An education beyond Grounds
University students should take an active interest in current events
News coverage all over the world has lately been dominated by the successful rescue of 33 Chilean miners, who were trapped underground for more than two months. Despite this media focus, however, the students who are slowly emerging from their own midterm-induced confinement within the University's libraries will likely remain in the dark about this remarkable event for the foreseeable future. This situation may seem paradoxical: How can a group of the most privileged and intellectually curious individuals at one of the premier universities in the world not know about such a fascinating piece of contemporary news? The unfortunate reality is that such ignorance of current events is a severe and entrenched problem among many University students. More important, it is one that extends to issues like the economic crisis and climate change that, unlike the story of the Chilean miners, possess much more than theatrical value.
Students themselves are not entirely at fault for this situation - they are under tremendous pressure to devote most of their mental energy toward earning good grades that will hopefully lead to successful careers. Nevertheless, if students graduate with high grade point averages but with little knowledge of the current events that affect the broader context of their lives, they will fail to live up to the Jeffersonian ideal of using one's university-acquired skills to improve the world at large. To fulfill this purpose, students must have a clear understanding of what problems exist today that are in need of solving - an understanding that can only be developed by taking a step back from personal academic obligations to consider the larger social and political landscape of the modern world.
There is hardly a dearth of pressing national and international concerns that merit students' attention. After all, America's current unemployment rate is just shy of 10 percent; NASA released data earlier this year showing that the decade from 2000-2009 was the hottest in recorded history; and the possibility of other rogue states joining the ranks of nuclear-armed basket cases such as Pakistan and North Korea could throw the entire world into chaos. In general, University students are only vaguely aware of these issues and can only identify the major players and facts involved in them. For example, they may know that the nation's present economic situation stems from a collapse in the housing market, and that "cap-and-trade" is one of the most probable ways of forestalling a climate crisis. Few, however, have taken the time to understand what caused the housing bubble to burst or to investigate the costs and benefits of a cap-and-trade system. This is problematic because students have no idea how the problems of economic instability and climate change should be solved. Such a dilemma leaves the decision-making process in the hands of those who are much less qualified and honest in drawing conclusions.
It may seem counterintuitive to argue that students should develop a more profound understanding of contemporary events at the expense of their academic pursuits, but a trade-off must be made to ensure students can still maintain an adequate level of academic achievement to prepare them for life beyond the University. It is simply a matter of students recognizing that the difference between a 3.7 and a 4.0 is nominal as long as they develop a vision of how they can improve the world using their distinctive talents. If students instead aim merely for academic perfection and choose not to appreciate the implications of current events, then they will consign themselves to occupying roles in a variety of corrupt and unsustainable social and political structures that currently exist in the world.
Of course, students are not the only ones that should be held responsible for the change in attitude. The University should actively promote student interest in current affairs by offering additional classes related to specific, ongoing issues. Furthermore, the University should offer more resources so students can regularly follow the news. Although information about current events is always at one's fingertips with the proliferation of online news outlets, initiatives such as the now-defunct Newspaper Readership Program should be bolstered with University funding. It may no longer be financially practical to place print copies of papers such as The New York Times across Grounds, but the University could work with Student Council to ensure that students have free access to such esteemed news sources once they begin to charge online users for viewing content. If the University can break down this price barrier and initiate a successful advertising campaign to encourage student readership, then an improved understanding of current events will almost certainly follow. For their part, professors should encourage students to keep up with the news by incorporating current events into their lectures and class assignments. Often, there is no better way to promote a grasp of contemporary issues than to relate them to the general topics that students spend months studying in their undergraduate classes.
To be sure, academic success is still an important goal for students who hope to one day make a difference in the world. At the same time, students must take the time to learn about the contemporary problems that their knowledge will one day be called upon to solve. They can do so by reading the newspaper, debating issues with friends or by joining one of the hundreds of contracted independent organizations at the University dedicated to addressing world issues. Only then will students be able to put their University education to its greatest use by charting a better course for the future.
Matt Cameron is an associate editor for The Cavalier Daily. His column runs Thursdays and he can be reached at email@example.com.