Is the Internet making college kids dumber?

Kids say the darndest things, don’t they? Certainly, college kids do on weekly current events and readings quizzes.

You may think, for instance, that the CPI is the Consumer Price Index. And you would be sure of that if you just read it in a text assigned for the day’s class.

But to one of my 28 students in Reporting I, it is the Corporal Payment Index. To another, it’s the Compared Probability Index. To a third, it’s the Current Percentage Index.

One of my favorites, though, is the College Placement Index. Problem is, I’m not sure where the author of that one would place. Still, we must give her and the others points for inventiveness, no?

Indeed, it may be that these kids, mostly freshmen and sophomores, have been getting points for inventiveness for years. They had to make decent grades to get through high school and into a Big Ten university after all. It just appears that their high school teachers didn’t make them work too hard for those grades. Certainly, the kids didn’t learn how to give the text, say, a quick scan before a quiz.

Do I sound exasperated? Well, these kids plan to go into journalism and you wouldn’t know that from the acquaintance some have with current affairs. It’s not just that one of the most common measures of the economy eludes them. It’s that they don’t appear to read the news much, even when they know they will be asked about it each week.

It wasn’t Egypt that defied the U.S., for instance, by saying it would put 19 Americans on trial in an investigation on nonprofits. No. According to one of my students, it was Canada. Canada! For another, it was – stunningly – “Newt.” To a third it was “Obama.” Did they even read the question?

Who is the Palestinian president? Okay, so maybe an answer like “Muhamed” or “Hussein” is conceivable. But “Gadafi?” “Addis Abba?” “Aasad?” “Hafnet?” And, my favorite, “Netanyahu” (courtesy of two students).

Yes, kids in or barely out of their teens may be forgiven for not knowing the names of leaders of places they have no connection to. But not when those names are on the front page of the New York Times a day or two before a quiz drawn from that page. The paper is free on campus, including just two floors down in the J School, not to mention available online. They know where the answers are before walking in every week. They don’t have to look much beyond the headlines.

I should be able to shrug this all off. Chalk it up to high school teachers who themselves may not even read newspapers anymore – it’s a generational thing, isn’t it? These kids have Facebook, YouTube, ESPN and Entertainment Tonight instead of newspapers. And nitty-gritty stuff like the names of national leaders just washes over them.

But because they do have such a wealth of information, they should be the most well-informed generation ever. They have a zillion free news sources on their computers. They have Jon Stewart. They have TV and radio everywhere, including on their computers.

And yet some say Israel blamed “Palestine” or Iraq or Syria (two students) for bombing Israeli personnel in the capitals of India and Georgia. We may be at war with Iran before the year ends and these kids won’t have clue about what led up to it.

It’s as if the information glut has made them dumber. All those warring countries just blend together in some kind of mashup. The kids don’t need to separate it out or know anything because they can Google it. Their heads can remain blissfully empty, undisturbed by the information overload.

Chinese vice president Xi Jinping in Iowa
But what about common sense? Is it sensible to say the vice president and likely future leader of “The Senate” arrived in the U.S. on Tuesday, Feb. 14? How about “Congress?” Or, “Syria?” And could Johnson and Johnson be selling “shoe” implants abroad even after the FDA rejected sales in the U.S.?

With answers like that, can they wind up among the leaders of journalism tomorrow? Sadly, unemployment may be their more likely fate. But they won’t be counted among the ranks of “discouraged” workers. At least four say it is “lazy” workers the government doesn’t count as jobless because they’ve stopped searching.

Yes, I try to put myself back into the head of a 19- or 20-year-old as I work with these kids. All these annoying little things on quizzes, I know, may take a backseat to getting through Spanish or getting into the right sorority or, as is true for many kids, working too many hours a week to study. Maybe fights with girlfriends or boyfriends keep them from focusing on school. Or maybe there are real problems at home that plague them.

But, really now, can the CPI be the Calculated Projected Index, the Central Population Index or the Chief Production Index? No points for inventiveness, I’m sorry to say. Instead, they need to read the papers and crack those books to get through my class. They have their work cut out for them, and so do I.

Smart or sophomoric? BW’s ‘edgy’ cover pushes the envelope

What words come to mind when you look at the image from the latest cover of Bloomberg Businessweek?

For my Reporting 1 students at the University of Nebraska, the words include “amusing,” “comical,” “creative,” “clever,” and “intriguing.” Most of the 30 students in the two sections of the course liked the image and thought it just fine for the book. They would agree with the folks at The Atlantic who suggested it was “edgy.”

The enthusiasts offered other terms, too. “Fun,” “simple,” “funny,” “different,” “unique,” “surprising” and “attention-getting” were among them. Some said it would encourage them to buy the magazine if they saw it on the newsstand – which, of course, is what a cover should do.

“I love this cover,” said one student, who at 23 is a couple years older than most of the others. “If I saw the magazine, I’d grab it. I love the tie-in. It’s definitely an attention-grabber.”

Another concurred, adding a thought about the cover language. “If the title was about a merger, there’s no way I would pick it up. This I would pick up,” she said.

Many found it funny. “It’s fun. I like the design. It’s a mature joke,” she said.

Of course, opinion wasn’t unanimous. A solid minority, including some who found the image entertaining, thought it “inappropriate” for a national business magazine. Some even worried about kids seeing it on the dining-room table or newsstand. Two found it “distasteful.” While saying she found it “slightly inappropriate,” one hurried to add that she was not offended.

And some were just perplexed. “It’s just a couple airplanes,” said one. “Airplanes can’t have sex.” Another said he couldn’t get the image at first, since it looked like a couple planes colliding or flying in tandem. And one, blushing, said the word that came to mind was “sexual,” and she added that the idea was “disconnected.” She asked, “why refer to two plane companies as sexual?”

Classy alternative?
While most students in this sophomore-level class thought the image was a winner, some faculty thought it, well, sophomoric. Echoing the blusher, one sixtysomething prof puzzled over the idea that everything nowadays seems to be cast in sexual terms, especially among folks south of 25 (or, I’d add, south of 40). A longtime newspaper photo editor-turned-teacher argued that manipulating photos just isn’t kosher even if it’s dubbed a photo-illustration (which this wasn’t) because the technology makes the images too believable.

Some, by contrast, thought the image just fine — so long as it suited the target audience. One, who led the art designers at New York Newsday and The New York Times before returning to Nebraska to teach, was reminded of provocative covers Newsday would run to pop off the stands next to the New York Post and the Daily News. And another, a veteran of the New York bureau of the Miami Herald, thought this would, indeed, help the magazine stand out, adding that images of humping animals are not uncommon, so why not?

Outside of school, a friend at National Journal volunteered this (sans capitals, in a Facebook exchange: “it’s funny, it’s original, it makes the point instantly, it’s not actually icky (planes don’t really have sex, people!), and it makes me much more inclined to pick up the magazine than photo of a white dude in a suit or a photo of an airport. sometimes the worthiest stories on the most important topics are really hard to coverize, and i’m sure the writer is glad they found a solution. i wish i had more ideas like this for national journal.”

When I argued that the image might fit The Onion but not BB (or BW, as we veterans prefer), he added that we might see such an image on New York, Slate or The Economist. He might be right about that, since The Economist proved even more edgy, with camels — back in 1994. Of course, that was before the British pub became the force to beat in business magazines and, maybe, had less to lose.

So, gentle reader, what say you? Does an image of jets in flagrante suggest witty, smart, authoritative and sophisticated? Or is it just a ripoff of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show that offers sass instead of style? Does it suggest hip or, rather, desperation to look hip? In the end, do boinging Boeings reflect well on a national business magazine?