Monday, July 30, 2007

The Role of Parents

A new study suggests parents play a pivotal role in what kids know. While that's kinda obvious, it is important nonetheless to establish this through systematic research and not gut feeling.

What boosts political knowledge for kids? Here are a few:
  • Participation in youth activities
  • Discussing politics with parents
  • Grades in school (higher grades = more knowledge)
  • Education level of parents
  • Civics courses (this makes such good sense)
  • Being a boy versus a girl (see an earlier blog on sex differences)
  • Internal political efficacy (basically, the feeling you are capable of keeping up with politics)
I drew these from the multiple regression table in the study in which various factors statistically control for one another. Most make perfectly good sense. Smart parents who talk about politics, that's likely to rub off on kids, especially if they're also smart. Civics classes ... a word, please. My kids have had disappointing civics classes, an N of 2, but I think they are vital and yet the No Child Left Untested has hurt such classes in an attempt to boost math and other scores. That's too bad, but you can hardly blame schools for attacking a class this way.

The ultimate finding here? Parents matter. Talk about politics in front of your kids. Answer their questions. Explain the basics so they understand the context of your discussion. Engage them.

It also helps if parents know what the hell they're talking about. Read the news!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Tufts Study: Young People ARE Knowledgeable

That's right, those wacky young people are not the disconnected, self-absorbed, knowledge-deprived, pop culture-driven types we always imagined, at least not according to a study reportedly conducted by a Tufts University class. The formal pdf version of the report is here.

I'm not exactly sure why the authors found it interesting to compare college and non-college youth. Sure, it controls for age, but 18-to-24 year olds who did and did not attend college? I would expect them to differ. A lot. And they do. Except when they don't.


Well, college-attending young people do better on questions about public affairs (somewhat better, but not a hell of a lot better) but they score about the same on those all-important questions on who won American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. For example, while 65 percent of college youth could name at least one of their U.S. senators, only 51 percent of non-college youth could manage this. About 13 percent of college youth knew the name of the winner of American Idol. About 15 percent of non-college youth did. The numbers on pop culture questions are basically the same given the margin of error involved. The best we can say is that college youth are a bit more engaged and knowledgeable but they are about the same on keeping up with pop culture.

The study raises some interesting questions, more than it answers, but is definitely worth a read if you're interested in what people know or political knowledge.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What Americans Know, or Don't

A scary YouTube video of how much Americans know about the world. Funny. Sad. Frightening. Watch, then go have a stiff drink.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Cult of the Amateur and other Stuff

I finished Cult of the Amateur, a screed against all those monkeys pounding keyboards across the Internet and debasing society by shoveling piles and piles of mediocrity in our direction, thus taking our minds off higher fare and leading to a society amusing itself to death (to borrow a phrase from another great book).

I admit some sympathy for this position, despite the books flaws, which have been discussed in detail elsewhere. This is where I should insert lots of links to the pros and cons of the book. Google 'em yourself. I'm busy.

So, what's this to do with What People Know? With political knowledge?


We are coming to the tension between an elite versus mass approach to news, knowledge, entertainment, and politics. It's Lippmann vs. Dewey, or Plato versus Aristotle. From a What People Know perspective, it comes down to where are people best informed: bloggers and YouTube, or the mainstream professional media? As the audience for the MSM erodes, are people better informed? Does it even matter that people are generally uninformed, or at least not factually informed?

This gets all tied up in the Wisdom of the Crowd as compared to elites as leaders of opinion, and the question of emotion versus factual knowledge. The end result? I imagine we are becoming more "affective" in our political orientations, less willing to spend time learning what's going on, more distracted by the thousand new voices or easier ways to spend our time, more likely to follow the more emotional appeal, and generally less capable of participating effectively in a democracy. And that's bad news.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

New Yorker Article

There is an interesting article in The New Yorker available online about political knowledge (or lack thereof) and why it is perhaps not a bad idea that many people do not vote. There's little need for me to repeat the article, which is really a book review, except to paraphrase an old Mark Twain line about half the people don't read a newspaper and half the people don't vote and how he hopes it is the same half.

If you have any interest in what people know, voting, and the intersection of the two, take the time to read the article and even (gasp!) the book it discusses. When I get a chance to read the book I'll post my thoughts here. At the moment I'm finishing another (The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing our Culture). When done, I'll touch on that one first. Some fascinating stuff.