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This article by a Case Western Reserve University journalism professor
and author deserves the attention of American educators at every level.
Plugged in. Tuned out. / By Ted Gup, Special to the Times
Published Friday, April 11, 2008 4:49 PM
I teach a college seminar called "Secrecy: Forbidden Knowledge." I
recently asked my class of 16 freshmen and sophomores, many of whom
had graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes and
had dazzling SAT scores, how many had heard the word "rendition."
Not one hand went up.
This is after four years of the word appearing on the front pages of
the nation's newspapers, on network and cable news, and online. This
is after years of highly publicized lawsuits, congressional inquiries,
and international controversy and condemnation. This is after the
release of a Hollywood film of that title, starring Jake Gyllenhaal,
Meryl Streep and Reese Witherspoon.
I was dumbstruck. Finally one hand went up, and the student sheepishly
asked if rendition had anything to do with a version of a movie or a play.
I nodded charitably, then attempted to define the word in its more
public context. I described specific accounts of U.S. abductions of
foreign citizens, of the likely treatment accorded such prisoners when
placed in the hands of countries like Syria and Egypt, of the months
and years of detention. I spoke of the lack of formal charges, of some
prisoners' eventual release and how their subsequent lawsuits against
the U.S. government were stymied in the name of national security and
The students were visibly disturbed. They expressed astonishment, then
revulsion. They asked how such practices could go on.
I told them to look around the room at one another's faces; they were
seated next to the answer. I suggested that they were, in part, the
reason that rendition, waterboarding, Guantanamo detention,
warrantless searches and intercepts, and a host of other such
practices have not been more roundly discredited. I admit it was harsh.
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 vs. 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
As a journalist, professor and citizen, I find it profoundly
discouraging to encounter such ignorance of critical issues. But it
would be both unfair and inaccurate to hold those young people
accountable for the moral and legal morass we now find ourselves in as
a nation. They are earnest, readily educable and, when informed,
I make it clear to my students that it is not only their right but
their duty to arrive at their own conclusions. They are free to defend
rendition, waterboarding, or any other aspect of America's post-9/11
armamentarium. But I challenge their right to tune out the world, and
I question any system or society that can produce such students and
call them educated. I am concerned for the nation when a cohort of
students so talented and bright is oblivious to all such matters. If
they are failing us, it is because we have failed them.
Still, it is hard to reconcile the students' lack of knowledge with
the notion that they are a part of the celebrated information age,
creatures of the Internet who arguably have at their disposal more
information than all the preceding generations combined. Despite their
BlackBerrys, cell phones and WiFi, they are, in their own way, as
isolated as the remote tribes of New Guinea. They disprove the notion
that technology fosters engagement, that connectivity and community
I despair to think that this is the generation brought up under the
banner of "No Child Left Behind." What I see is the specter of an
entire generation left behind and left out.
It is not easy to explain how we got into this sad state, or to
separate symptoms from causes. Newspaper readership is in steep
decline. My students simply do not read newspapers, online or
otherwise, and many grew up in households that did not subscribe to a
paper. Those who tune in to television "news" are subjected to a
barrage of opinions from talking heads like CNN's demagogic Lou Dobbs
and MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Fox's Bill O'Reilly and his dizzying
"No Spin Zone."
In today's journalistic world, opinion trumps fact (the former being
cheaper to produce), and rank partisanship and virulent culture wars
make the middle ground uninhabitable. Small wonder, then, that my
students shrink from it.
Then, too, there is the explosion of citizen journalism. An army of
average Joes, equipped with cell phones, laptops and video cameras,
has commandeered our news media. The mantra of "We want to hear from
you!" is all the rage, from CNN to NPR; but, although invigorating and
democratizing, it has failed to supplant the provision of essential
facts, generating more heat than light.
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 on to 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
NewsHour With Jim Lehrer (which many students seem ready to pickle in
Civics is decidedly out of fashion in the high school classroom, a
quaint throwback superseded by courses in technology. As teachers
scramble to "teach to the test," civics is increasingly relegated to
afterschool clubs and geeky graduation prizes. Somehow my students
sailed through high school courses in government and social studies
without acquiring the habit of keeping abreast of national and
international events. What little they know of such matters they have
absorbed through popular culture — song lyrics, parody and comedy. The
Daily Show With Jon Stewart is as close as many dare get to actual news.
Yes, the post-9/11 world is a scary place, and plenty of diversions
can absorb young people's attention and energies, as well as distract
them from the anxieties of preparing for a career in an increasingly
uncertain economy. But that respite comes at a cost.
As a journalist, I have spent my career promoting transparency and
accountability. But my experiences in the classroom humble and chasten
me. They remind me that challenges to secrecy and opacity are moot if
society does not avail itself of information that is readily
accessible. Indeed, our very failure to digest the accessible helps to
create an environment in which secrecy can run rampant.
It is time to once again make current events an essential part of the
curriculum. 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.
As a nation, we spend an inordinate amount of time fretting about
illegal immigration and painfully little on what it means to be a
citizen, beyond the legal status conferred by accident of birth or
public processing. We are too busy building a wall around us to notice
that we are shutting ourselves in. Intent on exporting democracy —
spending blood and billions in pursuit of it abroad — we have shown a
decided lack of interest in exercising or promoting democracy at home.
The noted American scholar Robert Maynard Hutchins said, decades ago:
"The object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is not to
produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living.
It is to produce responsible citizens."
He warned that "the death of a democracy is not likely to be an
assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy,
indifference and undernourishment." I fear he was right.
I tell the students in my secrecy class that they are required to
attend. After all, we count on one another; without student
participation, it just doesn't work. The same might be said of
democracy. Attendance is mandatory.
Ted Gup, professor of journalism at Case Western Reserve University,
is author of Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the
American Way of Life as well as The Book of Honor, in which he
uncovered some of the CIA's more closely held secrets — the names and
stories of 71 undercover operatives who were killed in the line of
duty. This piece originally appeared as a commentary in the Chronicle
of Higher Education.