27.2.08

What We Don't Know About the World

This is an article I published as Editor in Chief of my college newspaper, The Skidmore News, at the end of 2006. I'm republishing it here because it's been on my mind lately in relation to the presidential election and I want to write a bit using this article as a sort of jumping off point. Peruse at your leisure.

What We Don't Know About the World
Cover Story, 14 April 2006
Volume 82 Issue 21
The Skidmore News

If you're a Skidmore student, questions about international current events might leave you scratching your head. At least that's what is indicated by the results of a fifteen-question current events survey designed by The Skidmore News and administered by nine professors to nine Skidmore academic classes in seven academic departments. One hundred and sixty Skidmore students took the survey that included questions addressing local, national, and international news as well as pop culture. Our average score: 47%. Read on to see what we know and don't know, why we don't know it, and how to fix it.

THE RESULTS

The president of Iran is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It's a tough name to pronounce and a tougher one to spell, but it might be worthwhile to get it down if the United States tosses a couple tactical nuclear warheads his way, an option the Bush administration has on the table according to investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh.

Ahmadinejad was identified – with generous leeway for spelling – by only three out of the one hundred and sixty students surveyed by The Skidmore News. "As a teacher of international affairs," said a dismayed Professor of Anthropology, Gerry Erchak, "it's quite sad to think people don't know – even if you can't spell it, just to mumble it – the president of Iran, when right now that's one of the most important front page stories on a daily basis; the conflict of the West with Iran, and particularly its nuclear ambitions."

Professor of Sociology, Rik Scarce found the result equally disturbing. "[That statistic] is troubling because according to the news the president is thinking about using nuclear weapons against Iran. [That option] is beyond the pale and it would help if we knew a little about the nation we're going to nuke."

In Iraq-related matters, 76% of students surveyed knew that about 2,500 United States troops have died in the Iraq War so far but only 25% could name a city, besides Baghdad, in Iraq. "It's kind of fascinating," noted Scarce, "that students can get the correct number of troops [killed] but can't tell us where they were killed."

Students displayed a decent knowledge of the United States' number one ally, England, and 82%, a higher percentage than any other question, correctly named Tony Blair as the nation's prime minister. However that number still startled Professor of Anthropology, Gerry Erchak: "To not know the British Prime Minister… I don't understand how that's possible. You'd have to wear earplugs, a blindfold, and sit in a closet. I don't understand how you could not hear that just walking around… That's what kills me."

And despite extensive campus discussion and high passions concerning abortion, 14% of students surveyed named the two most recent additions to the United States Supreme Court (Samuel Alito and now Chief Justice John Roberts); a body that may soon play the decisive role in the future of abortion in the United States.

56% of students correctly identified Condoleezza Rice as the current United States Secretary of State. When told that statistic Erchak responded, "you're ruining my day."

Scarce felt the results offered a "mixed bag; there are some positive things but there are also some things that tell us engagement is limited… I think we see that some students are paying attention to the fundamental aspects of the world around them. Should they care more? Yeah, but I see some great things in this data and some that are really disappointing."

Seven out of ten students know the United States has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. 63% of students surveyed know the H5N1 bird flu virus is not yet able to pass from person to person and about as many students know there are eight declared nuclear weapons states in the world (51%) as were able to name two of the hosts of American Idol (50%). Only 15% identified Val Keehn as the mayor of Saratoga Springs.

Said Erchak of the overall results: "I don't see how you can take your place in the world and graduate without knowing some of these things. These aren't jeopardy questions."

WHY DON'T WE KNOW THIS STUFF?

Are the Daily Show and the Colbert Report to blame? Can it be that the contemporary college students' Woodward and Bernstein led us astray? Is the flaw in our education? Or is the fault not in our stars but in ourselves? There is little consensus on the matter.

