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What I learned from talking to college kids tasked with reading The New York Times for a week

If you think “kids these days” have checked out of interest in the world around them, you couldn’t be more wrong.

Dr. Matthew Bribitzer-Stull, far right, leading a U of M Honors discussion on The New York Times.
MinnPost photo by Brian Lambert

There is an unusual layer of despair hanging over a certain segment of the population. The belief seems to be that the vulgarians have won, that the characters described in Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style” of American politics have their hands around the throat of democracy and anti-intellectualism is triumphant.

It’s kind of grim. But also not entirely true. Emphasis on the word “entirely.” As proof of at least one exception, I give you an Honors program at the U of M designed by professor Matthew Bribitzer-Stull out of the School of Music.

A U of M publicist invited me over to observe a dozen or so undergrads spending a week reading and discussing the contents of the New York Times. If part of the ambient despair is that “kids these days” have checked out of interest in the broad landscape of the world around them, concentrating instead on Tinder, microbrews, social media inanity and god knows what? you couldn’t be more wrong.

The experience of listening in on what these very — sometimes startlingly — bright young people thought of Times’ January 13 collection of stories was edifying. Under discussion: A piece on the latest influx of Goldman Sachs bankers into Donald Trump’s swamp-draining administration, stories on pro-Trump voters in Iowa, the new face of Islam in Indonesia, products and services curated for the paper’s monthly “Men’s Style” section and what editors may have been implying with their choice of and layout of photographs of the (old, rich, white) men testifying to become members of Trump’s cabinet.

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Despair over a culture clueless to nuance in messaging is misplaced with these kids. (When was the last time you had a conversation about “ironic masculinity,” “post-ironic masculinity” and the inherited social phobias discomfiting men in a Lush cosmetics store?)

The one nagging question I had, though, was, “Where are the conservatives?”

The group, which was divided in two, with Bribitzer-Stull and Craig Packer (from the U’s Ecology Dept.) moderating the flow, was composed entirely of appalled liberals. Or so it seemed. There certainly was no one representing a Tea Party intellectual point of view, if such a creature exists.

Views of Trump and his incoming administration were uniformly negative, with perspectives alternating between informed fears over blatant conflicts of interest, the rollback of gains made to women’s, gays’ and minority rights and familiar undergrad mockery of the sheer dystopian farce of it all.

Those of us who were not nearly as bright and disciplined as these Honors kids — from majors ranging from Chemical Engineering to Art History — and who largely misspent our college experience, still recall the occasional outlier. There was always the guy, committed to ROTC during the Vietnam War, determined at age 19 to make a killing in banking, who was part of late night dorm room bull sessions. The reciprocal needling added some energy and fun to the conversation. There were none of those here.

“It’s a frustration,” Bribitzer-Stull freely concedes. “I think the conversation would be better if we had those voices. They would bring a different tone. I’m sure they’re out there, but I’m kind of at a loss for how to bring them in.”

The New York Times exercise was the third of five such week-long, 45-hour programs he created for this school year, and arguably the most likely to incite a political dialogue. (Although a previous week, on Dracula and Vlad the Impaler, could, I assume, also propel a conversation into topical politics.)

It would have been interesting, for example, to have some conservative input when the conversation segued from the abundance of luxury goods hyped in the “Men’s Style” section to the curious faith the pro-Trump subjects in small town Iowa expressed in the essential goodness of the very, very rich. The presumption being that The American Dream is rooted in the belief that those who are fantastically wealthy are not only smarter and have worked harder than most everyone else, they are also … more virtuous. As the chemical engineering student said, one of those who spoke sparingly but with succinct acuity, “Rags to riches in America today is not a realistic goal. But that is a narrative we all buy into. At best a person in this country can move from poverty to comfortable. The numbers on those who move up from poverty to the 1 percent are basically non-existent. It doesn’t happen.”

One consensus was that the Times, that day at least, does a generally good job of crafting stories “palatable” to what the kids considered “moderately conservative” readers. Further to the right of that, not so much.

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Every group has its alpha wolf, and this one had 21-year-old Eve Hoppie, a junior Art History major born in Santa Cruz and a graduate of high school in Mankato. She had so many thoughts on such a range of topics I first thought she was one of the instructors. “No,” she laughs, “I’m just one of those people who abhors a vacuum.”

A convert to Islam as a 12-year-old from a family of “Richard Dawkins atheists” — the patriarch of which holds a PhD in Theology — Hoppie says she’s like a lot of people her age, getting the first flow of news from Facebook and Twitter, and rarely if ever coming in contact with the dead tree version of something like the New York Times. “I do have a subscription to The New Yorker,” she says. “But you know how that goes. I get through maybe two articles before I set it aside and then another one shows up.”

“I think there’s a bit of self-selection in the lack of conservatives,” she says. “I imagine they looked and saw ‘New York Times’ and decided it was going to be too liberal for them. I think in general people are separating themselves more than they used to.”

This led to a riff on the way algorithms used by Facebook and other sites drive more of the kind of information you already consumed to you again. A benefit of a week actually reading the paper version of the Times being exposure to “Men’s Style,” a topic are, Hoppie says, “I never otherwise would have had anything to do with.”

Henry Zurn, a 21-year-old English-PoliSci major from Eden Prairie actually has a subscription to the on-line Times. “It’s only 50 cents a week or something for students, so it’s a pretty good deal.” But then he remembers reading the Star Tribune every day as a kid and “watching The CBS Evening News every night with my dad.”

“I’m not so sure there were no conservatives among us,” he says, “as much as I think there was no one who would speak up for Trump. That’s a different thing.”

Like Hoppie, he says was struck by the breadth of topics he engaged within a week with the actual paper as opposed to what is fed in via Facebook. “International news, in particular. There was a story about the new government in Myanmar and human rights abuses that I doubt ever would have read if it weren’t for this experience.”

As a past President of the Honors Students Foundation, Zurn may have a special level of bias, but he thought the 45-hour experience with the Times and the conversation it provoked was, “phenomenal.”

To an appreciative outsider, it certainly offered a note of reassurance.