Monday, April 7, 2008

Today's collegians aren't THAT ignorant

In the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ted Gup, a former Washington Post and Time magazine investigative reporter, bemoans the abysmal ignorance of his freshman and sophomore students at Case Western Reserve University about the world around them. They not only can't pass the pop news quizzes he tosses at them (none knows the term "rendition") but also sometimes can't answer even powderpuff questions. This upsets Gup no end, and he goes on for several hundred words, worrying about the future of America's body politic if his lunkheads are typical of American collegians.

All quite true. But this complaint is at least as old as my career in journalism.

Back in 1979-81, I taught a beginning class at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. I sprang pop quizzes about the news regularly, and nearly all the students hadn't a clue what was going on out there in the dark and strange world beyond campus. Once in a while a few might nail a pop culture item, but did they know the name of the president of France? Or could they find France on a globe?

Other adjunct instructors said the same thing, and we all agreed that the country was going to hell in a handbasket. The quality of journalism students had dropped off a cliff. They couldn't spell "quiz," let alone write a coherent sentence.

Then I remembered something: During the fall of 1962, when I was a graduate student at Medill, I took a beginning class with Richard Stout, a crusty Chicago Daily News reporter who later went on to national fame in Washington. He gave us pop quizzes, too, and none of us did terribly well. One afternoon I looked up from my typewriter while he corrected the quizzes and read his lips as he muttered under his breath, "They don't know shit."

I said essentially the same, although in more polite language, to my students after one botched quiz. After class a shy freshman tarried after the others left. "Mr. Kisor," she said, "you should understand something."


"We don't read newspapers because we have no time."

And she launched into a detailed, dawn-to-dusk recitation of her day, full of classes, heavy-duty homework, waiting tables in the refectory, sorority obligations, charity work and a hundred other things that occupy the time of college students.

I'm afraid I wasn't sympathetic. "If you want to become a journalist," I said severely, "keeping up with the news is the first place to start."

She did start. Last I heard of her years ago, she had worked her way up from a tiny Midwestern weekly to become a political reporter for a major East Coast daily.

When I think back about those days, I realize she was right. Students not only face jam-packed days, but also have no frame of reference other than the small towns they come from and the insular campuses they live on. They are fledglings still making their way, still learning that the huge unknown world outside will sooner or later collide with their lives.

They don't know shit, but soon will. That's why they're in college.

I'm willing to cut them some slack. Mr. Gup, maybe you should, too.


  1. Henry,

    I have to admit in teaching 35 years of economics it was embarrassing when I would say something about a recent economic event and see that the students had no idea what I was talking about. I doubt that undergrads today can remember when gas was close to a dollar a gallon way back in 2003. (And we can remember it at less the 30 cents in the early 70s.)

    Someone said that history is anything that happened before you graduated from high school, but perhaps it is college.

    Wasn’t there a Suez crisis in 1956 when we were sophomores at ETHS? Or did I get the year wrong.


  2. Sam, indeed it was '56.

    What you said about your students is probably universal. One of my fellow instructors at NU back in '79 expressed astonishment that they had never heard of Hermann Goering.

    Sic transit . . .

  3. It's probably about relevance. Up to a point in a college kid's life, nothing outside the home and circle of friends made a difference to him. Soon as he hits college and the academic atmosphere of hallway jawing and debating, more topics became relevant.

    College profs have a different standard of operation than high school teachers...they inspire, awaken, goad, challenge, and do more than force-feed education. They put kids into the real world.

  4. That is, if they are caring professors. All too many are distant from their students, teaching from the lectern and depending on grad assistants to provide the face time. Academia, like any other endeavor, has its lazy egotists.