Lessons Learned From Millennials

Are you a Human Resource manager looking for training resources to better address the complexities of an increasingly multi-generational workforce? Perhaps you even attended a session on millennials at the annual conference of New Jersey Organization Development professionals held May 4 in Newark, NJ. The workshop “Lessons Learned from millennials—Deep Seeing, Inspired Thinking” was based on my college student essays that I collected over the past 25 years. It also grew out of my professional teacher development using imaginement ®, a tool for assessing attentional seeing and the thinking process it engenders at the museum. What fascinated me is that millennials demonstrated the capacity for higher-order thinking when it came to looking at artifacts particularly from Asian cultures.

Reading student essays about their encounter with an Asian art object over the past 25 years has taught me a thing or two. First, how we have mislabeled millennial students through such (derogatory) terms as “narcissistic,” “self-absorbed” individuals with short attention spans. Time and again, my community college students wrote about their process of deep seeing and thinking in their written first reports about time spent pleasantly during intimate encounters with art in the museum. They also showed the way in which a freely imaginative mind is not only at the core of all vital art making, but also in looking at art [1]

Some scholars might question the validity of a creative essay in place of the traditional art history research paper, yet as Dan Gilbert of Harvard told me, first-report essays are considered the gold standard in the field of economics and psychology. The essays also deepened my understanding of my own research on Chinese painting and why Confucian bureaucrats, who were polymaths in their own right, always played the, “amateur card,” when it came to their painting, calligraphy, and poetry, which more often than not was masterful. The inverse is that the student non-experts wrote eloquently about a work of art while imagining what was in the mind of the creator, arriving at an insightful judgment about it. What then is this, “sweet spot,” that lies within the field of acquired expert knowledge yet outside it in the realm of ideas? For the maestro, Aaron Copland, it was not an enigma at all: the amateur listener excited him because he or she brought a sensitivity that was totally lacking of prejudices and preconceptions of the professional musician. To Copland, the amateur has the “ability to lend herself to the music while simultaneously getting both the event and the idealization of the event.” Like the, “virtuoso,” amateur listener, the student viewer has the same uncanny ability to get absorbed into the art and hang in the midst of expectation and attention while being fully present in the moment. In an act of elevated cognition the amateur presents as a sentient being given over to the power of art. [2]

Now here’s the rub: for more than two millennia, Confucian scholars sought to tap their ancient wisdom tradition through the arts. In my experience, millennials are, “hardwired,” for it while using the museum as their virtual laboratory. When it comes to sustainability, we would be wise to, “listen up,” and look around at what psychologist Henry James referred to as invaluable, continually renewable sources of energy; i.e., what millennials can model to the rest of us is their indubitable ability to see and think out of the box. Now if only we have the eyes to see it, for here may lie, our nation’s greatest resource of sustainable value.

  1. Philosopher Susanne Langer wrote of the imaginative mind at the core of all music making and listening. Feeling and Form, 336. See if you agree with the other music metaphors I employed here.
  2. Aaron Copland. Music and Imagination. 1952, pp. 9-13.