Daniel Ruth

Trying to get through to Generation Huh?

For a minute there I had a flashback to my time teaching college students in a beginning reporting class. There, on the floor of the Florida Senate, were John Thrasher, R-What, Me Worry? and his comrade in cluelessness, Mike Bennett, R-Which Way Did He Go?, demonstrating for all the world to see a level of civic illiteracy that would have made Glenn Beck weep with envy.

Thrasher claimed if the state only had a federal E-Verify system in place back in 2001, the 9/11 hijackers who had been residing in Florida prior to the terrorist attacks would have been uncovered and the plot disrupted. This was, of course, patently absurd, since none of those 9/11 terrorists, who were in the country legally at the time, ever applied for a job, which could have triggered an E-Verify immigration check.

This obviously prompted Bennett to prove he was a bigger dope when it came to an understanding of civics. In making an amazingly obtuse argument that voting in Florida should be a democratic death march of hardship, the Bradenton senator noted that people in Africa often walk hundreds of miles to vote, an even more idiotic claim than Thrasher's exercise in historical silliness.

Now the fact these two chaps, influential figures in running the state, are living in a parallel universe of ignorance is troubling enough. More disquieting is that they are the rule, not the exception, in their feeble grasp of current events, civics … and reality.

Every year the U.S. Education Department conducts something dubiously called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, part of which is designed to determined just how many half-wits are populating the country's classrooms when it comes to civic literacy.

Alas, they do not disappoint. In essence, the test results of fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders demonstrated these kids barely know what country they live in when it comes to history and the functions of government.

I know the sad truth. I've seen it firsthand.

As a beginning reporting instructor for the School of Mass Communications at the University of South Florida, as well as the University of Tampa, for the past couple of years I would give my students a weekly current events/civic quiz, which goes a long way toward explaining why I drink.

Most of my students could not name the three branches of government. Nor could they identify at least five U.S. Supreme Court justices. Most could not name their congressional representative. About half could not name where last summer's oil spill occurred. Very few knew what country Nicolas Sarkozy leads. More often than not, my students could not find Iraq on a map, or name the governor of Florida.

I had one student turn in a writing assignment spelling the name of the Scandinavian country of "Norweigh." He was a senior, who claimed he had never actually seen a correct spelling for Norway. Well, for that, one would actually have to read.

More maddening for me was that the majority of my charges were aspiring to become (oh dear) journalists. It might be one thing for someone studying, say, physics, not to know anything about the Electoral College. But while institutions such as USF are committed to training tomorrow's "backpack journalists" the fine points of digital editing, multiplatform storytelling and the like, many of these budding "backpack journalists" have no idea where Britain is or the name of the prime minister.

It would be tempting to suggest my students were all lazy dolts indifferent to the world around them. But they were not. Most of my students were bright, talented, good kids and a joy to have in the classroom.

Instead, as the NAEP test results suggest, these students have been disserved by an educational system that gives very short shrift to the teaching of history and civics. Many of these students also come from households where newspapers are not read and daily news programming is ignored.

At the same time, the Generation Huh? student has been surgically connected to iPods, Twitter accounts, Facebook and the rest of the Internet. Who has time for appreciating the debt ceiling when one must urgently transmit for global consumption what they just ate for lunch?

This dearth of civics education has been called a national education crisis by the likes of Sandra Day O'Connor and Bob Graham, who have both founded organizations to improve the civic health of the nation. Good luck with that.

Pop quiz: Which one of the above mentioned figures was a former Florida U.S. senator, and which a U.S. Supreme Court justice? Unless you want to start happy hour early, don't ask your kid to answer the question over breakfast.

Trying to get through to Generation Huh? 05/09/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 9, 2011 7:49pm]

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