I generally have mixed feelings about the New York Times’ education coverage. As with most news outlets, I think a lot of their coverage misses the point. They publish long articles about the minutiae of SAT score fluctuations, this pay raise, that funding cut, which schools have new textbooks and which don’t, etc. without ever asking bigger questions about the way we approach education. They can hardly be blamed; the Times is a major mainstream news outlet, and their job is to report on what people are talking about, not undermine the foundations of the largest organizational accomplishment in American history (maybe the second largest–the military might come first). If they were to start questioning the rhetoric of the educational establishment, they’d be accused of engaging in some weird radical activism and lose credibility (though I could report on successful educational alternatives without inevitably implying that anyone who goes in for that sort of thing is a freak). At any rate, even when I think they’re missing the point, I have to give them credit for trying. They do tackle the serious issues in education: equal access to good schools, violence in schools, public policy, etc, etc.
Then I saw this. The Times has a blog called The Learning Network: Teaching and Learning with the New York Times, which publishes a daily column called “Student Opinion.” They ask a question each day and invite students 13 and older to comment on these “questions about issues in the news.” Below are the 30 questions asked starting at the beginning of November and going into December. (I chose November because the past month included both Christmas and New Year’s, and I don’t think the questions for the last two weeks are particularly representative. The actual posts can be found starting here.)
- How can you best present yourself on college applications?
- What do good teachers need to know?
- Fill in the blank: 10 things _____ should never do.
- Should gay couples be allowed to marry?
- What were your favorite childhood shows and characters?
- Can a boy wear a skirt to school?
- What can our dreams tell us?
- Should a school newspaper be subject to prior review?
- What do you think about Octomom?
- What are your pet peeves?
- When should a person be considered an adult?
- Is the music you listen to dull?
- How would you grade your school?
- Does exercise reduce stress for you?
- Did you see ‘New Moon’ over the weekend?
- Do you know someone who texts while driving?
- Do you find family holiday gatherings fun or stressful?
- Is tackle football too dangerous for kids to play?
- Do you suffer from ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’?
- Have you had ‘helper’s high’?
- Why do we care about the Tiger Woods story?
- What are your favorite video games?
- What questions do you have about climate change?
- What should Obama’s priorities be?
- Have you ever tried to hide your racial or ethnic identity?
- What’s the best gift you’ve ever given or received?
- What is the most memorable sporting event you’ve ever watched or played in?
- What invention would you most like to see in 2010?
- What would you create if you had funding?
- How has the recession affected you?
I noticed a few things about this list. First, of the thirty questions here, I count nine that are arguably about serious news issues, plus another three that are about topics that have been in the news recently, but that I would hardly call ‘serious’ (namely Octomom, Tiger Woods, and New Moon.). Of the remaining questions, I count nine that require no thought about issues affecting anyone besides yourself and perhaps your family and close friends (i.e. you can answer “What are your favorite video games?” with no reference to any large scale news or social issues).
Second, I notice a trend to phrase even serious news questions as personal questions. Instead of “Should it be legal to text while driving?” we get “Do you know someone who texts while driving?” Sure, you can take these questions any way you want and run with them, but the phrasing of the questions discourages serious thought about social issues, and encourages a self-centered, “how does it affect me?” approach to the news. The implication is that kids can’t ever think beyond themselves to approach a question from a different perspective.
Third, my favorite thing about this list are the three and a half questions asking about schools (I’m not sure whether to count the college application question) and the one question asking about the treatment of adolescents (“When should a person be considered an adult?”. While we adults sit around arguing about how to run schools and “manage” childhood (or actually running schools, in some cases), it’s kids who suffer the effects of our mistakes and reap the rewards of our successes, not us. And yet, it is only rarely that we see someone actually ask kids about their thoughts on education, and then actually listen to the answer. (Who knows whether anyone is actually listening to the answer here, but at least the questions are being asked.)
Fourth, why in god’s name do we need a separate forum to ask adolescents about the news. Why not encourage them to comment on Times articles on line? Why not encourage them to write letters to the editor and then publish those letters? Why do we have to marginalize teenagers by relegating them to a column in an online only blog buried in the education section?
There are a few good questions here, but mostly what I see are questions that encourage shallowness, self-centeredness, and a whatever-I-experience-goes-for-everyone approach to the news. If this is the level of thought we expect young adults to be capable of, is it any wonder that we live in a world where people are shallow, self-centered, and assume that what works for them should work for everyone? Where people can’t tell the difference between a valid argument and wishful thinking? Where it is more important to save a buck on a t-shirt than to keep people out of sweatshops? Where people would rather keep a privatized health-care system to maintain “freedom of choice” (if you’re rich) than give everyone decent health care? Today’s kids are tomorrows adults, and they’ll have to clean up whatever mess we leave them. They deserve a chance to learn to think hard enough to succeed, because we’re gonna leave them a very, very messy room!