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Unaware? Unengaged? Uncool.

BY ADAM B SULLIVAN | JANUARY 25, 2012 7:20 AM

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We have a rule in journalism that if you're not a public figure and you're not breaking the law, we'll mostly leave you alone.

The idea is that private citizens, minding their own business, don't likely deserve widely publicized criticism. But in a democracy — where a patient, dedicated 51 percent of people can do almost anything they want to the other 49 — it might be OK to bash minding-their-own-business private citizens.

That's why things such as Tuesday's On The Street in The Daily Iowan frustrate me so much. We asked four students on campus whether they planned to watch Tuesday night's State of the Union address. If you missed that, here's what they had to say:

"I'll definitely go online and read a summary of it. I don't have a TV."

That's mostly reasonable, but there is a livestream online. And it's always best to hear things from the source rather than reading about someone else's account of them.

"No, I have other stuff like homework to do."

It only takes an hour to watch the debate, and I'm not sure what "other stuff" might consist of.

"No, I won't have time or I'll forget."

Well, which is it? If you don't have time, it won't matter if you forgot. And if you forgot, it won't matter if you had time. Sounds like a fake excuse to be disengaged.

And here's my favorite:

"No, because I have shows I want to watch."

She gets points for honesty, I guess, but this is a very weak excuse.

(Luckily for these sources' employment and academic prospects, their quotes in Tuesday's feature aren't searchable online and I won't name them here.)

Certainly the four kids we found standing around in a residence hall who were willing to have their picture taken aren't a representative sample of anything, but as more anecdotal evidence, these types of comments are what I see when I talk to my non-Daily Iowan friends (I, uh, still have a couple of those, I think) about the issues of the day. Young people can't be bothered, it seems, to govern themselves.

Indeed, a 2010 study from Marist College showed that while 74 percent of Americans can identify the country from which the United States declared independence in 1776, only 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds could do so.

One might argue people's choice to be historically ignorant and civically disengaged is their own. They're only hurting themselves, one might suppose.

But this is a democracy. No matter how little you know about the American Revolution or how few presidential addresses you watch, you're still allowed to vote. And voting means you're making decisions about my money, my body, and my life.

So a laissez-faire approach to apathy and ignorance shouldn't be acceptable. A college student ignoring current events isn't just a college student ignoring current events. It's the part ruler of a country ignoring current events. You have the right to get upset about that.


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