Exploring the effect of materialistic culture on generational gap in the US and Japan

Two articles here … one taking a look at the “new” generation of US students and another at “new” generation of Japanese kids who really want to “stand out” and having their way by pulling wool over their indulgent parents’ eyes. Both pieces explore how the effect of last generation’s parents’ materialistic culture has influenced this generation of kids.

BEHIND THE PAPER SCREEN / Today’s student: polite, disengaged
Sawa Kurotani Special to The Daily Yomiuri 

In recent years the changing ethos of college students has become the center of attention among higher education professionals around the United States. Both anecdotal evidence and systematic studies seem to indicate that today’s students, whose learning behavior puzzles university faculty and administrators, are somehow different than previous generations.

The main problem is, it appears, that the current generation of college students have an overtly “consumerist” attitude toward education, and seem to have little genuine interest in intellectual life.

While they are generally polite and well-behaved, they seem only concerned with their grades, and not whether they are really learning anything or not. Most of them hate reading and skimp on the time they spend on reading assignments, but they hate it even more to sit through a lecture.

They think all there is to know is on the Web; they are only interested in their own personal experiences, feelings and concerns, and have little sense of connection to the broader world, and so on and so forth.

I have my own share of stories about this new breed of American students. As an academic–who chose the life of intellectual inquiry and consider teaching a form of social contribution–I, too, am shocked and appalled by the consumerist, antiacademic behavior of my students from time to time.

But I am also curious: What has really changed here about college students’ attitude about education and learning? If our traditional curriculum doesn’t satisfy the needs of these students, how should we change?

It is easy to blame “Generation Me” for being self-absorbed and lacking academic engagement. However, Tim Clydesdale, a sociology professor at the College of New Jersey, points out that today’s “polite, dutiful and disengaged” college students are the product of two major social forces.

The current generation of students grew up in a world where information is readily accessible to everyone, with seemingly no clear authority to arbitrate various perspectives and interpretations. At the same time, they are keenly aware that a college degree is the minimum requirement for a good job, and hence a desirable middle-class lifestyle.

If college is not about “learning for learning’s sake,” as many academics want to believe, but instead a means toward achieving a materially successful and happy life, then it makes no practical sense to overtly challenge the professor’s authority and risk getting bad grades or failing. The most pragmatic, if somewhat cynical, course of action is then to tell “what the prof wants to hear,” get a decent grade, and get out.

Such an attitude is understandable, Clydesdale argues, given “America’s profoundly pragmatic culture,” which has roots deep enough to be seen in Mark Twain’s eminently practical and quintessentially American characters. It is easy to blame “Generation Me,” but the truth is their ethos is a contemporary manifestation of this core cultural value.

If today’s student ethos is rooted in American cultural values and reflects broader technological and social changes long in the making, the reason why university faculty and administrators are suddenly paying attention to it is also pragmatic.

As I discussed in my previous column, U.S. colleges and universities are struggling to maintain revenues due to the recent economic downturn. Under mounting economic pressure, we are asked to be more attentive to the needs of our paying students, providing educational services that appeal to young adults today and are helpful in their future career development.

But before we turn all liberal arts colleges into preprofessional programs, we need to think hard about the meaning of student success in today’s world.

It is a valuable service to give young adults tools for practical short-term goals, no doubt. Yet, there are other important things that have effects that last much longer than professional development in the first few years after college.

We must take serious stock of the role of higher education to equip students to become thoughtful, well-informed individuals who can think critically about what is going on in the world and contribute to the social good.

The question, then, is how to engage those “polite, dutiful but disengaged” students in a meaningful intellectual journey, and give them an opportunity to see relevance in topics and skills that at first appear distant or unrelated to their own lives.

Clydesdale stresses that it must begin with “us,” faculty members and administrators, examining our own assumptions about what and how students should learn, strategically modifying our pedagogy to make it more student-centered.

More specifically, he proposes a course structure that begins with students’ own experiences and existing knowledge, and expands out to build a broader range of information and a more systemic understanding of the subjects as they relate to them.

In short, we need to turn the traditional hierarchy of knowledge upside down, and instead of starting off with an authoritative structure of knowledge, we “meet our students where they are,” and help them set out for an intellectual journey and expand their knowledge base.

While I support–and in fact incorporate in my own teaching–student-centered learning, I would also add that students need to realize at some point that such a method of inquiry has its limits. Critical analysis requires us to step out of our personal views and experiences, and look through an intellectual framework that allows us to learn from others’ insights and gain a broader understanding of what goes on in the world beyond our own personal view.

Negotiation between these two orientations–to see personal relevance and to transcend the personal view at the same time–is the very process through which we become skilled and engaged thinkers and actors. Without the former, learning becomes mechanical and meaningless; without the latter, we remain in our own little navel-gazing world forever.

In today’s globalizing world, the balance between the two epistemological orientations is more critical than ever, so that students can make meaningful connections between themselves and their world, and become active agents–rather than cynical observers–in processes both local and global. And this is exactly where teachers and administrators in higher education can make a difference in the lives of our students and the world at large.
Kurotani is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands in California and the author of “Home Away from Home: Japanese Corporate Wives in the United States” (Duke University Press, 2005).

