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College freshmen are the age of the Harry Potter books. You are hurtling toward death.

Today's college freshmen were too young for any of this.
Today's college freshmen were too young for any of this.
Brian Brainerd/Denver Post via Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

This year's 18-year-old college freshmen have never known a world without color photos on the front page of the New York Times, The Lion King on Broadway, or "super glue" in surgical operating rooms.

If you think these are fascinating, illuminating facts that suddenly make young people understandable, the Beloit College Mindset List is for you. If you think this is a weird way to define a generation, let alone explain young adults to their elders, you're right.

Every year, Beloit College in Wisconsin releases a list of what it calls "cultural touchstones" that define that year's 18-year-old college freshmen. Really, it exists for one reason: to make everyone else feel old.

It's excellent at this. The Mindset List, which, like many but not all college freshmen, turns 18 this year, was social media gold even when "social media" meant "email forwards." Halfway through this year's 50-item list, I realized that, at 28, I might only be 10 years older than they are but I already have one foot in the grave. Today's freshmen were born the year the first Harry Potter book came out?! They don't remember a world without wifi?!

It's a public relations ploy, and a very effective one (it's the only reason I could tell you anything about Beloit College). And a list of cultural references to make you realize that you're old is a fine thing to make. It's the concept that launched a thousand "Only '90s kids will remember" lists. But the Mindset List claims to be more than that — it wants to help aging professors decode Kids These Days.

That's an admirable goal, and if the Mindset List actually did that, it would be useful.

Defining a generation by what it doesn't remember is dumb

Lion King marquee on broadway

This Broadway marquee has been around as long as today's college freshmen have. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Instead, the list is a missed opportunity. College campuses are filled with faculty and administrators who seemingly don't understand 18-year-olds these days, what with their Snapchat and their trigger warnings and their inability to date. If the list actually tried to explain students' mindset, explain how communication has shifted, or even demonstrate that 18-year-olds, in many important ways, haven't changed all that much, it would be performing a service.

But it doesn't. As usual, this year's list breaks down into a few categories:

Possibly useful information that could come up in class. Today's 18-year-olds have never known a world without Google; Scotland and Wales have always had their own parliaments; since they were born, Hong Kong has always belonged to China.

Pop culture anniversaries. The Lion King has always been on Broadway; "South Park" has always existed; Paul McCartney and Elton John have always been knights of the British Empire; Harry Potter books started being published the year they were born.

Factoids. "Splenda has always been a sweet option in the US." "The Atlanta Braves have always played at Turner Field." "CNN has always been available en Español."

Oh, great. I had no idea how to communicate with 18-year-olds, but now that I know they've never known a world without Splenda, it all becomes clear.

The Mindset List assumes that 18-year-olds managed to graduate high school and get into college while remaining unaware of concepts like "history" or "progress," certain that nothing of import happened before they were born and that life has always been exactly the way it is today. It gives exactly one insight into how college freshmen think, the same insight it offers every year: These people were not alive all the time that you have been alive, and they might not remember things that you remember!

And in doing so, rather than helping students and professors connect, it puts even more distance between them. The list reminds faculty that they are old and out of touch, and that their students are young and with it. It reinforces the idea that the pop culture that matters is the pop culture of a generation ago or more, not whatever 18-year-olds are watching and discussing and creating. It defines a generation by how they relate to the past, not how they're shaping the present.

But it is really good at making you feel old.

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