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Serving the Millennial Student: How Far Should We Go?

November 17-18, 2006
University of the Sacred Heart and the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Excerpts from the Plenary Panel

Speaker: Michael D. Coomes, Associate Professor and Interim Chair, Department of Higher Education and Student Affairs, Bowling Green State University.

Wii, They, and Us

I would like to present you with three very easy to remember words: Wii, They, and Us.

First, Wii. I am not referring to the more conventional “W-E” we, but rather to the “W-i-i” Wii—the latest video gaming platform from Nintendo. The Wii is being touted as the next step forward in video gaming, a console (and I quote here from the Nintendo Website) that “will revolutionize how people play games. But more importantly, it will entice new players into the world of video games by offering a variety of entertainment, information, and communication channels that add value to the console and make it a device that the entire family can enjoy.”

The Wii’s plans to change the world of entertainment are not new – similar claims were made by Sony during the recent roll-out of PS-3, its newest gaming platform – but they do seem to stand as a statement about the Millennial generation and the Wii as a metaphor for that generation’s experience. I choose to see the Wii as a metaphor for the role that popular culture plays in shaping generations in general and the Millennial generation in particular, for I see the Wii and its connectivity companions – cell phones, i-Pods, GPS navigation systems, computers – as symbols of the seamless integration of popular culture in the lives of our students.

The importance of popular culture should not be trivialized. Studying popular culture is a way to understand the values and beliefs that guide our culture, and, because popular culture is infinitely and continuously accessible, it may provide the best entry for understanding those beliefs and values. Furthermore, as Henry Giroux contends, popular culture has important educational implications:

Learning in the postmodern age is located in popular spheres that shape [youth’s] identities through forms of knowledge and desire that appear absent from what is taught in school. The literacies of the postmodern age are electronic, aural, and image based; and it is precisely within the diverse terrain of popular culture that pedagogical practices must be established as part of a broader politics of public life. (Giroux, p. 49)

Former colleagues of mine at Bowling Green State University Jack Nachbar and Kevin Lause (1992) developed a model that uses the metaphor of the house to describe the nature of popular culture. The basement of the house consists of a cultural mindset, which captures bedrock beliefs (myths) and values. Bedrock beliefs are generally tacitly held and not open to regular questioning and criticism. Layered on this bedrock are more visible beliefs and values, beliefs and values that frequently are shallow, transient, faddish, and prone to fancies and fashion.

As beliefs and values are difficult to discern, it is necessary to have physical representations to grasp and understand them (Nachbar & Lause, 1992). As I have noted elsewhere (Coomes, 2004.):

This is the level of the artifact – the people and objects that embody the values. Popular people are considered heroes or celebrities and popular objects are icons. These heroes/celebrities and icons can be imaginary (for example, Superman; the sleigh “Rosebud” in the film Citizen Kane) or real (for example, Samuel L. Jackson; the Liberty Bell). Celebrities cut across the real/imaginary boundary. They do exist as objective realities (Madonna exists) but ‘their hyped-up, fabricated star persona is often so distant from the real person as to be more properly considered a type of fiction’ (Nachbar & Lause, 1992, p. 24). Similarly, Nachbar and Lause note that stereotypes cut across and contain elements of both the real and the imaginary. Where celebrities are typically positive, stereotypes are frequently negative, particularly when employed to label groups who do not subscribe to dominant culture values or who have been marginalized by the larger mass culture. The final level, which shapes and is shaped by preceding levels, is the event. Nachbar and Lause include rituals, popular arts, and their connective tissue, formula, at this level. (p. 25)

This model suggests that we must understand popular arts, rituals, and formulas if we hope to understand the values that form the bedrock of our culture — a set of values which shapes who Millennial students are, how they interact with each other and members of other generations, and how they will shape their world.

To help you think about what values have shaped and are shaping the world views of the Millennial student, let me share with you two or three pop culture trends I identified in my 2004 monograph on Millennial students:

Grrrl Power. Since they were young Millennial girls have seen images of “strong, independent, and capable women” (p. 27). In 1999, Rolling Stone Magazine noted:

Girls, for the first time in American History, wield tangible power in dictating popular culture, and they are confident consumers, secure in their opinions. A cottage industry has sprung up around the study of these young’uns, because what they dig will eventually make its way, in diluted form, to the forty-year-olds. (Dunn, 1999, p. 120)

The following examples drawn from a variety of pop culture forms demonstrate the emergence of Grrrl Power. Animated Film: The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991),; Pocahontas (1995), Anastasia (1998), Mulan (1998), Spirited Away (2002). Sport: WNBA, USA 1999 Women’s World Cup Champions, the Williams sisters, Mia Hamm, Sarah Hughes, Tara Dakides. Magazines: Cosmo Girl, Seventeen, Teen People, YM. Music: Beyonce Knowles, Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morissette. Television: The Olson Twins, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clarissa Explains It All, The Gilmore Girls.

Hip Hop Goes Mainstream. Rap music’s pervasiveness suggests that it is the soundtrack of this generation. Whether it is gangsta, message, pop, East coast, West Coast or even Christian rap, it is pervasive and here to stay. Baskari Kitwana claimed that “Within the arena of popular culture, rap music more than anything else has helped shape the new Black youth culture” (p. 9) It has also helped shape the larger culture. A consideration of the values that support hip-hop formula is necessary for understanding our current generation of students.

