this is what’s really telling about all the use­less trivia on the lists — is that the only rea­son that a tiny lib­eral arts school puts this out is that every year, this stu­pid list is e-mailed all over, and peo­ple look at it and think to them­selves, “Wow, back in my day things were dif­fer­ent.” The list famous for being crap in our e-mail boxes.

Which is why I’m sur­prised the col­lege is so proud to put it out there. They’re say­ing: “Look, our pro­fes­sors are really stodgy and need to be reminded that cul­ture changes rapidly.” Or maybe they’re say­ing, “Look, or incom­ing fresh­man class is really stu­pid and self-centered and we need to remind our­selves that they’re too dumb to real­ize that com­put­ers used to be really big.” Either way, I think these pro­fes­sors (or blog writ­ers, in Hillel’s case) who wrote the list wasted their time.

If they really cared about the mind­set of their new stu­dents, then maybe they’d sit down with these (pre­sum­ably bright) 18-year-olds and ask them, “Tell me about the world you live in.”