Does It Matter If We Don't Read Newspapers?
Sunday, March 18, 2012Tweet
This past week at work we hosted a two-day workshop with a well-known presenter on assessment. I thought the vast majority of the workshop was fantastic, but there was one small portion that I had an issue with.
It's not unusual, working in higher education, to hear people talk about "this generation," usually called Millennials. I always thought I was part of Generation Y, and that that was different, but lately I've heard my own birth year lumped in with current college students more often than not.
This gives me a unique perspective, since when my colleagues are talking about our students, they're also talking about me.
So back to the workshop.
At one point, there was a discussion about what some of the challenges might be to engaging students in meaningful learning to build their critical thinking skills. This immediately led to a "kids these days"-type grumbling session in which participants made sweeping statements about how students don't care about learning, they want to be rewarded just for showing up, they have no sustained attention span, they want to spend all their time texting and Facebooking, etc.
I've already talked about how I am not a fan of generalizations like this, and I'm sure you can imagine the potential problems if any of these instructors truly believes that every single one of their students fits this description. I certainly don't appreciate being told that I apparently have no intrinsic motivation and have an unhealthy sense of entitlement. And I'm pretty sure my boss would disagree.
The presenter then provided several pieces of evidence that ostensibly indicated that most of today's students and recent graduates are not exactly fitting the model of what a college typically hopes to turn out: Graduates with a lifelong love of learning who are active and engaged members of their community. (Also, who are employable.)
The slide that stuck out to me most was the statistic about newspaper reading. Recent graduates were asked whether they read a newspaper daily, weekly, monthly, or never. The presenter said to the attendees that, ideally, we hope our students are reading a newspaper every day, right? So the fact that only about a third were reading a newspaper daily, and another third weekly, somehow indicated a horrific failure of our colleges to create engaged citizens.
This same statistic has been called "troubling" and "dismal" when cited elsewhere.
I'm going to have to disagree.
If somebody asked me how often I read a newspaper, I might say "monthly." But that's because I'm picturing either flipping through a paper newspaper, which I do occasionally at my parents' house, or logging on to a news site like the New York Times to "see what's in the news" -- which I never do.
On the other hand, if you asked me how often I read a news article or a blog post or listened to a podcast about current events, the answer would be Daily.
It amazes me when older generations talk about how different this generation is, what with our text-messaging and our Facebooking and our tweeting, yet they use benchmarks from their generation to measure this generation's civic engagement.
I'm not saying that every person my age is totally informed with what's going on in the world. Or that, if they are, they're doing anything about it. But I also don't think that the situation is quite as "dismal" as you might imagine from the newspaper question.
I've said before that we have a limited capacity to invest ourselves in a cause or causes. Given this, I would argue that there is more value in the kind of focused information-gathering and sharing that happens today than in the passive, broad information-receiving era before the Internet.
Imagine Person A. Every day, he gets a newspaper and reads it at the breakfast table or on his morning commute on the train. He reads about this war, that murder, this political campaign, and that community organization. Then he folds up the newspaper and goes in to work, and puts all the news out of his mind until he picks up the newspaper again the next morning. On the survey mentioned above, he would indicate that he reads a newspaper Daily.
Now imagine Person B. She sees a video shared by a friend on her Facebook newsfeed about something going on in the world. The video intrigues her, so she starts Googling around and finds a bunch of blog posts that provide some background and give a more complex take on the issue. She goes to Charity Navigator to figure out what organization is doing the most to help, and then sets up a campaign on another website to raise funds to donate to the charity.
When she's asked how often she reads a newspaper, though, she says Never.
Who is more civically engaged? Who is closer to embodying that "ideal graduate"?
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that everyone who reads a newspaper is an apathetic slug and everyone who is on Facebook is a passionate community organizer. Obviously not. Nor am I saying that everyone my age would prefer to get their information from sources other than a newspaper; as I said, the survey cited above found about a third of recent graduates read a newspaper daily.
I just find the conclusions drawn from this survey to be incredibly overblown and out of touch with the exact generation they're attempting to measure. And I want to challenge the notion that broad information intake is the only recipe for an engaged citizen. I think much more could be accomplished if every person had a few issues they cared about and researched deeply and acted upon frequently, even if they were not well-informed about many other things going on in the world.
What do you think? How would you measure whether graduates were engaged with and having an impact on the world's big issues?