It will make many of you feel old to learn that nearly half of my students can’t name a single member of the Beatles.
“John, Ringo, George and that guy from Wings,’’ wrote one student on a survey I distributed to University of California undergrads on their first day of class.
“Who cares?’’ wrote another.
In the students’ defense, the Beatles disbanded in 1969, three decades before most of them were born. Their breakup was closer to the end of WWI than it is to today.
Still, it is sobering to recognize the different lenses from which Generation Z — those born after 1996 — sees the world.
Barely half can identify the city where Sen. Dianne Feinstein served as mayor. More than a third incorrectly believe that more Americans were killed in Iraq (roughly 5,000) than in Vietnam (roughly 55,000). Nearly one in five don’t believe American democracy will survive another 25 years, though I know many baby boomers who share that view.
I distribute the anonymous survey each term to students participating in the UC Washington Program, mostly juniors and seniors from the university’s nine undergraduate campuses. The sample is hardly random, consisting of students who have chosen to spend a term interning and studying in the nation’s capital.
Yet gaps in their political awareness are evident.
Half are unable to name California’s two senators or a single president from California. (Those often incorrectly named include Kennedy, Clinton and Obama.)
More than eight in 10 can name two characters from TV’s “The Simpsons,’’ yet it is rare that two in 10 are able to name two members of the President’s cabinet. Among those who can, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg outpaces other cabinet members by a five-to-one margin.
Unsurprisingly, students get their news almost exclusively online. When I began asking about their reading habits a decade ago, there were always a few renaissance kids who said they preferred the feel and look of a newspaper.
No longer. Just two students this term reported ever touching a paper on a regular basis, and neither of them said it happens more than once a week.
If people are aghast by the findings — most are when I share them — they shouldn’t be. Students have matters beyond national politics to occupy their attention while in school. And the responses, while hardly impressive, are consistently more accurate than similar questions asked of the general public.
Having taught more than 1,000 students over the past decade, I can wholeheartedly embrace the cliché that spending time around young people gives me hope for the future. They are idealistic, public service-minded and embrace diversity in a manner that should serve as a model for a multicultural nation.
Half of my students’ first language is something besides English. This term alone, their first languages include Armenian, Arabic, Mandarin, Hebrew, Portuguese, Punjabi, Spanish and Telegu.
Two-thirds know a DACA recipient, the program that protects immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by parents who lacked documents.
Given a choice of several career options, including schoolteacher, millionaire restaurant owner and President of the United States, the top choice is always either executive director of an advocacy organization, or working with immigrants as an attorney or social worker.
Their political ideology is not so diverse. Typically, over two thirds identify as Democrats and less than one in 10 identify as Republicans. This term, 83% described themselves as Democrats, 17% as independents and not a single student chose Republican. Asked who they’d be most excited to vote for in the 2024 elections, the winner the last couple years by a 2-1 margin has been New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.
There is much to be concerned about coming of age in in the 2020s. Young people are obsessed with social media, a mode of communication which, while simple, accessible and fun, also perpetuates misinformation, shallowness and ignorance.
But as that “that guy from Wings’’ once wrote: “Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.’’