t's a freshman writing assignment I give every semester: Respond in your journals to the following quotation: "Religion is the opiate of the masses." After the students copy the words into their notebooks, I ask them to name the author. I do this now out of a mixture of curiosity and masochism; very likely, none of them will know. In the ten years I've been assigning the quotation, only five students have immediately identified Karl Marx as the author and all five were foreign students. So as usual, in the semester just ended, after the initial silence, I offered them a hint: The author was German.
They pondered this for a moment. Finally, an older black student named Maxine raised her hand. "Was it Martin Luther?"
The class roared with laughter.
Their reaction puzzled me. It didn't seem such a bad guess. Luther was German, and he did write about religion. As Maxine glanced around, another student tapped her on the shoulder. "Don't you know he was a brother?"
The reason for the laughter suddenly dawned on me. The entire class had assumed Maxine meant Martin Luther King their jaws dropped as I explained who Martin Luther was.
That moment has stuck with me because it highlights what, to my mind, are the two great problems with students now entering college. The first is familiar enough: They don't know what they should know. The second is more subtle yet even more worrisome: They assume they know much more than they actually do know. In this instance, not only did the students fail to identify arguably the most famous quotation of the last two centuries, or to recognize the name of the leader of the Protestant Reformation, but they felt secure enough to laugh at an educated guess far closer to the mark than they realized.
Through the years, we've grown accustomed to New York City's students lagging behind the rest of the country's on standardized tests; accustomed, as well, to American students getting blown out of the water by their peers in Far East or European countries or, indeed, in any country where hunger does not eclipse education as a parental concern. Less familiar are surveys in which American students show markedly higher rates of satisfaction with the poor education they are receiving; they are, in other words, utterly ignorant of their own ignorance.
It is a trend that should worry us because, unlike in the past, ignorance is no longer tempered with humility. Rather, after years of psychotherapy disguised as pedagogy, ignorance is now buoyed by self-esteem which, in turn, makes students more resistant to remediation since they don't believe there's a problem. This resistance, indeed, is part and parcel of a wholly misplaced intellectual confidence that is the most serious obstacle to their higher education. For the last two decades, I've taught freshman courses at CUNY and SUNY colleges in the city; the majority of my students have been products of the city's public schools. I am saddened, therefore, to report that more and more of them are arriving in my classes with the impression that their opinions, regardless of their acquaintance with a particular subject, are instantly valid indeed, as valid as anyone's. Pertinent knowledge, to them, is not required to render judgment.
Want to scare yourself? Sit down with a half-dozen recent public high-school graduates and ask them what they believe. Most are utterly convinced, for example, that President Kennedy was murdered by a vast government conspiracy. It doesn't matter to them that they cannot name the presidents before or after Kennedy. Or the three branches of government. Or even the alleged gunman's killer. Most are convinced, also, that AIDS was engineered by the CIA even though they cannot state what either set of initials stands for. Most will voice passionate pro-choice views on abortion even though they cannot name the decision that legalized it. Or report the number of judges on the Supreme Court. Or define the word "trimester." Most will happily hold forth on the hypocrisy of organized religion even though they cannot name the first book of the Bible. Or distinguish between the Old and New Testaments. Or state the approximate year of Jesus's birth (a trick question). Most will bemoan global warming even though they cannot name three greenhouse gases. Or convert Fahrenheit temperatures to Celsius. Or say what planetary phenomenon causes seasons.
Let me stress that I'm not talking about stupid kids though yes, as painful as it is to acknowledge, there are in fact stupid kids. But in this case I'm talking about bright kids, talented kids, curious kids kids who will occasionally concoct ingenious, if wrongheaded, theories to compensate for what they don't know. Several years ago, for instance, a student of mine suggested that a semi-colon got its name because it drew attention to the words around it. She thought the spelling was: "See me colon." Clearly, if she's clever enough to come up with that, she's clever enough to learn the proper use of semi-colons; it's just that no teacher ever bothered to correct her punctuation.
She, and students like her, have been robbed and not simply of the instruction they should have received through 12 years of primary and secondary schools. They have been robbed of their entrée into serious cultural debate. Robbed even of the realization that they are stuck on the outside looking in. They are doomed to an intellectual life of cynicism without ever passing through knowingness, a life in which they grasp at platitudes to resolve momentary disagreements and do not possess the analytical wherewithal to pursue underlying issues.
They are lost generations. It's too late for them to catch up. But we owe it to their children to do better.
Mark Goldblatt teaches at SUNY's Fashion Institute of Technology. His new novel is Africa Speaks. This essay first appeared in the New York Post three years ago.