In my return to college, one thing I’ve wondered is whether the undergraduate population is as out of it, history and civics-wise, as the periodic headline-grabbing “our kids can’t find Washington, D.C., on a map” studies suggest. Honestly, I haven’t talked enough with my classmates to come to any opinion. As I’ve noted before, the only thing that has really caught my attention is the distractions people readily indulge in class, especially the online kind. In class last week, I was sitting behind a guy who was reading a graphic novel on his laptop while sporadically taking notes on the lecture. Across the aisle, a woman worked on her email most of the hour. No, it wasn’t a great lecture.
Actually, I’ve been noticing something else, too. I’m taking just two classes, so what I see is hardly a basis for sweeping conclusions. But, after 10 weeks I’m pretty sure about this one: most students don’t want to speak in class, period. In both my classes, I have instructors who are given to asking questions of the assembled multitude, then glancing around the room expectantly. Sometimes the questions are obvious, sometimes they’re obscure. It makes no difference: most of the times, these expectant queries meet with silence. No: an uncomfortable silence. Maybe that’s just me: I want to talk, and I love to answer questions (to the point of being a pain in the ass about it, I sometimes think). But in one class of about 150 people, the same three or four or five people seem to do about 75 percent of the student talking; in a discussion section for the same class, it’s the same three out of 15 who speak the most week in and week out. In my Irish history class, the professor designated one full class session to questions about an upcoming paper; when he threw the floor open at the beginning of the hour, the 30 people in the room just stared at him. He said he’d just as soon return to his lecture notes if that’s how we were going to be. A couple of kids finally cracked and said something. (In this case, the professor showed that his idea of a question-and-answer session was a 15- or 20-minute answer to a single question. That left room for about three questions for our 50 minutes together.)
I had to make an appearance in the history department office last week; the advisor, who got her B.A. in her late 30s or early 40s, I think, is pretty talkative. She asked me how things were going. I told her that things are swell–only a minor exaggeration—but that I was puzzled by the reluctance of so many people to participate in class discussions. “They don’t want to look stupid,” she said, and added that she had observed the same thing when she was in class a few years back. It makes sense to me. There are few things worse than looking dumb and uncool in front of your peers. I hate it. Still: to get to Berkeley, you have to be one of those students who does very, very well in high school. Thinking back to high school, many though by no means all of the brightest kids were pretty personable and willing to speak up. I don’t know whether something has happened since then–the competitive grind to get the grades, test scores and extracurricular laurels you need to get to the right school, perhaps–but I feel like something has changed.
And in conclusion: Earlier today I came across a column that touches on this subject (maybe tangentially) by a college journalism professor at Case Western Reserve. My impression is that you have to be pretty sharp to get in there. Anyway, the teacher, Ted Gup, a former investigative reporter, has some harsh things to say about the kids who show up in his class. He starts with an anecdote: how none of the students in his seminar on government secrecy knew what rendition (the CIA kind) means. He continued:
“That instance was no aberration. In recent years I have administered a dumbed-down quiz on current events and history early in each semester to get a sense of what my students know and don’t know. Initially I worried that its simplicity would insult them, but my fears were unfounded. The results have been, well, horrifying.
“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.”
But Gup spends most of the column trying to find a prescription for what ails a society that excels in this paradox: It turns out bright kids, many of whom are perfectly ignorant of the world around them. Here’s the link again: “So Much for the Information Age.”