As a member of the Board of Advisors of the College I attended, SUNY Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, I often speak with students interested in exploring careers in politics, law, or government. Their lack of cynicism is refreshing, and sincerity reinvigorating. These young people – even the graduate students seem young to me – have always been around technology, and it shows. The wider world, at least on a superficial level, is not alien to them the way it was to those of us who didn’t start travelling until young adulthood. Social media, overseas internships, and more and more diverse immigrant students, who often travel “home” on vacations, bring different perspectives to the classroom.
But I wonder whether this flavor of international urbanity is miles wide but not so deep. Do pictures on Facebook or Instagram really teach? Sure, shots from your friend’s meal in Spain may deserve a thumbs up, but are you learning about that country’s civil war, Gaudi’s stunning buildings, or their chronic youth unemployment? Are Tweets from Israel the same as spending time reading about the politics of legislative coalitions? Blogging from Paris is fun, but unless it’s also about the history of ballet in the royal court, is it educational? Latin American vacations are stunning, but understanding how the collapse of oil prices is roiling the region with protests is also important.
Has experience eclipsed studying in educational value? Should this be worrisome?
I recently had an email exchange with a Rockefeller student, a wonderful and engaging young woman with an internship in Albany City Hall. I recommended a recent long essay in The Atlantic discussing controversial approaches to the dynamic of Obama voters from 2008 and 2012 voting for Trump in 2016. She indulged me by reading through the piece, and wrote back with her thoughts.
My follow-up may have scared her off:
“My President Was Black” is an interesting read, but be more generous with yourself. It’s not about checking your own biases, though that effort is commendable. Rather, don’t think about yourself at all. It’s a difficult thing to do, I know, and harder still for younger adults, but really try to suppress all ego or sense of self when reading these pieces. Instead, is my suggestion, strain to inhabit the writer’s head, their motivations (why is this piece being written at all?), agenda, experiences, and hopes.
Think back to the opening images, where Coates describes the scene of black royalty in the arts, business, fashion, literature, and music at the White House for the last party….last supper perhaps? The hairstyles, clothes, humor….And then the closing words of the Obamas rising up, defying gravity. The criticisms of his administration, which made up the bulk of the middle of the piece, the damning of the white electorate…..the writing has a rhythm.
All feels like music, doesn’t it? Jazz, I’d say. Confrontation, improvisation, adaptation – set to scales. I recently finished the autobiography of Miles Davis, in which his descriptions of music read the same as Coates on politics and race. Everything is connected, or at least can be connected, if you have the ear for it. Social movements, history, politics, gender studies, art, music, psychology, bad mystery novels, and pop culture. Indulge your appetite for all of it, and think across topics, markets, and industries.
I deeply believe what I wrote above. Familiarity, even a cursory one, with literature, art, pop culture, music good and bad, how money works, fashion, scripture, engineering – something! – ahead of just being somewhere or clicking on your phone, makes for a truly interesting person. As the technology around social media becomes more advanced – it’s now possible to watch minute long movies in your Facebook feed – are hours in the library imperiled?
At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I still remember a sixteen page New Yorker article I once read on crop dusting in Arkansas. While parts of that piece could have been tighter, a pithy top ten list can’t convey the same depth of information. Yes, students learn differently these days, but there are still things to know that can only be absorbed through reading, reading more, and reading again.
Ideally, the technology and social media platforms that seem, at least to me, to be too superficial to be a person’s sole source of news, instead supplement and enhance information also learned elsewhere. Maybe a Tweet encourages buying a book for your Kindle, maybe Facebook post piques interest in an old magazine article.
At New York Jewish Life, we pledge to provide news and information on a variety of topics, our goal being to turn out – week after week – a newspaper we’d want to read if we ourselves hadn’t published it.