'A War With Japan? Really?'The 'Astonishing Ignorance' of Some Teen-Agers

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

I spend a lot of time with teen-agers. Besides employing three of them part time, I frequently conduct focus groups at Los Angeles-area high schools to learn about teenagers' attitudes toward movies or television shows or nuclear arms or politicians. I meet the friends of the teen-agers who work for me. I make it my business not only to meet those young people, but also to ask them about their lives and about what they know. In the course of two years of this kind of inquiry, I have collected a mass of data about how teen-agers see business (very negatively), how they feel about the likelihood of nuclear war (terrified), how they like Richard Gere (a lot), and how they feel about American cars (extremely negative).

But all of these specific attitudes pale into insignificance compared with something else I have learned of: the astounding level of ignorance of the Southern California teen-ager. No amount of preparation could possibly cushion the blows of unawareness of even the most elementary current events, history, politics, economics, or just what goes on each day in the world outside of Los Angeles that lurks in the cheerful minds of these children. I have not figured out a way to quantify this ignorance, but I can offer a few examples that might just make you wonder where all that money for public education is going.

Recently, a 19-year-old junior at the University of Southern California sat with me while I watched "Guadalcanal Diary" on television. It goes without saying that the child had never heard of Guadalcanal. More surprisingly, she did not know who the United States was fighting against in the Pacific. ("The Germans?") She was genuinely shocked to learn that all those little people on that island were Japanese and that the United States had fought a war against them. ("Who won?")

Another student at USC did not have any clear idea when World War II was fought. She believed it was some time this century. (She is a journalism major.) She also had no clear notion of what had begun the war for the United States. ("Pearl Harbor? Was that when the United States dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima?") Even more astounding, she was not sure which side Russia was on and whether Germany was on our side or against us.

In fact, I have not yet found a single student in Los Angeles, in either college or high school, who could tell me the years when World War II was fought. Nor have I found one who could tell me the years when World War I was fought. Nor have I found one who knew when the American Civil War was fought.

Not one could name all the presidents since World War II. Only one could even place the correct decade in which Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Not one could tell me who Martin Luther King Jr. was except that he was black. A few have known how many U.S. senators California has, but none has known how many Nevada or Oregon has. ("Really? Even though they're so small?") Of at least 10 I have asked, only one could name both of California's senators.

Of the (at least) 12 I have asked, none has known within 40 million what the population of the United States is. Only two could tell me where Chicago is, even in the vaguest terms. (My particular favorite geography lesson was from the junior at the University of California at Los Angeles who thought that Toronto must be in Italy. My second-favorite geography lesson is from the junior at USC, a pre-law student, who thought that Washington, D.C., was in Washington State.) None had even the vaguest idea of where New England is, and several had never heard of Vermont or Connecticut and could not identify them as states of the Union.

Not so long ago, I watched a television news show about the so-called "lifting" of martial law in Poland. On the screen were pictures of Poles in large pen-like enclosures rounded up after martial law was imposed. One of my assistants, a junior at USC, stared at the screen open-mouthed.

"What's going on there?" she asked. "Why are those people in that big cage?"

I explained that they had been imprisoned as the result of a crackdown by the communist government. "Why don't they just leave and come to L.A.?" she asked. I explained that they were not allowed to leave.

"They're not?" she said. "Why not?"

I explained that in totalitarian states, citizens usually could not emigrate.

"They can't?" she said. "Since when? Is that something new?"

After some explanation of that, she asked who "that guy in uniform" (Wojciech Jaruzelski) was. I explained that he is the dictator of Poland. "He is?" she asked. "Why does he do that?"

She then expressed amazement that there were such things as non-free countries in the world. She had never known that before. She was amazed that there was a whole array of countries around Russia that are controlled by Russia. ("There are? Why doesn't Reagan make them stop?") She was also amazed that people could be and were put in prison for expressing political views in Russia. ("What a burnt idea.") Finally, she wondered why she had never been told about this subject before.

Of the teen-agers with whom I work, none had ever heard of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Only one could identify Josef Stalin. (My favorite answer: "He was President just before Roosevelt.") Only two could even approximately identify Thomas Jefferson. Only one could place the date of the Declaration of Independence. None could name even one of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution or connect them with the Bill of Rights. Only one knew roughly when the Great Depression was. None could say even approximately when Lyndon B. Johnson was President.

Only a few could articulate in any way at all why life in a free country is different from life in an un-free country. None had ever heard of the Warsaw Pact. None could tell me what NATO stood for. ("Aren't they the ones who put up the space shuttle and all those things?")

On and on it went. On and on it goes. I have mixed up episodes of ignorance of facts with ignorance of concepts because it seems to me that there is a connection. If a student has no idea when World War II was and who the combatants were and what they fought over, that same human being is likely to be ignorant of just what this society stands for. If a young woman has never heard of the Bill of Rights, that young woman is unlikely to understand why this is a uniquely privileged nation with uniquely privileged citizens, young and old. If a student has never heard of the Warsaw Pact and has no idea what the Russian system is all about, that student is unlikely to understand why sacrifice is necessary to defend this society.

The examples here could be repeated almost endlessly. (One night in 1982, I watched a television mini-series about Adolf Hitler. In the series, a demented, defeated Hitler rants that he never wanted war, that it was forced on him by Russia and England. One of my friends at UCLA said to me while watching, "Why did Russia and England do that?") The point is that in a state of such astonishing ignorance, young Americans may well not be prepared for even the most basic national responsibility--understanding what the society is about and why it must be preserved. The kids I saw (and there may be lots of others who are different) are not mentally prepared to continue the society because they basically do not understand the society enough to value it.

None of this means that the children in my circle are bad children or inherently flawed. Far from it. They are fine human beings. Their comments often bring tears of joy to my eyes. Recently, two of them read an article in the newspaper about a militantly anti-Semitic organization. One of them pointed at the word "anti-Semite" and said, "What's this word?" I explained that it was someone who hated Jews. The girl looked at me with genuine amazement and asked, "Why would anyone do that?" The other girl said, "What is it again? I never heard of that."

I respectfully suggest that we should be happy and proud to have such gilded, innocent children in our midst. But unless they are given some concept of why the society must be protected and defended, I fear that they will learn too soon about a whole variety of ugly ideas they did not want to know about. If we are going to upgrade our educational system, if we are going to start teaching again, I hope we will begin by instructing young Americans with historical facts and with concepts about why the society is worth preserving. People who do not value what they have rarely keep it for long, and neither will we.

Vol. 03, Issue 08, Page 18

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories