Actually, I think you're giving them way too much credit. Kids today understand nothing. They have absolutely no sense of historical awareness. They really and truly don't know anything about the world in which they live. What's more, most of them have no interest in knowing.
GN: True, but this does not seem to be too terribly different from earlier periods in American history.
AS: I suspect that most of the people on this list are Baby Boomers and did not have the experience of attending public primary and secondary schools in the late 70s and 80s. Public schools in this country -- and in California particularly -- rank somewhere between bad and useless. Most kids who graduate high school are barely literate, and many of those who go on to college are scarcely better off.
GN: I'm a graduate of those public skools and boy they were shitty then and I don't think they could be worse now.
AS: Some random examples: I remember being shocked when I was in junior high (c 1986) that a good portion of the people in my class did not yet understand the difference between a city, state, country, and continent. In a high school history class I was in, only about 5 of us could name the major combatants of World War 2. I recall that one girl (who was white and upper middle class) gave "Toyko" as her answer. Most recently I was in a review session for an upper division history class at UC Berkeley, and one girl who was a senior actually did not know that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. BTW, this individual was recruited by JP Morgan and is now working on Wall St helping to manage your money. I fear her case is not at all exceptional.
GN: I'm not totally surprised. The difference between SUNY Albany and Berkeley is that we have comparatively more of this kind of thing. I've given general knowledge quizzes to my students and found, for example, that 1/3 to 1/2 of the students in a European politics course cannot name two countries which border France. But nonetheless I found Berkeley to be enormously stimulating (I graduated in '76). It wasn't particularly radical then. It was just that I was finally getting to read interesting stuff instead of the shit that they had pumped into me for the first 12 years.
AS: I think there is no simple answer for why this is so. I do not think it can be explained as simply a manifestation of class oppression, because this appears to be a generational phenomenon, cutting across class boundaries. An easy target for blame is their parents, i.e. the entire Baby Boomer generation, who with all their hippy turned yuppy self-absorbed hedonism didn't bother to teach their kids a damn thing (yes, I'm well aware that I'm generalizing.) Another factor I think (and I'm sure this will piss some of you off and you'll say I sound like Allan Bloom) is 1960s cultural paradigm shift, aka the "counterculture." Whatever it meant to you 30 years ago, its real and lasting effect has been the complete breakdown of traditional notions of responsibility, self discipline, and morality. What I mean is the "do you own thing" of the 60s has evolved into the "I'm going to do whatever I want and I don't care what happens to anybody else" mentality of the 80s & 90s. Kids no longer read for pleasure or knowledge because it takes too much self discipline when it's so much easier to engage in the "revolutionary anti-authoritarian" act of smoking pot and watching MTV.
GN: One of my most striking memories from grad skool is coming home at 2 a.m. to find my roommate, now a tenured prof, smoking dope, reading Hegel, and watching Hawaii Five-O on the tube. Perhaps the most insane social science discussion I have ever had was our mutual discussion of Weber and religion as we watched the "Planet of the Apes" series while rather too stoned during some kind of Apes TV marathon.
AS: Traditional notions of morality have been brushed aside in favor of an extreme relativism which excuses any act i.e. "Well, who are you to say that it's 'wrong' to kill 500,000 Iraqi children. It's only 'wrong' to you, but it's 'right' to someone else, so don't try to impose your morals on me!" (an excerpt of an actual discussion with a "liberal" Gen Xer.) Another factor is of course the dumbing down of the population across the board over the last few decades. The transformation of the US into a "post-industrial" economy over the last 25-30 years has eliminated the need for a skilled workforce. Now we just need a few educated people to work in the information sector, and the rest can flip hamburgers or go to prison.
GN: Well, you have no monopoly of generational idiocy. In my day, sonny, the wigged out peabrains became Hare Krishna freaks or followed Rev. Moon (now in Brazil). I will confess that upon graduating from Cal I was convinced that there were no opportunities for me. While we cannot deny the macroeconomic evolution of the economy, the fact of the matter is that Cal graduates can do pretty well. But I didn't find this out till much later. The whole question of the service economy is complex. But I'm not certain that by itself it explains vapidity. Even if you *are* going to languish in the service sector, 'tis better to do so with a good book. I did so for 5 years. In my days as a pretzel vendor I read Gibbon's Decline and Fall and Boswell's Life of Johnson. As I pointed out on this list, there is a difference between being poor and having no money. Even under the worst case, Cal graduates may have no money, but they don't have to be poor, in the sense that for a couple of bucks even the Burger flippers can go romping through the Roman Empire, purchased at half price at Shakespeare's.
AS: Additionally, college is no longer associated with the pursuit of knowledge or the love of truth. It is now EXPECTED that all kids go to college, as it used to be expected that all kids go to high school. It's not something young people do because they have an intellectual interest, it's something they do because it's expected of them or because they realize they must have a degree in order to make money. In such an environment, intellectual curiosity has little chance of developing.
GN: There's something to this. I think one of the greatest crimes is the 'back of the book" attitude towards learning: read the chapter and answer the questions at the back of the book. You go find the questions, then find the page with the answer, then write it down. That's exactly what college ought not to be, but it is done. In any case people come to college expecting to find the answers at the back of the book, or in their notes, and that they will just role on out. They do not expect the process to be transformational. Which, however, it can be.
Forgive me if I'm rambling. I'm a Gen X undergraduate myself, I work 2 jobs, and I'm exhausted. -- Gregory P. Nowell Associate Professor Department of Political Science, Milne 100 State University of New York 135 Western Ave. Albany, New York 12222