The YNN Show and the News

YNN and its advocates are fond of saying that they are providing a service to students by making news and current events materials available for the classroom. They quote statistics about how few students actually now watch news and documentary programs and conclude that they will be doing humanity a favour by enforcing students to watch a daily 10 minute news broadcast in school. It will raise their level of media literacy, they claim.

Others have already pointed out the studies done with students exposed to Channel One which show that they do not have any higher awareness of current events than students who are not exposed to the Channel One show. (While these students have little recall of the content of the "news" section of the Channel One show, they have almost total recall of the ads.) Others have also pointed out in detail that the YNN is not the only show in town when it comes to finding sources of current events video material. The list of alternatives is long and varied:

CBC Newsworld
Cable in the Classroom
CBC News in Review
MacLean's in the Classroom
The Canadian Daily Newspaper Association
YTV News
National Film Board of Canada classroom materials

So here, I intend to focus on the accusation itself: the accusation that today's kids are bone ignorant about "current events".

Well, it depends what you mean by current events. Do you mean happenings around the world? Issues of local, provincial and federal politics? If so, then today's teens are probably no more ignorant about those "events" than were their parents. I have vivid personal memories of high school classrooms filled with intelligent and eager students who were unable to tell me the name of the president of South Vietnam who had just been deposed - if, that is, they knew where Vietnam was, or why it was an important place to know about at the time.

These same students, and later generations just like them, who knew nothing about Vietnam, Watergate or Profumo, could nevertheless amaze their teachers with the minutiae of trivia about the Beatles, baseball scores, the Dave Clark Five not to mention Mary Quant, the Rolling Stones and Boy George. It wasn't that they didn't know anything, it was that they didn't know much about the things the adults thought were important. Their knowledge of current events was encyclopedic in scope, thoroughly organized and rigorously researched.

Today's teens are no different from any other generation when it comes to being preoccupied with the culture of their own generation. Today we are told that this typical teen characteristic is a sign of declining standards and lack of respect. Confucius made the same complaints in 500 BC.

'Twas ever thus.

One person in charge of dicing young people in this way is E.D. Hirsch Junior. E.D. Hirsch Junior has written a book (perhaps more than one) called Cultural Literacy, in which he claims that all culturally literate people have about 5 000 pieces of cultural knowledge in common. His book even contains the list. His conclusion: that people need to know these 5 000 things in order to be culturally literate. Of course, he is the one who gets to define what "culture" consists of and what constitutes "literacy".

Hirsch's thesis is seductively simple. Memorize 5 000 things and be culturally literate. "How many factoids would that make in each year of school?" I can hear the Ministry of Education accountants (they call themselves education officers) ask. "And which ones will we put in grade 1?" they go on, rubbing their hands over this new sign of rigor in the curriculum, "And in whose riding will we build the first boot camp for those who fail?"

Well, the problems with Hirsch's thesis and with the YNN show's assertions are these:

The kind of literacy or "current events knowledge" that each is looking for is an adult kind, only. The criticism really boils down to a complaint that children are not adults. If we were to test adults on their knowledge of the 5 000 most commonly known facts in popular teen culture, the adults would likely loudly complain that they are not children and have no need or respect for such knowledge. Go figure.

On both sides, the complaint ends up as one about the specific kinds of knowledge that one group wants the other to value, rather than about whether or not either group actually possesses cultural knowledge at all. Modern teens are not ignorant. They are stuffed with knowledge. But adults want them to stuff themselves with other kinds of knowledge, not recognizing that today's teens are little different in their level of adult knowledge than they themselves were at the same age.

In recent eras when youth did make it its business to become expert in "current events", some of them at Kent State, or Tianenmen Square, or in Jakarta were shot dead for their trouble. It appears that they had somehow got hold of the wrong ideas about current events, rather than the ones they were supposed to get.

Take another look. Is the YNN show about increasing students' knowledge of current events, or might it be about channeling students' knowledge of current events in adult-sanctioned ways.

I believe the name for that process is: propaganda.

Chris M. Worsnop

2400 Dundas Street West
Unit 6, Suite 107
Mississauga, Ontario
L5K 1H9
Phone: (905) 823 0875