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More Information and Less Knowledge Than Ever

A journalism professor presents an elegy for the information age, bemoaning the current-affairs illiteracy on display with each new semester's offerings of undergrads.

Ted Gup, a journalism professor at Case Western Reserve University, presents an elegy for the information age in the latest edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, bemoaning the current-affairs illiteracy on display with each new semester's offerings of undergrads.

Not to give away too much of the game, each semester Gup asks his charges to take a "dumbed-down" current events quiz, and each year ... oh, you know what's coming next. While we might offer some micro-quibbles about some of the questions, such as knowing what years the American Civil War was fought, picking the democracies out of the list of India, Cuba, Japan and China remains a wildly important question.

It makes for sad reading, although, as he observes, "My students simply do not read newspapers, online or otherwise, and many grew up in households that did not subscribe to a paper."

None of them? Well ... "Many of my students can report on the latest travails of celebrities or the sexual follies of politicos and can be forgiven for thinking that such matters dominate the news — they do. Even those students whose home pages open onto news sites have tailored them to parochial interests — sports, entertainment, weather — that are a pale substitute for the scope and sweep of a good front page or the PBS News Hour With Jim Lehrer (which many students seem ready to pickle in formaldehyde)."

Although he didn't administer his quiz more widely, we suspect the broader populace is no better informed, but that's a different commentary. The kids at Case Western aren't all right, and by extension neither are the bright teens and twentysomethings at other institutions of higher learning.

We point out his commentary because Professor Gup proposes a direction for addressing the problem, and while we don't fully ascribe to his proposal, it merits consideration.

Bring back civics.

Adding courses to the curriculum might not be a panacea — witness "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader" and the litany of things you were taught but later forgot — but greater exposure to the subject won't hurt. And there is some microscopic hope out there. Last year's civics report card from the National Assessment of Educational Progress finds some improvements in the population as a whole from 1998 to 2006, although the level of knowledge measured at the fourth, eighth and 12th grades is hardly challenging.

"It is time to once again make current events an essential part of the curriculum," writes Gup. "Families and schools must instill in students the habit of following what is happening in the world. A global economy will have little use for a country whose people are so self-absorbed that they know nothing of their own nation's present or past, much less the world's. There is a fundamental difference between shouldering the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship — engagement, participation, debate — and merely inhabiting the land."