The Minds Behind the Mind-Set List

Beloit College

Tom McBride, a professor of English and the humanities (left), and Ron Nief, emeritus director of public affairs, produced the first official Beloit College Mind-Set List in 1998. Now they have a Web site, a social-networking presence, and a book in the works.
August 17, 2010

The Beloit College Mind-Set List turns 13 this year, and like many other American teenagers, it has hundreds of friends on Facebook and a sense of bigger things to come.

Its authors, Tom McBride and Ron Nief, talk excitedly about a forthcoming book and an educational spinoff that is planned this fall at the local high school in Beloit, Wis. They idly toss around other ideas: a mind-set calendar, maybe an electronic game.

"We're trying to figure out who's going to play us in the movie," jokes Mr. Nief, who retired last spring after a long career as Beloit College's director of public affairs.

Mr. McBride, a professor of English and the humanities, says the list started on a lark back in 1997—some old college hands unwinding on a Friday afternoon, musing on how much freshmen don't know about recent history and culture. But such blind spots are to be expected, they had agreed, given the relative youth of the incoming class. They had concluded that professors should be mindful of how very different their students' life experiences are from their own.

With colleagues, they had brainstormed about the cultural touchstones for that year's entering freshman class, whose members would have been born in 1979. That was the year of the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Three Mile Island. The resulting list was passed around and eventually found its way into the hands of a Wall Street Journal reporter, who subsequently wrote about it.

Mr. Nief knew then that he and his colleagues were onto something important. "It was what prompted us to really develop the list for the first official version, in the fall of 1998," he says. The Beloit College Mind-Set List has been published annually ever since, offering up a series of statements about things that have "always" or "never" been part of the experience of a given cohort of students. For the members of the Class of 2014, for example, Woody Allen has always been with Soon-Yi Previn, and Americans have never approved of the job that Congress is doing.

August is a slow month in the news business, so Beloit's list always gets lots of press. It has been featured on the Today show, on NBC Nightly News, and in countless newspapers and magazines. But even though it changes every year—Mr. Nief and Mr. McBride spend weeks searching for material—the adherence to a static format has, at times, made the mind-set list feel like one of its own entries, a relic of a bygone era.

Perhaps its authors sensed that themselves. Or maybe Mr. Nief's new "emeritus" title finally left him with a little spare time. Whatever the cause, Beloit's list is no longer just a list.

First there is the book, tentatively titled The Mind-Set List of American History, and expected to be published next July by John Wiley and Sons. It will look at Americans since 1880, demonstrating how the events of history have altered the perspective of each successive generation. The final chapter, Mr. McBride says, will speculate on the mind-set of the Class of 2030, offering such lines as "Protestants have always been nonexistent or had minority status on the U.S. Supreme Court," and "Americans have always had universal health insurance, but the retirement age has always been 75."

Then there is Beloit's mind-set Web site, which has links to all of the past lists, at In addition, Mr. Nief and Mr. McBride maintain a "Mind-Set Moment" site, at, where visitors can submit personal anecdotes that illustrate generational gaps—like the professor who got an unintended laugh from students after telling them one cold, snowy day to leave their rubbers by the door. The site also includes a generational-advice column called "Ask Rom," a name that both combines the two mind-set founders' names, Ron and Tom, and serves as a self-deprecating acronym for "really old men." And their Facebook page, now at 1,400 fans and growing, offers a daily mind-set quiz.

In addition, Mr. Nief and Mr. McBride have long given educational talks about their creation to teachers, professors, clergy members, and coaches. This fall they plan to take their brainchild to Beloit's high school, where students will be assigned to collect oral histories from older family members, spurring, the two men hope, intergenerational conversations about how mind-sets change against the shifting backdrop of American history.

The students "would begin to weave together what their families were like in the 1930s and 40s," Mr. McBride says. "They would learn what their parents were like when they were young."

It is a heady time for two guys who started with a fairly simple idea.

When August has passed and the annual round of mind-set inquiries has subsided, Mr. Nief and Mr. McBride will head back to the library to immerse themselves in the world of 1993, when most of the members of the Class of 2015 would have been born. Like a pair of time travelers under strict orders not to alter past events, they will look on helplessly at humankind's historical blunders.

"Sometimes," says Mr. Nief, "you find yourself practically shouting at the microfiche: 'Don't do it. Don't change the formula of Coke.'"

At other times the results of bad decisions can be grim, as Mr. McBride observes: "Don't fund the Taliban."