Taking the news badly

In the course of a recent conversation if had with a group of students while visiting another town (which I won’t name), I suddenly became aware of the fact that none of them knew anything about a story that had been dominating the news headlines for about two days: the French military intervention in Mali. Some of the students knew it had happened but were rather vague on the context, and the others knew nothing about it at all. Indeed two couldn’t place Mali in the correct continent.

I guess we all see our own youth through our current lenses, and so my strong belief that I was constantly politically informed and engaged as a student may be what I want to remember rather than how it was in reality. But I still think I would have known something about Mali or its then equivalent. Perhaps it is more surprising that today’s young people are less tuned in to the news given that there is so much of it. Back then we had newspapers and radio (not much television for me as a student). Now the news are all over everything, from the broadcast media to the internet. In fact my car even tells me today’s news headlines on a screen when I switch on the engine. Nor is it just peripheral stuff. At the click of a mouse I can get detailed and intelligent and varied political analysis.

Does this matter? In fact, would you judge my recent encounter differently if I were to say that all my student interlocutors were studying science? Personally, I don’t think that matters. I believe that educating students means not just supporting them in building up expert knowledge, but encouraging them to see the context in which that knowledge has value. If nothing else, our increasing (and rightful) focus on ethics requires such an understanding. It may be time for universities to look at ways in which a knowledge of current affairs can be part of everyone’s curriculum. Online resources such as The Student Room in the UK provide very useful discussion forums that many students take part in, but they probably do not touch the majority, and maybe in particular those that need them most.

The again, maybe that’s just a patronising comment, and we should leave young people (and older ones) to find out for themselves what matters. And when they find out, they may discover that I know absolutely nothing about it. To my shame.

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6 Comments on “Taking the news badly”

  1. V.H Says:

    This is the Harry Potter generation. Where I, with the help of well written stories, was transported to the Al Haggar (Idurar n Ahaggar in Berber) and into the lives of Tuareg peoples that lived there. Where I dreamt of riding a camel, hunting Nubian ibex for food and being a general nuisance to the French. These guys have the geography of enchanted forests, flying cars and broomsticks.
    While I was escaping into the wild, dangerous and free places, I was also laying a framework of awareness where when I read National Geographic or other solid sources I had a context to place the data.
    I feel you in the uni may well be missing a trick. You now have people arriving with the concepts of space and dimensions already installed but, perhaps, you are forcing them to conform to a method that ‘you’ find comfortable. Put it this way, I’d say handing Kant to today’s student would not be the mind melting that I went through.
    In the past getting a grip on the politics of a place was relatively easy. You might corkscrew yourself mentally but you came down one side or the another a la George Bush ‘you are with us or agin us’ option. You may have been aware of a place but the question is how deep.
    What did I know about the French Sahara truly. What ‘could’ I have known since my data was from one side. A bit like taking the English version of the Raj exemplified by Kipling’s Kim. The same with Vietnam. We had a version of the place mediated through French, Christian, Russian and American goggles, not a word from the Vietnamese themselves except through those very same goggles.
    Explain Northern Ireland.

  2. iainmacl Says:

    I guess it’s also a return to what could actually be meant by ‘graduate attributes’ and instead of just using that term to focus on ‘employability’ actually think about opportunities within all degree programmes for a broader education that includes exposure to and engagement with ideas and current issues.

    It could indeed be done in an imaginative way, rather than stuck on as a compulsory, unloved obligatory module, at which disciplinary academics and students alike may (justifiably perhaps) sneer!

    So it’s a question of making it valid, relevant, engaging and challenging. And, you’re right, in science there’s huge scope for this taking practice/malpractice as a starting point and opening out into the nature of science its relationship with culture as well as the economy. Indeed, one need only look at the commentary/editorials in issues of Nature and Science over the past few years, or the work of Ben Goldacre and others to see how ripe a starting point this could be.

    There are some models that could be used and adapted, particularly those which involve interdisciplinarity and a cooperative approach to course design involving students in the process.

