Does Adlai Stevenson matter?

There is a great “fluff” piece over at the New York Times detailing the provenance of dorm rooms at a few schools. It includes a photograph of four freshmen at Princeton who, when told they were occupying Adlai Stevenson’s old dorm room replied that they didn’t know who the guy was but that “there’s famous people in every place” at Princeton.

Predictably, the comments bemoan the state of modern education. If Princeton represents our best and brightest, how sad is it that they don’t know who Stevenson is? After several comments in agreement, the backlash begins. Should freshmen know every defeated presidential contender over the last five decades? Inevitably, someone posts that they don’t need to know because they can always look up his bio on Wikipedia.

You probably think you know where I come down on this. After all, I’ve suggested many times before that the nature of knowledge is changing, and that formal expectations of what people should know is changing. That said, I am a little disappointed that these four were not aware of Stevenson. I wouldn’t expect them to be able to provide the details of his biography (after all, that is what Wikipedia is for), but I would expect them to have at least a rough idea of how he fits into the fabric of our history. In other words, I would expect that in their studies before reaching university, they might have already had the opportunity to look up his bio on Wikipedia, and might remember enough to know roughly who he was and why he was “famous.”

The fact that these things exist outside of our heads is only an advantage if we actually use them. Most of what I’ve learned I’ve forgotten, but it leaves some indexical trace, some broad map of the world that will allow me to reacquire these things in the future. So the question is how our most elite student manage to get through high school without ever finding the need to google Adlai Stevenson, and how we can change that.

I’m convinced that part of the reason they never ran into Stevenson is that he doesn’t make a big splash in the textbooks. The fault isn’t in a particular textbook, or even the Texans who decide what counts as history, but in the existence of textbooks at all. Textbooks, and the tests and regents exams they spawn, focus on sufficient knowledge: if it isn’t in the book, it doesn’t matter. The work of a school, no matter at what level, is to create the conditions that lead students to discover things on their own. And somewhere are the conditions under which a student will encounter Adlai Stevenson as more than a presidential loser.

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