Dean of Student Affairs, Pat Oles, asserts students' lack of knowledge in the affairs of the world speaks in part to, "the predisposition of faculty and staff to go deep into research not related to current events related issues of concern… I think the specialization of disciplines," continued Oles, "is higher right now than the broad discourse of public affairs. And that's just kind of the state of the world right now."

Oles also wondered whether the ease of information gathering thanks to the internet contributes to a lack of current events awareness. "To the extent that Google allows you to go get a specific fact," considered Oles, "I wonder if that's at the loss of a slower, deeper understanding because pre-Google I would have had to wander to the library and read a book or an article." But while Oles wondered whether specialization in the classroom led to decreased current events awareness, professors Erchak and Scarce both felt that students should come to class already with an understanding of critical issues in the world.

"[Much of this information] should be things that students obtain for themselves," said Erchak. "These should be things that we can rely on as teachers as things that students would know so that we can build on that. I mean you can't teach literature if students don't know their alphabet or the basics of sentence structure. And I think that's what we have here."

Scarce felt that lecturers and special guests brought to Skidmore offer a wealth of knowledge that is largely untapped by the student body. "The chances to engage in intellectual life here outside the classroom are extraordinary… if you went to Clarence Page's lecture you'd remember Condi Rice, he talked about her. It's not just about the classroom."

Erchak struggled to propose a reason why students displayed such a tenuous grasp on the facts of the world around them. "I think it's partly the substitution of shows like [The Daily Show] and the Colbert Report [in place of] news and newspaper reading," said Erchak. "I'm a little bit upset because the New York Times was just made available for free a couple of years ago. You'd think that that would have an impact. You certainly see a lot of students reading it. But apparently there are an equally large number of students who don't read it, or don't retain it, or whatever. But you know, even Jon Stewart, I'm sure, mentions the President of Iran, so I'm not sure what's going on here."

Even further complicating the debate on students' blasé attitude toward current events, Student Government Association President, Petria Fleming '06 offered yet another opinion.

"When we have a school that has 'creative thought' coming before thinking… what you have is a situation where activism becomes more important than thinking. Like in discussions on diversity the conversation is sometimes, 'Oh, we have a problem with diversity, let's do something about it.' And when you don't stop to think why diversity is important or what that concept means, then that's activism without thinking."

Fleming worries that this blind activism leads to the end of learning for the sake of learning and a situation where considerate civic engagement is limited. "In this situation, academics become subservient to action," said Fleming.

Though there is little consensus on anything but the opinion that the results of the current events quiz were poor, most interviewed seemed to agree the tools to fix the problem are available and are not, but must be, utilized.

STUDENTS RESPOND

Julia Cizeski '09 takes a full load of classes and wishes she kept up more with the news than she does. It seems a typical position of the Skidmore student.

"I wish I kept up with [current events] more, I think it's really important. I feel like I'm kind of in a bubble here though and I know there are resources here… but I feel like there's so much," Cizeski claimed.

Intimidation by media outlets and products seem to hold a number of students back. "[Following the news] isn't just about this year it's about knowing what happened for the last ten years," said Cizeski.

For Michelle Bossler '09 there is a similar feeling of intimidation although she finds motivation to keep up with the news from some of her classes.

"I'm not up to date but I'm trying to be," she said, "I haven't been raised to follow the news but I took Critical Issues in World Politics to try to keep up on it. I feel like people are up to date in their field of interest but maybe not the news."

Time is also a factor for students as noted Erica Kretz '09.

"I'd like to be more informed… I don't have enough time though," said Kretz. But Kretz noted that she used to have a better grasp on current events in high school. "We talked more in group settings," she explained, "Skidmore would benefit from more group discussions [on current events] but I'm not sure who would organize that."

There is a dynamic in class, though, that seems to motivate students but does not exist outside class. Bossler explained: "When people ask questions in class I'm amazed at how in depth the questions are so I'm pushed to keep up but I don't see that outside of class at all."

Cizeski agreed; "Outside of class it's not as intellectual and activist as I thought it might be."

