Hey kid, why are you such a moron?

U.S. prof says his students are ignoramuses, and he has evidence to prove it

This is not an uncommon complaint of university professors. They won’t say it to your face, because they’re generally decent people. That, and damaging your self esteem was recently reclassified as a mortal sin. And they certainly don’t think it about all of you. Maybe not even most of you. But they often think it about some of you, and share their pain with colleagues, friends and non-student acquaintances. We’ve published them saying it before, chapter and verse.

But even if one believes that the latest crop of 17-23 year olds is intellectual Coke Zero, Case Western Reserve journalism professor Ted Gup’s analysis of his students’ knowledge of history, current events and the world makes for depressing reading. (Gup’s article is in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is a registration-required site).

Among Gup’s findings:

* “I teach a seminar called “Secrecy: Forbidden Knowledge.” I recently asked my class of 16 freshmen and sophomores, many of whom had graduated in the top 10 percent of their high-school classes and had dazzling SAT scores, how many had heard the word “rendition.”

Not one hand went up.

This is after four years of the word appearing on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers, on network and cable news, and online. This is after years of highly publicized lawsuits, Congressional inquiries, and international controversy and condemnation. This is after the release of a Hollywood film of that title, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, and Reese Witherspoon.

I was dumbstruck. Finally one hand went up, and the student sheepishly asked if rendition had anything to do with a version of a movie or a play.”

Gup went on to explain to his students the great secrecy that surrounded such practices as part of the War on Terror; the journalistic reports that uncovered them; the years worth of very public and international controversy surrounding rendition, and so on. “The students were visibly disturbed,” says Gup. They’d apparently never heard about any of this, though it’s been on the front page of The New York Times on umpteen occasions. “They expressed astonishment, then revulsion. They asked how such practices could go on.”

Gup also gave his students a quiz, to find out how much they know about the world and current events. These were journalism students, remember.

* “Nearly half of a recent class could not name a single country that bordered Israel. In an introductory journalism class, 11 of 18 students could not name what country Kabul was in, although we have been at war there for half a decade. Last fall only one in 21 students could name the U.S. secretary of defense. Given a list of four countries — China, Cuba, India, and Japan — not one of those same 21 students could identify India and Japan as democracies. Their grasp of history was little better. The question of when the Civil War was fought invited an array of responses — half a dozen were off by a decade or more. Some students thought that Islam was the principal religion of South America, that Roe v. Wade was about slavery, that 50 justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1975. You get the picture, and it isn’t pretty.”

So why are so many of Gup’s students such ignoramuses? He has a few ideas. I’ll concentrate on one.

He blames American news networks for getting out of the old-fashioned news game, and creating current affairs shows that are primarily about stupid people yelling at one another: “Those who tune in to television ‘news,'” writes Gup, “are subjected to a barrage of opinions from talking heads like CNN’s demagogic Lou Dobbs and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and his dizzying ‘No Spin Zone.'” Gup is partly right about this; there is an awful lot of overheated argument that has replaced actual news coverage. What’s more, every time I tune in to the CBS/NBC/ABC coverage of the Democratic primary, I can help but feeling that their lead stories often ignore the substantive issue and focus on tangential ‘gotcha’ moments that are often about nothing more than tiny verbal missteps or personality ticks, but which are therefore easy for viewers to get. And real issues go unexamined. It sometimes feels like television news produced by people who are convinced that news is spinach, and we’re all finicky 3 year olds. Hey kid, if I give you a cookie, will you eat your spinach? How about if I just replace the spinach with cookies? (Maybe replace some news with news about celebrities? How about a whole network?)

On the other hand, to take but one of many positive example, what I have watched of CNN’s primary night coverage has often been solid, substantive and thoughtful; lots of opinion from their panel, but exceedingly well informed opinion. Watching this will not make you stupider. So right alongside the dreck plumbing new lows, there is probably more intelligent news programming out there than there has ever been. Best of times, worst of times. You get to choose what you want to watch and what you want to read.

And Canadians have no reason to be smug. America probably leads the world in producing news and current events programming designed to make people stupid. But CBC TV, leveraging the power of $1 billion in annual taxpayer funding, seems to be doing doing everything it can to develop its competitive advantages in this area. George Strombolopolous is just the tip of the iceberg. One can’t help but get the sense that some of the best and most experienced reporters at the CBC — I think particularly of Brian Stewart — could never be hired by the network today, because they are too thoughtful, learned, careful… too adult. Wouldn’t make it past the interview.

But don’t take my word for it. Watch the movie and decide for yourself.