Non-politics, A Multidisciplinary Approach

Allison Boldt, Contributor

The recurring theme of this series is how our generation differs from past generations.  An obvious distinction drawn was our use of social media and other nontraditional venues of political participation. It makes sense that our political identity reflects the technology available to us. One could probably make the argument that even the sex appeal we crave has roots in our constant exposure to different forms of media, which lends itself to a fast-paced lifestyle.

But technology aside, our generation has another distinguishing characteristic that is not as widely discussed: we are statistically more likely than our parents to go to college or universities. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70.1 percent of all 2009 US high school graduates enrolled in some form of post-secondary education: this up from 45.7 percent in 1959, when the BLS began collecting the data. Of those continuing on to college this year, about 60 percent will do so through a four-year institution.

On the surface, these statistics may seem a bit humdrum. But the impact of our college educations on our generational identity should not be underestimated. Regardless of what one chooses to study, or where, post-secondary education broadens our perspective as a generation by developing our critical thinking skills and forcing us to work with people we might not ordinarily choose to talk to, let alone work with.

Four-year institutions and other schools with “General Education” requirements are particularly influential in distinguishing our generations’ civic character. The various class requirements discuss a wide range of practical and historical problems and leave graduates with a multidisciplinary approach to thinking about these problems.

Maybe I’m projecting here, but my impression is that my college experience was largely typical. I went to a medium-sized public school and was required to take courses in science, health, history, literature and arts. My first year, I remember discussing Genetically Modified Organisms in biology class, religious tolerance in history class and racism in literature class. Although I was unaware of it, I was learning about and having dialogues around political issues in every single classwithout ever stepping foot in a political science classroom (that came later) or realizing my interest in “political” issues.

It’s true that some of the Baby Boomers or Generation X’ers probably had similar college experiences. It’s also true that there is still a very real privilege gap in this country that divides those who can and cannot afford college. Still, the sheer percentage of Generation Y’ers going to college distinguishes us; it makes us more likely to think about issues through many lenses, as we were instructed to do in our classes as undergrad students. For instance, we associate climate change not through a political lens, but rather from the perspectives of biology, anthropology and environmental studies. When we think about poverty, we think less about the welfare reform debate and instead incorporate information from the fields of sociology, psychology, economics and literature. Further, we are much more likely than our parents to study the highly interdisciplinary fields like Women’s Studies, Latino Studies, and LGBT Studies, many of which were still taking shape throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Politically, this multidisciplinary perspective might contribute to the stereotype that we are an apathetic generation. This goes back to the dichotomy between political issues and the traditional political system, which is simply more static than we are. From our perspective, we do think about politics and talk about politics—just not in a way where we follow how many votes a certain bill needs to pass into statute, or who is ahead in primary X. For many of us, this political horse race seems to miss the point. We would rather talk directly about the political problem at hand and apply a multidisciplinary analysis toward a solution. Rather than exciting us, “politics” seems just to get in the way.

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