Things My Students Don’t Know

One of the discussion exercises I use in my course on corporate power begins with the bare text of the First Amendment projected on screen at the front of the room. I tell students that this is a recently proposed piece of federal legislation and invite their comments. I also say that if anyone has heard of the proposal, they should remain quiet for the time being and let others speak first.

The comments are always the same. Some students say that the language is old-fashioned, unclear, and likely to produce confusion. After we parse it and clarify what the proposal means, some students argue that it goes too far in allowing people to say whatever they want. Others think the legislation would be a good idea, but they still want the language made more reader friendly.

When I reveal that what’s on the screen is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and that it has been the law of the land since 1791, students are surprised and embarrassed. Usually, someone will try to save face by saying, “I thought it looked familiar.” The last time I used the exercise, when I identified the text as the First Amendment, one student said, “Man, I feel like I’ve had a shitty education up to this point.”

My students, whose SAT scores are good enough to get them into a selective public research university, are not alone in their ignorance. According to a 2015 survey by the Newseum Institute, 33% of American adults can’t name any freedoms protected by the First Amendment, and about 20% think that in granting freedoms the First Amendment goes too far. Which suggests that the exercise would unfold in much the same way outside a college classroom.

After the reveal, I ask students why it matters if people don’t recognize the First Amendment and understand what it means. So what if people can’t name the freedoms it supposedly guarantees? We hash it over and come up with an answer: People are less likely to exercise freedoms and defend rights that they don’t know they have, and this makes them easier to control and exploit. That’s the insight that makes the exercise worth the embarrassment it causes.

My students also know little or nothing about U.S. labor history. It’s not just that they don’t know of particular struggles or concrete victories—an eight-hour workday, weekends, paid vacations, retirement benefits, unemployment insurance, health and safety laws. What else they don’t know, more perilously, is how these struggles were carried out and the victories achieved: through collective action.

It’s no wonder they don’t know. For over thirty years I’ve asked students in my classes the same question: How many of you were required to take a U.S. labor history course in high school? The answer has always been zero. One student, one time, said she had taken a U.S. labor history course in college, though it wasn’t required.

On the other hand, most of my students know of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. But it seems that the lesson they take from studying these figures is that social change results from individual heroism. Not feeling much like heroes themselves, or not seeing an opening for momentous action, they conclude that there is nothing they can do to change the world for the better.

Studying labor history would convey a different lesson: change comes about through a lot of non-glamorous, invisible work by many people. It happens not so much through action by heroes as through action by ordinary people banding together to fight injustice. This is the potentially empowering lesson that is, no surprise, missing from the curriculum.

Also missing is any word of workplace democracy. When I suggest to my students that worker ownership or workplace democracy is an alternative to ownership and control by capitalist bosses, I get blank stares. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard, “That couldn’t possibly work.”

But then I explain how communes, collectives, and cooperatives operate. I offer examples of successful democratically-controlled enterprises. I explain that worker control is not a fanciful notion but a practical, ongoing reality in many places. This is all new to them. My follow-up discussion question is, Why do you suppose that no one has taught you about this stuff?

No one has taught them about electoral reform, either. When we discuss the undemocratic results that can be created by single-representative, winner-take-all elections—the problem of 49% of the people in a district, or a nation, ending up without the representation they desire—and I suggest that proportional representation could solve the problem, the first question is, What’s that?

I know the question is coming. Most of them have never heard of proportional representation, though some know that other countries have “parliaments” and multiple political parties. So I explain proportional representation, along with other less radical ways an electoral system can be made more democratic, such as ranked-choice voting, universal voter registration, and public financing of elections.

Some students are intrigued by proportional representation and wonder why they haven’t heard more about it. Others insist that it, like workplace democracy, couldn’t work. I say that proportional representation (in some form) not only could work but does—in over 90 countries around the world. “Google it,” I say.

Living in the heart of the empire and constantly being told that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world tends to quash interest in how things are done elsewhere. Universal health insurance? Couldn’t possibly work. Drug decriminalization? Couldn’t possibly work. Less severe sentencing and prisons that actually rehabilitate? Couldn’t possibly work.

