Walter, Watergate, Wisconsin and the lynchpin of education

Legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite speaks a...

Walter Cronkite (Image via Wikipedia)

Can you imagine how interesting it will be in political science classes all over JMU this week?  I, for one, would love to be sitting in a heated discussion about last night’s news and all of the implications of the Wisconsin legislature’s passage of a bill to weaken collective bargaining.

When I was in college, another national issue was equally riveting: Watergate.  As a political science major, I was fascinated. And as if to top off my four years of studying about politics, constitutional law and governments, Sen. Sam Erwin spoke at my college graduation.

But political/news junkies like me weren’t the only ones following the news. The entire nation followed the unfolding story of the disintegration of an American presidency the same way that Americans  have followed the political escapades of Republicans and Democrats over the past year from first the passage of national health care to the challenge to union strongholds.

But the difference between now and then is staggering.

Back in the 1970s, neither television nor radio had hit its zenith. Newspapers were the primary conduits for news. Radio was where you listened to music. Television news featured Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Chet Huntley for 30 minutes following the local news. If you missed the evening news, you missed it. You would have to wait to read the next morning’s paper. At the time, the New York Times was a colossus, and most major cities had not one but two major newspapers. The idea of 24-hour news was absolutely ludicrous — about as ridiculous as not having a land-line telephone. There was no CNN. (There was no cable!) No Headline News. No MSNBC. No Fox News. No HuffPo or Drudge. No cell phones. No laptops.

Today’s students have the benefit of instant information. They also have billions of up-to-date resources available with a keystroke. Information flows in ways that were unimaginable only a few decades back. A book that could be secured only by scouring the trays of a card catalog and then stalking endless rows of stacks is now available instantly — as a download — to their cell phones. Within a single minute, today’s student can reference James Madison or James Carville or James Brown.

This avalanche of information, though, begs the question: Do students have time to think? And how do they deal with the onslaught not only of information but technology? Are they completely on their own?

In a fascinating piece in the New York Times last summer, writer Matt Richtel wrote:

For better or worse, the consumption of media, as varied as e-mail and TV, has exploded. In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows.

The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

“We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” he said. “We know already there are consequences.”

Today’s students unquestionably live in a circus of activity and rapid-fire information. By contrast, by the time President James Madison was 14, he had read all 400 volumes in his father’s library, according to historians at Montpelier. Well, sure, he didn’t have an Ipod, a laptop, 24-hour news or texting. All this begs another question: Will today’s classroom’s be able to produce another James Madison?

Let’s go back to today’s political science classroom. One thing  that has never changed at JMU is the deliberate and corporate emphasis on teaching — that focused exploration of a subject with the guidance of a dedicated educator. Teaching has always been the lynchpin of education at Madison. One could argue persuasively that JMU’s brand of careful and dedicated guidance is perhaps more important than ever.

Dr. Marcia Angell (’60), editor emerita of the New England Journal of Medicine and a senior lecturer at Harvard, said it well: “My daughters got tired of hearing me say that I got a better liberal arts education at Madison College than many of my friends and my colleagues and my daughters got from schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Oxford … because the faculty at Madison was not too proud to teach.”

Think about that! The willingness of professors to engage and to seek out students in undergraduate research, in classrooms, in discussions and more — all for which JMU is renowned — positions students to benefit optimally from the onslaught of information and technology. To paraphrase Mr. Cronkite: “They are there.*” And they are focused on students first and foremost.

The value of an engaged educator can never be discounted, but I would contend that now, perhaps more than any time in history, that kind of guidance, leadership, connection and dedication of the educator is not only critical but essential.

And to borrow another phrase from Mr. Cronkite: “And that’s the way it is.”

You can read all of Matt Richtel’s fascinating piece, here:

*”You Are There,” was the title of a series of history films made during the 1950s for which Cronkite was a frequent host.
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