WHERE DO WE FIGURE HISTORICALLY?

The paradox of the Information Age may be that the more access young people have to news in America, the more they ignore it or are distracted by other things. At least that is what is suggested by a 1990 study by the Times Mirror Center and corroborated, at least in part, by this Skidmore News study, administered sixteen years later as access to information and the media has only increased.

In 1990 the Times Mirror Center published "The Age of Indifference," a report on the involvement of Americans, evaluated by age group, in current events at the start of the 90's and how it compared to past generations. Though the study was much broader than the one distributed by The Skidmore News and about half of the participants in the 18-29 year old range had not attended college, there were similarities in that age group's grasp of current events and ours.

In November 1989 the report showed that 42% of participants aged 18-29 followed "very closely" the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of the Berlin Wall. In May of 1989, 26% of the 18-29 age group followed "very closely" the United States Supreme Court's "hearing of arguments in a Missouri abortion case." Today, 14% of Skidmore Students surveyed correctly named the two most recent justices appointed to the Supreme Court.

The study concluded that its data in 1990 "reveals a generation [of 18-29 year olds] that knows less, cares less, and reads newspapers less. It is also a generation that votes less and is less critical of its leaders and institutions than young people in the past."

WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

Often the stacks of New York Times positioned around Case Center are emptied before noon. And, as Erchak suggested, the questions in The Skidmore News' quiz are indeed the occasional targets of the Stewart or Colbert-ian wit. Nonetheless, the evidence is that students, even if they are encountering current events news, aren't retaining it. So what can be done?

"Well, I think students should put away their iPods and spend more time reading newspapers, listening to news, watching news, and reading also news magazines… it's easy to catch up on the basics," said Erchak, "it's just not hard." Erchak acknowledged that in some ways it is harder for students to keep track of the news because of the work they to do for classes but said, "I would never accept that as an excuse."

For Scarce, he sees a wealth of opportunities for engagement outside the classroom that is generally ignored by students. "We bring brilliant young poets to campus, New York Times photographers, French philosophers. The opportunities to use what you learn in class, outside of class," emphasized Scarce, "is just extraordinary here." Scarce, who has also taught at Michigan State University said that he "has never been on a more intellectually charged campus when it comes to events outside the classroom… not every students needs to go to every event, but more need to show up."

The First Year Experience, suggested Oles, might be a place where it might be possible to create a coordinated effort to read and follow the press. But in general Oles felt the engagement needed to occur from student to student. "People master facts in favor of facing debate," said Oles. "Where do students go after lectures? Do they sit down in the dining hall and say, for example, 'Wow, Bernard Henri Lévy, what a windbag,' and discuss that?... I think students need to demand more of each other and faculty need to demand more of students."

Ideas abound but the reality remains that students at Skidmore find themselves in a dismal condition when it comes to our awareness of the world around us. Our heads are in the sand now, but what happens when something comes along that forces them out? Worried Erchak, "It's scary because you'll have uninformed people who are directly or indirectly making decisions by voting, selecting leaders… Maybe they won't vote right away, but they will vote. So you have people with no knowledge of what's going on. That makes you easy prey for ideologues and zealots it seems to me."

1 comment:

dbow said...

I'm responding to the professor statements at the end of the article:

I honestly don't think it's such a travesty that college students are not immersed in news media or current events while they're at college. If you spend your time at school learning larger concepts and theories, you can then apply them in a more disinterested way to current events later. For example, if you spend your time learning the history of the middle east in a history class, you can catch up quickly when you do have the time (like i do right now at work!) and you'll bring a much more rigorous intellectual framework for judging what you read in the news media about Ahmadenijad. I guess it just depends on which timeframe you value. "Current events" and the news media tend to operate in the day-to-day, minute-by-minute timeframe. But, often it's more valuable to step back, not get so involved in that minutia, and look at larger patterns; which is something you can do at school without knowing the name of this particular president of Iran.