The Council on Foreign Relations and their collaborators at National Geographic assembled bright and early on Tuesday to release an important report.
The findings were “grim” and “disturbing,” said the moderator. They had profound implications for our democratic future. Immediate action was demanded to fix a looming problem: Millennials, those poor souls, know nothing at all.
The 35-page report found that college-aged students know very little about the world. The report wrung its hands about the ignorant state of things to come, just as we have time and again in American history.
From the fruits of a survey that asked 1,203 young people a series of questions about foreign affairs, the report assembled its punchy laugh lines. (You can sample the test here.)
Only 49 percent of respondents knew that Mandarin was the primary language for a majority of people worldwide. (How silly!) Merely 34 percent knew that Mexican immigration to the United States has been net negative in the past five years. (A fact routinely ignored on the campaign trail. What rubes!) Just 30 percent correctly identified the branch of government that could declare war. (To be fair, that one’s pretty embarrassing).
Some questions were harder or more pointless than others, but the implication is that America’s progeny are woefully ignorant.
What are millennials up to with their Twitters and their loud music?
It’s easy to criticize when the kids are falling short. But there were some bright spots in the report, according to the distinguished panelists, including the fact that students were generally knowledgeable about environmental issues and considered foreign affairs to be an important subject.
Susan Goldberg, editorial director at National Geographic, cautioned that “we shouldn’t just dump on young people here,” noting that fonts of information like the magazine needed to do a better job of making information accessible and digestible.
Foreign policy eminence Richard Haass then stepped in to “slightly disagree,” going on to lambaste colleges which are loosening core requirements and generally shaking the foundations of world order.
Ignorance should be combated wherever possible. Certainly it’s true that America’s young people can stand to learn more about world history and foreign affairs.
But is the current generation of college students actually any dimmer than previous generations?
We’ve been here before
National Geographic itself conducted a similar survey in 2006: Only 37 percent of respondents between ages 18 and 24 then could find Iraq on a map, etc. That report points to past surveys that indicate poor collegiate grasp of “geography skills and knowledge.”
A 2007 Pew Research Center report showed that all-aged Americans’ knowledge of overall current affairs had changed little in nearly 20 years.
Millennial bashing is excellent sport (see #HowToConfuseAMillennial, trending on that millennial medium, Twitter, last week), but alarmism over insufficient education is nothing new.
The Reagan-era report “A Nation At Risk” excoriated the American education system in the Cold War era. One of its signature lines reads: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
The launch of Sputnik prompted plenty of handwringing about U.S. math and technology insufficiencies, supposedly endangering us on the world stage.
Calls for better liberal arts education have been heard before too, says Dana Goldstein, author of “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.” Goldstein points to the Report of the Committee of Ten, from the 1890s, as a cri de coeur for standardized and wide-reaching liberal-arts curricula. That report argued that “Latin and Greek and ancient history and foreign languages, these things are all still important” even as the country moved into “the modern age.”
Saying that we’ve heard the complaints before, of course, doesn’t mean that the complaints in general aren’t baseless. There’s room for improvement.
But America’s long-standing education woes mean it’s a bit rich to point the finger at millennials alone.
One of the panelists Tuesday rightly noted that lack of knowledge makes a demagogue’s rise easier — a nod perhaps to the candidacy of Donald Trump, who struggled to define the nuclear triad and likely would be fairly millennial on his score on this test.
The college demographic is hardly Trump’s base. Maybe the issue of frivolousness and confusion about foreign affairs is not new either. If so, a deeper solution is necessary than the droll shake of an aged head about the kids these days.