Outside the Stuy Bubble: What Students Know About Current Events

Exploring the range of students’ current events knowledge.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The U.S. government awoke from a 35-day shutdown that had catapulted thousands of federal employees and their families into a financial crisis on January 25, 2019. On Christmas Eve, an eight-year-old migrant boy died in border patrol custody. And most recently, yearbook images of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in blackface and multiple accusations of sexual assault against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax have thrown the state’s politics into chaos.

Yet here at Stuyvesant, with the stormcloud of first semester report cards only now beginning to recede, many students are too busy coping with the storm’s aftermath to pay attention to seemingly irrelevant current events.

In one overheard lunchroom conversation, an anonymous, all-A freshman asked, “Who’s Nancy Peloski?” referring to the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. A nearby peer replied that she “had something to do with Trump.” This exchange embodies the paradoxical combination of academic excellence and political obliviousness so common among Stuyvesant students.

At the other end of the spectrum, senior Jonathan Singer makes an active effort to follow current events. “I fairly actively read the news, and I’m interested in geopolitics so I do a lot of research there,” he said. Singer acknowledges that many of his peers do not share his interest: “They just generally have focuses on other aspects and while it might be good for them to understand what’s going on in the world, most of these events don’t directly affect them,” he said.

To many students, an unstudied-for math test poses a more immediate threat to their survival than the abstruse concepts of global warming or Russian electoral interference. All-consuming schoolwork hogs the spotlight of student consciousness, pushing current events to the benighted sidelines.

Yet this patchy understanding of current events is not the product of unwillingness to learn or political apathy; for many, news would be more accessible if the learning began in the classroom.

“You benefit from knowing what’s going on around you in society, and we don’t get enough of that. But if it’s in the curriculum, then we’re sort of forced to know about it,” freshman Michael Borczuk said.

To junior Caroline Magoc, vice president of Stuyvesant Young Democrats, an activist organization involved in citywide rallies, incorporating current events into the curriculum could bring relevance to America’s past as well as its present. “I think current events are absolutely necessary because it makes people feel like they can relate more to the curriculum and it makes you more invested in what you’re learning,” she said.

Magoc also proposes that such knowledge has larger implications for the future of democracy. “I think it definitely has an impact on future voter turnout, which is really important as a whole, and also just getting people more involved. If we try to incorporate current events, we’ll feel more related to what’s going on [at] a higher level so it’ll definitely have a positive impact on America,” she said.

Emphasizing the role of students as future voters, sophomore Anna Zhang added, “As students, we’re getting older. Soon we’ll have a say in politics, so we should know what’s going on. […] School is the place to learn about current events, even if it might be controversial.”

While social studies teachers aim to tie the past to the present whenever possible, in-class discussion of current events is constrained by the teacher’s obligation to prepare students for standardized tests and the requirements of the state curriculum. Educators may only incorporate current events into their lessons to the extent that it is relevant to the curriculum.

“I try to incorporate current events into every unit,” history teacher Svetlana Firdman said. “I post optional readings and podcasts on my class website, and articles and studies—anything that’s going on that’s relevant to what we’re talking about.” And while a handful of students may be politically savvy, this is not the case for many of Firdman’s students.

“There are definitely blank stares sometimes when I bring up ‘Oh, did you guys hear about this that’s happening?’” Firdman said. “I can give you an example. This morning, we were talking about fascism and the way in which women were treated in fascist societies. I said ‘Did you guys hear about the prime minister of Hungary, how he is instituting a bill where women with four or more children won’t have to pay income tax as a way of increasing population boom?’ And they had no idea what I was talking about.”

Firdman adds that students who want to develop greater political savvy have an underused resource at their disposal: Stuyvesant’s free subscription to The New York Times, provided by the Student Union. Yet actively pursuing the login information and subscription details requires a degree of effort that many students, weary from the long school day and the hours of homework that follow, simply cannot muster.

Teachers also struggle with their own set of restrictions. For most, the gravitational factor preventing free flight into current events is the requirements of state curriculum. “We have a state curriculum that we’re following, so sometimes it’s just not relevant to the content and you can’t devote lessons to every current issue,” Assistant Principal of Social Studies Jennifer Suri explained. “But sometimes we’re also compelled to discuss certain things if we feel it really impacts our lives, our country. Like 9/11, elections—certain things happen that make it our duty to discuss [them] in social studies class.”

Suri notes that some educators feel that the combination of classroom and politics can present other challenges. “Certain topics and events can become controversial and divisive if you’re talking about politics and certain policies of the current president. For example, some people feel very strongly about gun control or abortion rights or immigration,” she explained.

Though the land of current events may be turbulent, Suri feels that that should not deter students and teachers from exploring the terrain. “But isn’t it great to get students riled up?” Suri asked. “And curious and interested? I think, how exciting that people are passionate and ready to talk about these things!”