(May. 12, 2009)


Excerpt from “What Japanese women are Really Like” by Yukiko Kimura and Ai Yamana follows:

Adults Who Can’t Get Angry / A Deep Generation Gap

I was a high schooler myself until seven years ago. In those days, teenage girls didn’t dress like they do today. First of all, the rules at my school prohibited us from coloring our hair, cutting our skirts short, or wearing makeup. When I cut class and was seen walking around town in the middle of a school day, the police asked me, ” Why aren’t you in school?” Before that, when I was in junior high school, there was cases of corporal punishment that would make today’s PTA members defiant, and we were coerced into joing “after school clubs” that were rampant with hazing. We’d get together with neighborhood friends from other schools and start talking about, “We’ve got this weird rule at our school,” and “This punishment happened to somebody in my school.” (There were plenty of absurd school rules, like “if you wear shoes that lace to school, they must have exactly 12 holes in each shoe.)
Nowadays, when I walk through Shibuya on weekday afternoons, I’m always wondering, “Where are the schools, parents, and police?” School rules like”no make-up” are a little extreme, but at least when I was in high school I thought “I don’t like being controlled by the grown ups. I can’t wait until I get older so I can do what I want.” Honestly, the feelign I got when I finally got out of school was really special.
I’m not trying to say that we should reinstate corporal punishment. However, I do feel certain that we have become a  “society where parents don’t get angry with children.” Why don’t they get angry? We could bring up education policies that hold up the ideals of “education that inspires individuality,” and “freedom and equality”, but more than that, I think adults are confused because they have changed so much from when they were young.
Even a woman like myself who has only been out of high school for seven years finds myself shocked and wondering,”What has happened to teenagers?”. Mothers probably don’t know how to scold their own daughters who come home late.
Even if they say, “When I was your age, I was home by 9!” if their daughter replies, “Times have changed,” there’s nothing more they can say. Even if they say, ” A woman should save her virginity to give to one special person,” they’re met with, ” How old fashioned. Guys don’t even expect girls to do that anymore.”
The mother’s position is so weak that they can’t even argue,” That’s not true. After all, maybe it is true. Their mothers mgiht want to say, “That doesn’t mean we justify prostitution,” but the reason parents can’t put up convincing arguments is not limited to the generation gap.

The Shitsurakuen Craze

There’s a reason for everything. The reason why parents can’t present convincing arguments is because too many things come to mind when their daughters say, “Well grown-ups do it”.
Shitsurakuen (Paradise lost) was the title of a 1995 fiction series by Junnichi Watanabe that was published in Nihon Keizan Shinbun (japan economist newspaper), a comparatively serious newspaper targeted at businessmen. The story was about a man who worked for a publishing company and felt his world was meaningless, who meets and falls in love with the beautiful wife of another man. People around them told them to end the affiar, but their love only grew and they headed down a path toward their own death. It’s a pretty story in “tales of extramarital affairs.”
But, the openly explicitly sexual descriptions and shocking final episode, in which the lovers committed suicide while “connected” to one another, attracted controversy. It was later relased as a novel, which became a phenomenal hit selling several million copies. It was also made into a movie and a TV miniseries, both of which were hits. That year, “Shitsurakeun” stole the spotlight and the media wrote it up as evidence of an “extramarital affairs” trend.
“Extramarital affairs”  were originally carried out in secret, so it would be strange to think that people might go out and have affairs because it was trendy,” but it certainly did result in maing people who were involved in such affairs feel good about them. Cold lectures like ” the key to a woman’s happiness is to get married and…” and women should protect their chastity…” have any pervasive power on young people who had been exposed to such phenomena?
The reaso nteenage grisl became obsessed with designer goods to the point of being ridiculous is because they were brainwashed by the same “shopping is good” religion that persisted for fifty years in Japan since the end of the war. Mothers looking for good hsusbands, fathers working themselves almost to the point of death and the zeal to get children into good schools were all for the purpose of having a rich life. When adults go on trips overseas, they all buy up designer goods, don’t they? What’s wrong with us buying them? Wasn’t it adults that taught them that “designer goods=good things?”
One more thing that we must pay attention to is the fact that their parents were the baby boomers, the parents of the “new family” generation. The daughters of this gerneation know that their parents are suckers for the line “But everybody’s doing it.” Young people nowadays are more interested in “standing out!” than “doing what everybody else is,” but they use this argument because they know their parent’s generation was raised with this sort of “don’t try to stand out” type thinking. Their parents are suckers for this. They’re terrified of the idea that, ” what if my child was different from everyone else … ”
Furthermore, parents who’ve been subjected to the media brainwashing of “happy families” consisting of “the mother and daguhter who are like friends and can talk about anything together” and “the understanding father who you can talk to about anything”are terrified of “having their daughters (or sons) hate them.”

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