Reach Out and Touch Someone—Constantly. I want to return now to the Wii, which represents the perpetually connected, 24-7 lifestyle of Millennials. Millennials are redefining the meaning of interpersonal maturity. Email, cell phones, and IM allow Millennials to cast a much wider net of relationships. Those technologies also allow Millennials the opportunity to avoid the difficult task of confronting others face-to-face.

Now on to They (them?). By “them” I mean all of those in the ever-shrinking world whose lives will touch this generation of students. You do not need me to tell you how small the world is getting and how interconnected it has become. From communications to trade, from politics to famine, the decisions made in what were at one time far-flung parts of the globe have direct repercussions in our own country.

I would like to suggest one national and one global issue these purportedly action-oriented, civic-minded young adults will have to confront and address in the future. The first, at the national level, is political polarization and ineffectiveness and the tensions between globalization and nationalism and fundamentalism and post-modernity.

A review of data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Project from 1982 to 2005 shows that the political views of college freshmen are becoming more polarized at the expense of the middle. In 1982, 22% of college freshmen rated themselves as far left and liberal, 57% as middle of the road, and 21% as conservative and far right (Astin, Oseguera, Sax, and Korn, 2002). By 2005 33% far left and liberal, 45% middle of the road, and 22% conservative and far right (Sax, Lindholm, Astin, Korn, and Mahoney, 2002). (Coomes, 2004, p. 23)

The global issues shaping the lives of the “Millennial generation were building prior to September 11, 2001, but have become stronger since the events of that tragic day” (Coomes, 2004, p. 23). We might have anticipated a changed world in light of those terrible events, but most of us could not have predicted the subsequent events that had their genesis on 9/11, events that have become much clearer now five years later. At the heart of much of what we have experienced in the past five years has been the desire to try and resolve whether this nation will “engage with the larger world or turn inward and limit our nation’s interactions with others” (Coomes, 2004, p. 23). I see these competing positions playing out in a number of ways including:

discussions of the responsibilities of the world’s only superpower to fulfill peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts, engagement with the United Nations, immigration policy, trade, and battling the worldwide war on terrorism. . . . Creating a United States that can actively assist other nations in their own development while preserving the peace and protecting our security may be the most difficult tasks facing Millennials. For guidance, they may want to turn to the history of the last civic generation, the GIs, who successfully engaged with and helped rebuild the world following the Second World War. (Coomes, 2004, p. 23).

Finally, we come to all of US. I stand before you as “The Average Baby Boomer.” I was born smack-dab in the middle of the Boom Generation – 1951. My experiences have been the experiences of many in my generation. I lived through the Summer of Love, watched Vietnam unfold on television, watched men walk on the moon, despaired at the loss of political and social role models, got a job, started a family, grew up and am now growing old (or at least older). I feel compelled to point out to my Boomer colleagues that this newest generation of students, the Millennials, will be the last generation we have to opportunity to work with on our campuses. This is not because they are the last generation but rather, because when the generation to follow the Millennials, the oldest of whom are now about athree, shows up at the nation’s colleges, we will be long retired. That said, we had better get it right this time, and by right I mean how we assist them in their education, how we guide them in their development, and how we model what it means to be an engaged, caring and committed adult. Those members of Generation X have perhaps an even more profound responsibility. For you, members of the Millennial generation will be (are) your co-workers, significant others, friends, and fellow citizens. Initially you will serve as their guides into the world of adulthood, work, family, and citizenship. Eventually some of you will work for them as some of them are currently working you. How you work out these various relationships and roles will be one of your primary challenges for the foreseeable future.

Finally, it is important to not loose sight of the individual student as we try to understand these students as members of a larger group.

I leave you with these thoughts. Wii, popular culture does shape the values of the Millennial generation, so it behooves us to understand those shaping influences. The members of this generation are embedded in a highly complex global environment, one that is becoming increasingly complex. Like the members all preceding generations, they will need to develop the leadership skills to make the world a better place for those who follow. Us, we can help them develop those skills through the courses we offer, the experiences we support, and, most importantly, by serving as committed and ethical role models.


Astin, W. W., Oseguera, L., Sax, L. J., & Korn, W. S. (2002). The American freshman: Thirty-five year trends. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute.

Coomes, M. D. (2004, Summer). Understanding the historical and cultural influences that shape generations. In M. D. Coomes & R. DeBard, (Eds.), Serving the Millennial generation (New directions for student services, No.106, pp. 17-31) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Coomes, M. D., & DeBard, R. (Eds.). (2004, Summer). Serving the Millennial generation (New directions for student services, No. 106) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Giroux, H. A. (1989). Teenage sexuality, body politics, and the pedagogy of display. In J. S. Epstein, (Ed.), Youth culture: Identity in a post-modern world. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Nachbar, J., & Lause, K. (1992). Popular culture: An introductory text. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Press.

Sax, L. J., Lindholm, J. A., Astin, A. W., Korn, W. S., & Mahoney, K. M. (2002). The American freshman: National norms for Fall 2002. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute.

What is Wii? (2006, November). Wii website. Retrieved November 11, 2006 from

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