    Dewey, after all, said that each generation had to renew democracy…. ;-)

  3. OMF Says:

    Reading the Irish Times does not a well informed individual make.

    Most of them hadn’t heard about Mail because almost no newspaper is really interested in Mail. We hear about kidnapping, troops, towns, etc, etc, but nowhere can we read a detailed, clear, and informative synopsis of the true state of the country, and why these events are really happenning.

    It would only take a few pages to give people a clear picture of the conflict and its consequences, but in the age of exabytes of internet data, it seems that room cannot be spared between the wine reviews and sports pages.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    When I was attending the lyceum (a type of high school back in Italy) I remember we had once a week what was called ‘the newspapers reading hour’, memories of that time are of complete and utter boredom, the problem was not with the news or current affairs per se (although as a typical teenager they did not feature exactly at the top of my list of interests, but that’s another story) but with the language and the delivery of such news, i.e. the medium used to the purpose – the style of the teacher running this ‘newspaper hour’ class might also have been a factor, of course. I can safely affirm that had I had access to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show then (or something like it) I would have been glued to the TV screen, in the same way I’m captivated by this ‘fake news’ show now, although for reason that I’d like to think have currently more to do with my scholarly media interests.

    The whole issue of young people not being politically informed or ‘engaged’ is rather complex (one cannot compare the political zeitgeist of the 60s/70s with the current state of affairs, for example) and often purportedly amplified to confirm the well rehearsed criticism of digital/social media as a source of dangerous ‘distraction’ for youngsters or, worse, as a potent factor in dumbing down their brains. Several studies have shown that the Daily Show and the Colbert Report can provide quality information that citizens can use in making informed choices about political issues like the American Presidential election. They attract the largest percentages of young people, whereas only 10% of 18-to-24-year-olds watching TV are tuning in to the evening news on ABC, NBC and CBS combined. This is hardly surprising if one considers that the network evening news format has remained virtually unchanged for the past 40 years. Just imagining a young person sitting down to watch an actual network newscast every evening at 6:00 is bizarre, for most it’s a lot easier to go online and *customize* their news. Also, for a generation raised on the topical lampoonery of The Simpsons and South Park a fake news show that parodies a “legitimate” television news broadcast makes perfect sense.

    In order to engage students with current affairs is not enough to add this piece of knowledge to everyone’s academic curriculum, as with any other component of the curriculum it needs to be presented in a way that is relevant *for* that particular type of student (a discipline-related frame of mind comes into play here) and with a cogent awareness of the media used to the purpose, otherwise the risk is to come up with a 21st century version of the boring and unimaginative ‘newspaper hour’ of my memory.

  5. Jill Says:

    Maybe this post isn’t so much about whether there should be an increase in student knowledge of news but why it is so important to you. Important in a way that you have it programmed into your car.

    The students you spoke to gave you the perfect opportunity to find out not that they didnt know about what you valued but what they valued, What was relevant to their lives.

    There have always been certain sectors of society that have always had more time for international politics and others that have certain projects they are interested in and then there are those who are interested in there own studies and future. Maybe on that day you met those who were interested in something other than your own agenda.

  6. James Fryar Says:

    I didn’t hear about the Russian meteorite until this morning. That’s because, yesterday, I didn’t look at the news because I was busy. Could it be that the students in question might not have been up-to-date in their current affairs because they had finished a semester, might have been looking for part-time work, might have been moving, might have had worries about their rents, might have been studying for exams, and might have decided to go out socialising rather than sit in front of the telly or computer for another few hours after writing reports and assignments for courses?

    How, exactly, does the situation in Mali have any relevence to their current lives? Or mine for that matter, since I live in Ireland. And if I didn’t know where Mali is, does that impact your assessment of my knowledge or capacity or education? The science students might well have asked for your opinions on the anti-Müllerian hormone and the recent news that this might identify women who have an increased chance of success in IVF treatments. But, I suspect, you might have missed that news story …


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