What do students know?

I love my teaching and love my students, but in the last few years there seems to be a widening chasm in terms of their poor general knowledge.

In particular, there’s a rootlessness – on the back of doubtful 24/7 media outpourings, and a lack of (recent) historical knowledge. For example, when I ask “who is the French President?”, I often get blank stares. Similarly, I could ask “What are the key policies of the two Conservative MPs bidding to become next PM of the UK”, and I’d get little back..

Was I any different as an undergrad in the 1970s? At school I remember sitting patiently, waiting for the class to be connected to a mainframe computer. If you had said that in my lifetime we would have the world’s libraries and knowledge at our fingertips, in our homes and on our desks, I would have laughed.

24/7 communication has not only brought joy and progress; but also worry (trolling) and regression, in the form of anything goes – paid staffers who manipulate sources on Wikipedia to gloss over potential drawbacks (of products, companies and policies). The writer George Orwell’s dying gift to mankind was the prescient 1984. Which introduced us – in 1949 – to terms illustrating that so much news and information now loses sight and remembrance of its origin.

Time to act

So what could higher education providers do? First, we should introduce a voluntary peacetime National Service, whereby school-leavers could undertake a year’s community/ sustainability-based volunteering. I did a gap year myself and worked with a social services team in London helping autistic adults. I also piloted this at my own university (Gloucestershire) with support from the NUS – where 10 teens earned a living wage and – at the same time – completed 2 project placements (for example researching social prescribing for a GP practice; assisting a constituency Green Party to assemble their manifesto; and undertaking conservation work for Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust).

Strangely, MP Rory Stewart, raised a similar idea in his recent campaign to lead the Conservative Party. As part of this National Service, young adults would reinforce their school coverage of citizenship, political, social and ethical issues to better equip them to discern fake from fact and negotiate a turbulent world.

For universities we could introduce, at level 4, a compulsory module to bring freshers towards a common baseline knowledge around sustainability and climate change; with each course/ discipline angling or tailoring content towards particular interests. For example, chemistry students understanding the chemistry of global warming and its remediation; arts students studying apocryphal writings, art works and so on.  It would have a historical and political core to explain how humanity has arrived where it is socially, politically and environmentally – perhaps starting from 1945 with post-WWII reconstruction, then moving to the free market/ capitalism and the information age.

Higher Education students and staff are supposed to be all about questioning, critical thinking, and acting as change agents – as well as being curators and interpreters for our colleagues and students, so they can weigh sources and their validity. What is the point of an academic or an academic education if we gain knowledge without wisdom; theory without practice – an understanding of prevailing paradigms without movement towards preferable ones?

In the words of the late-great US civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King jnr: “this “hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists…The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a non-conforming minority.”

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