My students know that these things couldn’t possibly work because they don’t exist in the United States. If such things worked, we’d already be doing them, so there is no need to see if anyone else has done them successfully. In these instances, ignorance of possibilities results not only from gaps in the curriculum but from national privilege.

Given the forces that conspire to limit their knowledge, it’s not surprising that my students are mostly clueless about how other countries deal with problems of democratic participation, poverty, crime, health care, and so on. What’s more surprising is that they seem to know only slightly more about what is happening in their political backyard.

In North Carolina, the Moral Mondays/Forward Together movement has been a major presence in the news since 2013. The movement is led by the North Carolina NAACP, backed by dozens of social justice groups in the state. Its agenda includes expanded voting rights, tougher environmental regulations, progressive tax policies, increased funding for public education, expansion of Medicaid, protection of women’s reproductive rights, and criminal justice reform.

In the spring of 2013, the movement dominated the news, mustering tens of thousands of people every week to protest the extreme rightward turn of the North Carolina legislature and orchestrating civil disobedience actions that led to over 900 arrests. Although the big protests have subsided, the Moral Mondays/Forward Together movement still makes newsworthy waves in response to every fresh outrage from the NC General Assembly.

In teaching about inequality, protest, and social change, I’ve sometimes cited the Moral Mondays/Forward Together movement to offer an example, or to link general principles to local events. In doing so, I’ve found that, in a class of thirty or so students, only a few will know what I’m referring to, let alone who is protesting what. I am thus reminded that most of the time students spend on their smartphones is not devoted to following the news but to communicating with their equally detached peers.

I could make a longer list of what my students don’t know. They don’t know much about the scale of U.S. military spending, or how it compares to that of other countries. They don’t know much about geopolitics, or even global geography. They don’t know about the history of lies told by political elites to gain public support for wars and other imperialist ventures.

One might look at the situation and be tempted to quote Will Rogers, the folksy American humorist, who said that everybody is ignorant, just about different things. True enough. But all ignorance is not created equal. Ignorance of different things matters differently.

What my students don’t know limits not only their view of the world as it is but as it could be. If all you’ve known is bosses, and all you’ve been taught is that bosses are essential, then it might seem that bosses and capitalism are eternal features of the universe. If all you’ve known is winner-take-all elections, and you’ve never heard of any other way of doing democracy, then it might seem that embracing “democracy” necessarily means accepting undemocratic results if you are in the minority.

If all you’ve been told is that elected leaders undertake military action only as a last resort, only to protect the nation from imminent threat, and only to promote freedom and democracy around the world, you might think wars are necessary and that patriotism demands unquestioning support for efforts to kill those people defined as the enemy. You might even think it is your duty to participate, and force your conscience to agree.

It would be a mistake to blame students for what they don’t know, to chide them for being absorbed in social media or celebrity trivia. Students are products of their culture, time, and place. As are we all. If college students today know more about the Kardashians than about politics and policy, it’s because of what they’ve been taught to mind and taught to ignore.

Much of the ignoring stems also from powerlessness. Why worry about what’s happening in Congress or in the state legislature if you can’t do anything about it? Why speak up if you have every reason to believe that no one will listen? At least there’s a chance that a gossipy Facebook post or a clever Tweet will find an audience.

There are of course exceptions to the pattern. Every semester I get one or two activist students who do pay attention and know a lot about politics and policy. And every semester there are students who get excited about discovering how the social world works and how to make it work differently. Occasionally the sun of critical thought shines through the clouds of apathy and consumerist distraction.

I don’t claim that my students are representative of all college students today. There are campuses, usually ones with students from more class-privileged backgrounds, where the ambient level of political and historical knowledge is higher and more students take an interest in social justice issues. My university also tends to attract students more interested in high-tech than high-talk careers.

Yet my students are typical of those at large public universities—the schools that turn out far more students than all the Ivies combined. And so they are a fair barometer of what many young people today—especially those coming from and headed for middle- and upper-middle-class lives—know about and care about. They are perhaps also an indicator of what our political future looks like. I don’t find this heartening to consider, but on good days it bolsters my sense of purpose as an educator. As the saying goes, I have my work cut out for me.

Michael Schwalbe is professor emeritus of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at