The Clueless Generation

Never before have undergraduate students been so networked into the world at large — and so clueless about that world. (Photo: Chris Corwin, Flickr & Creative Commons)

The first day of spring term at Simpson never seems as exciting as the first day of classes in August — the students have been away for only three weeks, and it’s frankly too cold in Iowa in January to be excited about much of anything. But it’s nice to have the kids back. They’re usually eager for a new slate of classes.

So the first day of the term in my Beginning Newswriting and Reporting course, the backbone of the multimedia journalism program at Simpson, usually has some pretty eager young people enrolled.

Day 1 of BNR includes my talk on knowing what’s in the news, and in giving them a brief current events quiz to show them (usually) how little they know. But even I found it surprising to learn on Monday that only about half of the students in my class could correctly identify Jared Lee Loughner as the accused shooter of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and 19 others just two days previously.

To be fair, nearly all of the students were aware that “someone” had shot “a congresswoman,” that the crime had taken place “in Arizona” and that the accused shooter was “crazy.” But few had paid close attention to Saturday’s events. None were aware of Loughner’s rantings in social media or his political views.

As a university education has become more of a market took for college students looking to maintain middle-class lives — and less of a social good that demands of students that they realize that they’re not the center of the universe — students have largely tuned out the world around them. Yes, they want to give back to their communities. But that’s often defined as the community immediately around them with little understanding of the forces that have created those conditions.

Beyond the immediate professional disability that journalism students inflict on themselves by not following the news, the much broader tuning-out by undergraduates robs them of the ability to create a coherent worldview and to become agents of change in their world.

Steve Striffler of the University of New Orleans argues today at that Loughner’s lack of a coherent philosophy isn’t necessarily a product of his mental illness. “[V]ery few of today’s college students have any sense of what ‘the left’ or ‘the right’ are or have traditionally stood for, what ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have historically meant or where on the political spectrum we might place fascism and communism,” he writes. “When asked, most students — most Americans — ‘know’ that Hitler and Marx are ‘bad,’ but very few can articulate what they stood for politically and many often assume that Nazi and Communist are synonymous.”

Striffler goes on to explain the significance of Loughner’s — and his fellow students’ — lack of understanding of the forces that have shaped their world:

Like Loughner, a significant portion of young people are, for very good reasons, profoundly anti-establishment, distrustful of anything they hear from the government or mainstream media. But this does not make them crazy any more than it automatically leads them toward a coherent critique of the political system. Rather, in a world where fragments of information come from so many sources, it often leads them to the odd place where any explanation of the world is as good as any other, where there is no conceptual rudder for judging one theory or idea against another. Hence, they draw from wildly opposing political ideologies and are attracted to conspiracy theories. And it often leaves them in a frustrated place where public figures cannot be trusted, and to the conclusion that nothing can be done to change the world (except perhaps something chaotic and dramatic). Hence, the tendency toward apathy and (after a philosophy class or two) nihilism.

One impact of this slow tuning out of the of the world is the rejection of one’s publicness — the realization that what happens beyond one’s circle of family and friends has any significant importance. For the typical undergraduate student looking to do service, that means that injustice isn’t something to be understood. It’s simply a fact to be accepted and the potential source of a resume line.

Academics and journalists have talked about this for decades. But what to do about it? The best solution I’ve seen comes from David Mindich of St. Michael’s College in Vermont, who proposed in his 2004 book Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News that one way to get college-bound students to pay more attention to the news is to make them accountable for it on the ACT and SAT entrance examinations.

Imagine that: High school kids not only quizzing themselves over math and science and reading as they prep for their college exams, but also poring over newspapers and websites to make sense of their world.

Schools will find a thousand reasons why Mindich’s is an unworkable idea, but it’d be a bold step if we’re serious about showing students that education is a political and public act.

1 Comment

  1. Well said, Brian. My experience with my DMACC students (moral philosophy at the Urban Campus) leads me to think that it is possible the working class students there may actually know more current affairs and politics than the more traditional ones you deal with from more middle and upper class backgrounds.

    I would estimate that about a third of my classes seem to be able to converse with some detail and coherence about the current affairs/issues/politics we discuss. I wonder — is this mostly because they are older — or is it because most of them — even the younger ones — have faced more difficult life decisions and struggles than those at Simpson.

    Frankly, I haven’t a clue.

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