The generation gap, a challenge for educational transmission


It was in the 1970s that the existence of a generation gap, in the sense of a generational break between “young people” on the one hand and adults on the other, appeared in a number of scientific works. .

Noting the emergence of a new age group since the end of the Second World War, characterized by unprecedented social, clothing and artistic practices – musical in particular – as well as by the use of specific media (in France, the the journal Salut les copains dates from the 1960s), these authors have analyzed this phenomenon as a social and cultural fact.

It is no doubt no coincidence that they were often either ethnologists, like Margaret Mead, or well aware of this field of research like the American psychologist Jérôme Bruner: the generation gap appeared to them as a typical phenomenon of societies. Western contemporary, as opposed to “traditional societies”, to which they had devoted their work (one can quote for example the work of Margaret Mead Mœurs et sexualité en Océanie ).

A new conception of time

In these traditional societies, the generation gap is non-existent, on the one hand due to a way of life which gives adults and young people a great number of opportunities to be together, and on the other hand to a performance. social of time which designs the future on the model of the past. The change is experienced negatively, so what matters is keeping the order of things. Education is implemented there as a transmission from the past.

Adults, for example Margaret Mead writes in her essay  The Generation Gap , cannot imagine education as anything other than “transmitting to their descendants a sense of unchanging continuity.” Rightly or wrongly, they are certain about what should be passed on to children.

On the contrary, this situation disappears in contemporary Western societies, in particular under the effect of increasing enrollment in education, which means that young people are educated away from social life and workplaces. To this, we will add a new conception of time that can be summed up by the idea of ​​the unpredictability of the future. We have clear illustrations of this in front of us. Very few were, for example, those who could foresee, in the years 70-80, the revolution of the data processing and the means of communication which upset a few years later the world of work and all of our lifestyles.

You should certainly not be too general. The generation gap does not exist at all ages; it is differentiated according to social groups as well as according to activities – is there a generation gap in sports practices?

The current economic crisis and in particular the vagaries of the professional integration of young people produce contrasting effects: on the one hand, they lead them to stay longer in the family home and they strengthen the solidarity, particularly financial, of the generations. On the other hand, they reflect to young people the image of a less exciting world and arouse the desire to postpone the moment of entering it as much as possible. This reinforces the withdrawal into oneself of youth, the lengthening of the duration of studies, and consequently, of this age of life.

It is in this context that the question of the generation gap arises: when adults no longer know how to say what tomorrow will bring and when they find it difficult to assume a world of which they have good reason not to be proud, it becomes difficult to know what education should pass on to new generations.

Hannah Arendt’s response

In 1958, in an article entitled “The crisis of education”, the German philosopher, emigrated to the United States, Hannah Arendt provides an answer to this question . On the one hand, educators must present themselves as “representatives of the world” before the new generations, whatever opinions they have on the state of the world elsewhere. On the other hand, education is not about imposing a vision of the future on children.

Arendt takes note of the unpredictability of the future: each generation bequeaths to the next, a world that no one could foresee in advance. But, and this is a central thesis of his thought, “the birth rate is the miracle that saves the world”. Newcomers carry with them a creativity that enables them to meet the challenge of the future.

The appearance in the world of beings who are foreign to her is envisioned by Hannah Arendt as the source of our capacity for invention and innovation – a capacity that educators must be careful not to break, which we would do if we pretended to educate in the name of a conception of the future.

Education must be content to be learning about the world as it is, learning which passes through intergenerational transmission. Contrary to the experiences of “self-government” which were fashionable in the United States in the 1950s, this transmission involves an effort by adults to maintain ties, an effort which must be reflected in individual attitudes and in political decisions. The need for educational transmission must be placed at the heart of educational policies.

Jérôme Bruner’s response

I will borrow a second answer, significantly different, from the American psychologist Jérôme Bruner. Bruner is situated in the pedagogical tradition of new education and pragmatism, represented mainly in the United States by the monumental figure of John Dewey, and characterized by the desire to open the school to the world and to generate initiative. students on projects or actions developed collectively.

On this basis, Bruner argues that students can be prepared from schooling to face the unpredictability of the future, working on ‘socially hot issues’, in other words the problems facing contemporary societies, for example, natural or man-made disasters and how to deal with them.

Contrary to Arendt’s ideas, the school desired by Bruner supports children in developing their ability to pose and face problems, by offering them working methods, tools to deal with them, practical situations. to implement them. However, educational transmission does not disappear; it is intended to be articulated with the students’ learning and research activity.

On the generation gap, Bruner formulated in 1973, an original hypothesis, the hypothesis of the “intermediate generation”. By this he means the educational role that young adults, that is to say the oldest young people, can play with their younger siblings. The middle generation is already in the world of work, while still having a foothold in the world of adolescence.

Some of its most popular figures – radio hosts, singers, now influencers, etc.) are both desirable role models for young people while already belonging to the adult world; both on the side of desire and of reason. They respond to the lack of attractiveness of the adult world, by showing by their example the very image – realistic or illusory – of a desirable life.

Let us conclude that in both cases, the confidence of adults in young people is at the center of educational practice. But the consequences of this trust are different. For Arendt, confidence means that the youth must be armed with knowledge and intellectual capacities to, when they become adults, be able to face the problems of the world in a way that no one can foresee today. For Bruner, trust implies that young people are involved – from education – in the discussion of these problems and that they are thus formed in a collaborative mode.

In both cases, however, perhaps it is ultimately because the future is unpredictable that the generation gap is necessary: ​​it is this stage which allows young people to distance themselves from adults and to distance themselves from adults. put themselves in a position to face the world’s problems later, with the means that they can invent themselves.

Author Bio: Philippe Foray is a University Professor in Educational Sciences at Jean Monnet University, Saint-Étienne