The doleful sigh of the Beloit College Mindset List

by Adam Reger

I am a graduate of Beloit College, a small liberal-arts college in southern Wisconsin. I transferred there from a freshman-year situation that was, from the beginning, pretty unhappy, and so I’ve always had a special fondness for the place, the people, and my experience at Beloit. For a shy person, a small school (about 1,200-1,400 students, at least when I was there) affords tons of opportunities larger schools cannot: I was editor of the literary magazine, hosted a radio show, and was heavily involved in the campus newspaper. None of this is stuff I likely would have fought for, or considered myself up to the challenge of, at a Penn State or a Pitt or whatever enormous state school I attended in an alternate reality.

This is all to say that I love and admire Beloit College . . . most of the time.

The time that I don’t, sad to say, is during the current pre-fall semester news lag, when national media outlets turn the spotlight on proud old Beloit while it does an embarrassing soft shoe of self-congratulatory nostalgia. I refer, of course, to the Mindset List.

If current students are anything like my contemporaries, I can say that Beloit College students are probably rolling their eyes at this dumb thing. It’s condescending, even insulting (“Students have never used a typewriter,” from a bygone list; “They’ve never recognized that pointing to their wrists was a request for the time of day,” from this one). Worse, it does the opposite of what the Beloit student spends his/her time learning and striving for: it makes a teeming mass of individuals, bright and focused young people with well-developed skills and articulated goals, into a monolith; one, moreover, mostly notable for what they don’t know.

But I’ve been gone a while, and with perspective I can better see the obvious: this list really has nothing to do with the students. It’s a wink from the faculty and administrators to the students’ parents. It’s an excuse to make a bunch of references, akin to old dudes drinking beers and marveling/lamenting at how old they’ve gotten. (“My kid thinks Nirvana is classic rock!” etc.) This thing comes from a few faculty members and PR people e-mailing lists around, adding on, and it has that kind of smug, riffing feel to it. The List has more to do with 1992, and being an adult connected to the culture at that time, than it does with 2010.

It’s really nothing to get bent out of shape about, except that it’s my alma mater’s one claim to fame, the one thing every year that gets its name into the newspaper. Truth be told, the Mindset List is probably the envy of other comparable small liberal-arts colleges, ones you truly never hear about; in that sense, I guess, I’m glad it’s around. (Eat it, Ripon! Go suck an egg, Coe College!)

But still, the sheer dumbness makes me want to shield my eyes. From the trying-too-hard (“Potato has always ended in an ‘e’ in New Jersey per vice presidential edict”) to the head-scratching-but-also-irrelevant (“While they were babbling in strollers, there was already a female Poet Laureate of the United States”), the Mindset List is dependably embarrassing.