Matthew Pate — Millennials scaling dystopian Everest


‘Mashup” is a term in popular music used to describe the blending of elements from two or more different songs. Often DJs will take the vocals from one track and lay them on top of the melody or rhythm from another.

Just such a sympathetic combination occurred to me after reading Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Present Shock, and Egon Bittner’s 1967 article, The Police on Skid Row: A Study of Peacekeeping. The track that unifies both these works is time, or more properly the absence of it.

As one who teaches a lot of college students, I believe the two authors unwittingly combine to form a perfect commentary on the state of higher education.

Rushkoff describes how technology creates a condition he calls “narrative collapse — the loss of linear stories… With no goals to justify journeys, we get the impatient impulsiveness of the Tea Party, as well as the unbearably patient presentism of the Occupy movement. The new path to sense-making is more like an open game than a story.”

In describing how the homeless on skid row exist, Bittner writes, “…the dominant consideration governing all enterprise and association is directed toward the occasion of the moment… considerations of momentary expediency are seen as having unqualified priority as maxims of conduct; consequently, the controlling influences of the pursuit of sustained interests are presumed to be absent.”

Rushkoff also echoes Bittner in his description of “Fractalnoia” —- making sense of things wholly in present tense; and “Overwinding” —- “trying to squish huge timescales into much smaller ones, like attempting to experience the catharsis of a well-crafted, five-act play in the random flash of a reality show.”

Examining the behavior of millennial students in the classroom is eerily similar. Modern textbooks look like magazines. Students grow incredulous at the value of sitting in a classroom and listening quietly for 45 minutes. In fact, most seem unable, a phenomenon Rushkoff calls “Digifrenia.” They are compelled to text, and use social media, all the while claiming to be “multi-tasking.”

They are in no single place. They are a disembodied presence with no fetter to plane or purpose. Nothing has context. Nothing leads anywhere. There are no goals, only desires. There is only now — and what would gratify me at this moment. There is no preparation for a future, only tomorrow’s evolved appetites.

Unfortunately, that’s where this egocentric time banditry collides with school. A course of study presumes linear achievement, skill building, knowledge accumulation and perspective. To this, millennials bring a consumerist vision of tuition-payment-equals-desired-grade-outcome. The privilege of their presence is sufficient to merit reward.

Because they do not assent to the time schedule of the academy, they also rebuke its power structure. Professors merit no deference. All rules are malleable and negotiable. Therefore, all assessments are invalid and irrelevant.

The consequence of this unholy nexus of permissive social passing and technology is a generation that can’t read or write in cursive, that’s innumerate, ignorant of history and fixed on satisfaction of appetites (both literal and carnal). Technology has played the part of the great equalizer. Unfortunately, that equality resides in a regression toward the lowest common denominator. Mike Judge’s 2006 dystopian comedy, Idiocracy, seems increasingly prescient. The stupid shall inherit the Earth.

It’s not as though I’m a Luddite. I’ve taught dozens of online classes, using all the falderal available to the modern professor. I’ve abandoned the familiar in favor of the fashionable.

Of course there are exceptions. I see most of them in graduate school, but even then I often feel I am herding, not teaching. I start to resent the people I am there to lead, but as above, they want no journey, no Sherpa. They merely want to teleport to the top of Everest. The climb would be too banal.

Every so often I encounter a kid that has the divine spark. They are the proverbial special snowflake. They get it. They want it. They crave perspective and insight. Their existence gives me the fortitude to continue. Like a little old lady at the slots, I win just enough to keep feeding my nickels.

Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com.