An Indifferent Age?

A NEW survey of Americans' interest in news and public affairs adds at least statistical weight to the now-popular perception that the generation of Americans under age 30 is both uninterested and uninformed. The Times Mirror study, ominously titled ``The Age of Indifference,'' found young Americans for the first time since World War II less knowledgeable about people and events than their elders. By a considerable margin youth read fewer newspapers and watched less TV - and what they do watch is less substantial, more sensational. Only one-third followed the biggest story of the decade - the revolutions in Eastern Europe and the end of the cold war. Only 21 percent knew who Helmut Kohl was; only 8 percent could identify Vaclev Havel. We may be having an ``information age,'' but not everyone's showing up.

For several years, the younger generation has been taking a public beating, from both left and right. Studies show kids aren't literate in everything from civics to geography. Allan Bloom's bestseller, ``The Closing of the American Mind,'' was originally titled ``Souls Without Longing'' - an indictment of a US undergraduate culture bereft of interest in transcendent ideas.

But statistics don't tell the whole story. Americans have always felt dire worries over the next generation. The first American Puritans voiced more worry about their less devout ``unsatisfactory children'' than about crop failures and arctic winters.

Still, overall trends and temperaments have to be taken seriously. One doesn't have to be a sociologist to see that the family commitment and deeper spiritual values that foster intelligent interest in the larger world are under attack. Too many students don't take ideas seriously. In a 1988 Monitor survey of 50 students at 10 major universities, only three could name any books or authors that had ``a significant impact'' on their thinking. Without traditions or sustaining ideals, as author Todd Gitlin points out, even intelligent young people take on a ``postmodern mind'' - a fascination with the shifting surfaces of culture and self.

Nor, to the degree it's a function of apathy or ease, is a falloff in reading a good sign. This should be resisted - as should the attempt to conciliate public taste with popularized news or ``info-tainment.'' That merely reinforces the trend.

The danger of indifference is that it allows for manipulation. Hence Abraham Lincoln's comment that democracy is always one generation removed from extinction. A democracy has to renew itself through its people. In an age in which politicians sell themselves in the same way Detroit sells cars, that's a concern.

What's regrettable about the Times Mirror profile is that so many youth are in fact not indifferent. One knows this through experience. Younger people today often don't know how to channel their energies in a complex world. But this doesn't mean that many don't care.

Causes - from the environment to child abuse - are filled with young volunteers. Across our desk this week comes a journal called ``The Concord Review,'' filled with lucid essays on history written by high school seniors - topics ranging from the Seneca Falls Women's Convention to the Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison.

Indifference is nothing new. Only one-third of the colonists supported the American Revolution. The abolitionist movement never numbered more than about 100,000 - a tiny fraction. As one historian points out, ``Five percent keep saving the world.''

That's worth remembering.

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