SHE WAS SHORT and redheaded and very cute and I would tell you her name, only I don't remember it. She was a babysitter, a college student here for maybe a year - a bright young lady who went off to study in Europe and never came back.She came over one night and went over to the bookcase saying she was looking for something to read and chose a book about Huey Long. I was impressed. So was she. She asked who he was.
No big deal. I mean, there must be lots of people who have no idea who Huey Long was, but this particular girl was an honor student and had gone to one of those academically excellent high schools and was majoring in something like Russian studies at one of the local colleges. Still, no big deal, but I was interested and so I asked her if I could quiz her a bit.
I asked her if she knew who Joe McCarthy was and she said she didn't. i asked about Dean Acheson and she said she never heard of him and George Marshall drew a blank and so did almost everyone else I named. The game soon became pointless and so we broke it off, me leaving to go out for the night, she to baby-Sit with her book on the arcane Huey Long. Since then, I have played my baby-sitter game with others and always the results are about the same. You could say that students know nothing, but that would be overstating it. You could say instead that they know less than they should.
I think of that young lady from time to time and I think of her usually when I read the latest bulletins off the education front. The most recent is the chilling news that the nation's teen-agers know less about their government than they used to - something of an educational four de force. More than half of them, for instance, did not know that the Senate had to confirm a Supreme Court justice nd something like one-third of them, for instance, did not think that a newspaper should be allowed to criticize public officials.
Anyway, all of his is survey stuff and yet another indication that the education system is going to pot and yet somehow you think we'll survive it all. But he other night I went to a local hotel to participate in a seminar with about 150 middle-western high school students and I came in feeling real good, thinking this was going to be another session in which I have to suffer through lots of praise for my newspaper and the press in general. After all, ever since Watergate things have been wonderful. We could do no wrong. It was nice to be the cavalry for a change.
So there I was and I was expecting the same old adulation when this kid in the back of the room held up his hand to ask a question. I could tell right off that it was going to be "The Question" that is usually on that asks why the press is always "running things down." The kid said something along those lines, but he didn't stop there. Instead he said something about how the press made AMerica look bad abroad by printing bad things and how it did not reflect American morality - it published things that were bad for the country.
This was The Question with a twist, but I was ready for it anyway, ready to hit it right out of the park. The kid sat down and instead of sitting down on his own little island of isolation and disapproval he sat down to applause. Most of the kids clapped. Not all, but most, and it was clear that something had changed. I got scared.
I got scared because later the seminar staff told me that more and more of the kids who have been visiting Washington talk this way. I got scared because the kid in his own way was talking the language of the 1950s - a vocabulary that equated boosterism with morality, that put a premium on conformity and that touched on something called "Americanism" - a loathsome term that surfaced later and defies definition. It is usually applied to anyone with whom you are in agreement.
The point is not that some of the criticism of the press is not justified. The point, actually, is really not about the press. It has to do, actually, their educational system - who are somehow reading worse and spelling worse and slipping in math and doing it all on more money and more know-how than ever before. But as bad as that is, and it is unforgivable, it is nothing compared to an educatonal system that is not teaching kids about their government and their constitution and their rights.
Huey Long would have loved them.