I’m a teacher of college students. I’m lucky to be at one of the best colleges in the world, at Yale. Our students are as smart as any in the world. They work very hard to get here. They are eager, they’re likable. My generation ... we always thought we knew everything about every topic, our professors were morons...Worse:
My students today are much less obnoxious. Much more likable than I and my friends used to be, but they are so ignorant that it’s hard to accept how ignorant they are. You tell yourself stories; it’s very hard to grasp that the person you’re talking to, who is bright, articulate, advisable, interested, and doesn’t know who Beethoven is. Had no view looking back at the history of the 20th century – just sees a fog. A blank. Has the vaguest idea of who Winston Churchill was or why he mattered. And maybe has no image of Teddy Roosevelt, let’s say, at all. I mean, these are people who – We have failed.
... [A]nyway how did we get to this point today when my students know nothing? They know nothing about art. They know nothing about history. They know nothing about philosophy. And because they have been raised as not even atheists, they don’t rise to the level of atheists, insofar as they’ve never thought about the existence or nonexistence of God. It has never occurred to them.
...we have second-generation ignorance [that] is much more potent than first-generation ignorance. It’s not just a matter of one generation, of incremental change. It’s more like multiplicative change. A curve going up very fast. And swamping us. Taking us by surprise.We might add to his list a lack of curiosity. But I don't think Yalies or other strivers are much of a threat to culture generally or to publishing or history specifically because they've never been part of the serious reader demographic.
For example, by the 1980s, Princeton, the school, had been overrun by strivers and the town itself was inundated with relocated businessmen. Browsing the Princeton University Bookstore one day, I asked a clerk if the store stocked a certain author. This clerk was one of the town's old timers who worked to get out of the house, wore fine clothing, pearls and heels on the job. She gave me pained look and whispered. "all they can stock here are New York Times best sellers."
And it wasn't even the kids buying that stuff, it was the newly headquartered corporate folk.
Civil War history attracts autodidacts. As long as we have those - and they are all readers - there should continue to be a market for interesting histories.