A Mecca For the Ignorant

I’m a news junkie. In order to get my fix, I check CNN right when I wake up and before I go to sleep. When I have enough time, I go on binges that last hours and read the entire New York Times. I don’t expect every Colgate student to enjoy reading the news as much as I do; after all, the journalism industry is dying. It’s a hobby for me, just as skiing (which seems to be mandatory for Colgate students), knitting or fantasy football is for some people.

But I do expect the average Colgate student to understand what’s going on in the world. I was under the impression that most of us did until a Western Traditions discussion a few weeks ago. My professor was making a point about cultural sensitivity and said, “Wouldn’t it be insensitive if I were to open a pork and alcohol store in the middle of Mecca?” As everyone was laughing, one girl asked bluntly “what is Mecca?” in a kind of tone that suggested my professor had just told us an inside joke. My professor was a lot more patient than I would have been and explained that Mecca is the holiest city for Muslims and that one of the pillars of Islam is making a pilgrimage there. I would have probably answered, “This is why people hate Americans.”

The boy sitting next to me looked equally astonished that this girl had no idea about a city that is so important to a religion followed by 20 percent of the world population, over one billion people. It is also a religion that in its fundamentalist form contributes to many of the world conflicts the United States is involved in. All I could think was, “How did this girl get into Colgate?”

Now, I don’t mean to be so harsh. After all, I’m sure if my peers saw what I got on the SAT math section, they may be asking the same question about me. But I feel this girl’s lack of knowledge is symptomatic of a larger problem. Even though it’s practically being shoved down our throats that we live in a globalized world (the new Core?), so many people become successful without knowing anything about the world around them.

My sister, who is a college senior, told me about one of her friends who has never picked up a newspaper – or read one online, as is today’s custom–and already has a high-paying job in an accounting firm for next year. Fewer than one third of US Congressmen even have passports. In order to be a successful member of our society, you should be able to understand what’s going on around us.

I understand the world is a complex place, but you don’t have to understand what TARPs and derivatives are–I still have no idea–to be able to grapple with the effects of the world economic crisis. Unfortunately, our society seems to see the only value in this knowledge as a way to win at Jeopardy.

How can we solve this problem? At first I thought about making a “current events” section on all college applications. Then, I suddenly had nightmarish visions of the college counselors the parents in my town like to hire for their kids creating laminated current events flashcards that students could conveniently alternate with their SAT vocabulary.

Instead as a society, we need to teach the value of this knowledge to all students. I know that in all my classes, from psychology to Russian, understanding current events has been helpful. Perhaps this girl from my Western Traditions class will go on to get a good job and live comfortably, but if colleges keep producing students with a lack of such fundamental knowledge, we will all ultimately lose out.