They don’t know much. But they’re very certain that they’re super-keen and that conservatives are stupid teabaggers so shut up that’s why:
While many graduates of American colleges cannot answer basic civics questions, a higher education does make their opinions more liberal on controversial social issues,… The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an independent group with a tradition-minded view of issues… found that people who had attained at least a bachelor’s degree were more likely than Americans whose formal education ended with a high-school diploma to take a liberal stance on certain controversial social issues… in general, college does not bring students up to a high level of civics knowledge.
Combine this with overconfidence studies – the ones showing that today’s students are more self-confident with less justification than ever before – and you understand why Rock The Vote is the perfect crystallization of young liberal political engagement. You get plucked off the street with – almost by definition – no background in what you’ll be voting on. But since you’re passionate and involved – motivated – presumably the vague things you really want to be true will magically get transformed into actual facts.
Listen. We’ve known for decades that you need a certain general awareness of what you’re trying to learn – a certain amount of metaknowledge – before you can develop a sense for whether you’re learning it. And the only way you get that general sense is by sitting down and just learning stuff. Otherwise you think you’re learning when you’re actually not, nurturing a growing sense of “illusory superiority” until you end up extolling the brilliance of Andrew Sullivan in the HuffPo comments section.
Backing up: take Rumsfeld’s three categories. Known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. The starting situation when you’re learning something new is a bunch of unknown unknowns. You don’t know what you’re looking for and you won’t recognize it if you accidentally see it. Learning is getting to known knowns by passing through known unknowns. The trick is that there’s a certain point where you’ve learned enough stuff that you get a sense for what’s out there, what you’re trying to learn, what you have to do to learn it, etc. Many of the unknown unknowns become known unknowns.
But until you pass that threshold you’re just fumbling around. And if you’re brimming with overconfidence – either because of too much self-esteem or because the liberal catechism seems really neat – then we have the joy of contemporary education. Students get convinced they’ve already got a handle on what’s going on. They don’t bother learning anything new. Their reading skills are stunted. Misplaced confidence on specifics causes increasingly liberal students to be overconfident in general. And all of it stems from not having learned enough stuff in the first place to develop any amount of metaknowledge.
So take your average 23 year old HuffPo reader. They’ve been through college so they know they’re very smart, because they’re liberal and they know being liberal is very smart (more on that in a sec). They log into the site one morning looking for an excuse to support The One and his stimulus disaster. They find an article about something called a “mul-ti-pli-er effect,” which seems to be about building bridges, and they summarily conclude that conservatives must be ignorant. Because if conservatives knew about the multiplier effect, how could they oppose the stimulus? QED.
Three things have gone wrong here. The first is that our delightful liberal probably doesn’t really understand the multiplier effect. Visualizing things like marginal propensities takes a little bit of mathematical comfort, and so they’re probably just thinking that money keeps getting spent or something. This bit me a while back when a graduate student tried to “explain” to me that “newer studies” prove that increasing supply increases price. They read as much on HuffPo! I think they misunderstood an article on branding or non-commodity goods or something – not really sure – but I’m fairly confident it didn’t apply to the conversation we were having about parking lots. In any case you can see how things go awry.
First, they’re just wrong. More distressingly, they think they’re right. They can get that idea from all kinds of places – they’re enamored with their sense of pseudo-sophistication, they can’t believe they could have a thought that wasn’t shiny, pro-Obama is awesome and this is pro-Obama so ergo its awesome. Whatever. The point is that they’re convinced that here they’ve found a nugget of truth, they’re confident in advance that any critic just doesn’t know about it, and they need look no further. The problem is explicitly one of metaknowledge: they don’t realize there’s a whole debate about the multiplier effect, and that knowing it might exist is the beginning of the argument. It’s not something the other side just missed.
Students are entering universities without knowledge of American history or government. Instead they have a set of incoherent, often contradictory liberal bromides about “corporations” and “environmentalism” and “tolerance” and so on. They got those bromides, by the by, from the previous generation of undereducated and overconfident college students who scurried off, Masters of Ed in hand, to raise an entire generation of schoolkids on “critical reasoning skills” rather than on “actually knowing stuff.”
So those schoolkids enter college. Then their banalities get reinforced: positive nods from graduate students and professors, latent self-esteem driven overconfidence in their beliefs, and so on. Why should they bother learning anything new? As near as they can tell, their self-esteem and their teachers have converged on a single point – they’re really keen and clever.
Of course they end up worshiping Obama. It seems like exactly the thing to do. Just don’t ask them to explain why.
* College Makes Students More Liberal, but Not Smarter About Civics, Study Finds [CHE]
* U.S. Teens Brimming With Self-Esteem [WaPo]
* Overconfidence Among Teenage Students Can Stunt Crucial Reading Skills [Science Daily]
* Dunning-Kruger effect [Wiki]
* No Wonder Students Think It’s A Waste Of Time [ACRLog]
* How DUMB Are Obama Voters? [Flopping Aces]