A professor's lament: "My students are know-nothings..."

This article appeared last February, but I only recently became aware of it. The author, a professor at Notre Dame, goes beyond the usual hand-wringing about today's crop of college students and raises a more disturbing issue: not only do they know nothing, but that ignorance is the deliberate outcome of the education system.

My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.

It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them:  they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world...

Our students’ ignorance is not a failing of the educational system – it is its crowning achievement. Efforts by several generations of philosophers and reformers and public policy experts — whom our students (and most of us) know nothing about — have combined to produce a generation of know-nothings. The pervasive ignorance of our students is not a mere accident or unfortunate but correctible outcome, if only we hire better teachers or tweak the reading lists in high school. It is the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide. The end of history for our students signals the End of History for the West...

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders. What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, history-less free agents, and educational goals composed of content-free processes and unexamined buzz-words like “critical thinking,” “diversity,” “ways of knowing,” “social justice,” and “cultural competence."

This opens up all kinds of interesting and disturbing questions with wide-ranging implications for education and social policy. But let's confine ourselves to the narrower topics of business and marketing that I focus on in this blog. Most of the angst about the younger generation has been based on dollars and cents: the "failure to launch" on schedule, the trend of more young adults living at home with their parents, the lack of spending power, and other demographic factors.

But what if the author is right, and the educational system is creating -- not by accident -- a generation of detached and relatively indifferent young people who are disconnected from the past that has produced them? You can argue, immediately, that I'm wrong about "indifferent" -- what about all those passionate Social Justice Warriors? But even here, the author's argument is borne out: so much of the SJW activity is about trivia, an almost desperate search for victimhood, a play-acting at social reform. The Baby Boomers marched for civil rights, and against the war in Vietnam; the SJW's feel unsafe at finding the "n" word in Huckleberry Finn (and thus require safe spaces and trigger warning) and demonstrate against insensitive Hallowe'en costumes.

What are the implications of all this, if the author is right? I suggest that marketers may have to start thinking about things they never had to worry about before:

- Will there be some important psychographic differences between the university-educated (particularly if they were in the Humanities) and those who went to more vocationally-oriented colleges? How do you market a brand to a cohort that cares equally about everything but not very much about anything? (Especially if they are under-employed and still living in their parents' home.) How do you market that same brand to a different cohort who are exactly the same age but who learned a skill at a college and are more independent?

- What about intergenerational influences? Can you really be sure who is specifying or recommending your brand, especially if close to a third of young adults are still living in their parents' homes? Is the "real" marketing target Mom and Dad? How do you build brand loyalty among a population that sort of likes everything and likes nothing at the same time?

- How do you respond to the growing disconnect between the struggling middle class (or working class, if you prefer) and the largely university-educated elites? We see a massive rejection, for good or ill, of the Received Wisdom of the academia/media/bureaucracy elites -- Brexit, Trump, etc. There is a widening gap between the world as it is presented and understood by the students our professor is complaining about, and the struggling workers in the "real world" -- who do have a sense of community and identity (and fear those are being lost). What does this schism mean for marketing? Do you address it? Duck and ignore it? Choose which side is your real target market? Have separate campaigns for Main Street and Ivory Tower?

- Is the professor right that the entire educational construct is crumbling and may crash? He welcomes the ruins as a chance to rebuild on a more solid foundation. Will business get involved? Should it? Does it matter? Is everything moving to online badging and accreditation anyway, so that the established universities -- at least in the Humanities -- will become less and less relevant? (There is some evidence that this is already happening.) What if, in future, "education" is a lifelong process of very specific training and constant updating, as opposed to four years in a campus hothouse? What type of consumer does that produce? Will such a consumer be identified, in marketing plan, as a target separate and distinct from "university educated"?

Bottom line: when it comes to education, the next categories of our demographic models are less and less relevant. Right now, we check the boxes: high school grad, some university, college grad, university grad, grad school, etc. In future, we will need to go much deeper and we may find surprising new segments and sub-segments.




Is there a connection between the rise of populism and...digital marketing?

Brexit generational war: "Oh, my God, Grandma, what the fuck have you done?"