1776I didn’t want to believe what I had just seen and heard: about a dozen Texas Tech University evidently native-born American  students unable to answer any of the following questions during a recent on-campus interview, titled “Politically Challenged” conducted by a new on-campus student organization, Poli Tech:

  • Who won the Civil War?
  • Who did we gain our independence from?
  • When did we gain our independence?
  • Who is the Vice President of the United States?

There was nothing to suggest it is a gag interview, staged for the fun of it or a as a prank, which, given the video’s viral media exposure, should have been exposed or revealed by now. Indeed, as a form of “ambush journalism”, it is now a common genre of interview, e.g., Mark Dice and his wacky petitions, and James O’keefe—the latter having exposed voting law violations in the recent midterm U.S. elections.

Their replies were staggering:

  • “The one in 1965?” ( American Civil War,1861-1865)
    “The South​?”
    “Who was even in it?”
    “That’s the Confederates, right?”
  • “Is that, like, a trick question? I have no idea.” (Joe Biden)
  • “197_?” (July 4, 1776)
    “These are horrible (questions)!” ( Joe Biden and independence from Great Britain).

The fact that two prompt correct answers (and a third after agonizing brain wracking) among dozens (“Joe Biden”, “the Union”) were given provides cold comfort (although allowance must be made for the possibility that any other right answers were edited out to dramatize the failed replies).

Implications for Recruitment and Careers

The career question these questions and responses raise is this: What are the implications for recruiters who will, sometime in the near future, be interviewing students like these for jobs the latter believe they are qualified for​?

Of particular interest is the discrepancy between their political ignorance and their pop-culture savvy: All of them gave the correct answers to “Snookie is on what show?” (“Jersey Shore“) and questions about who have been Brad Pitt’s two wives (Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie, past and present, respectively).

Intuitively and viscerally, that discrepancy is disturbing—But why should it be, even if it is a now all-too-familiar gap between the two spheres of general knowledge (if information about celebrities and TV shows is to count as knowledge at all)?

Pop Culture as Job Tool

Indeed, some may attempt to argue that for customer and client relations a general and detailed knowledge of pop culture will be more useful and engaging as an ice breaker or lubricant to create a common ground with clientele than a grasp of civics, if only because pop culture is, by definition very popular and “content” of a substantial chunk of what passes for modern communication.

From this perspective, anyone who has no clue who “Snookie” is, might have an awkward moment when a client references her (or Kim Kardashian). Worse, in a job interview, failure to know or recognize these pop-quiz “facts” may raise suspicions about age and put ageism in play.

So, as justification of their priorities, these politically challenged students can invoke such an “opportunity cost” argument, namely, that their pop-culture general knowledge, far from being (evidence of) some liability, can actually serve as a career strength and tool, and that time and energy being finite, we must choose what we we learn, remember and know—in this case, to the exclusion of history and politics, which are far less likely to surface in career contexts (if only because of being, like religion and sex. quasi-taboo topics in workplaces).

Not Very Convincing

The problem with that defense is that the idea that one must choose between a pop-culture and a child’s civics knowledge base is ludicrous. It might have some merit, if acquiring both sets of knowledge simultaneously, in the present, were the “challenge”. But most of the questions were raised and answered when these students were in elementary and middle school. with reminders in high school.

Moreover, the basic costs of making the investment in having both information sets is approximately an additional 30 seconds per year of attention paid (in grades 1-12, when their teachers stressed the importance and pride of July 4, 1776) and whatever neuronal maintenance costs are associated with remembering that date.

Their ignorance is also as puzzling as it is astonishing, because much of the information in both sets of information requires no effort, e.g., in the form of study. So, there’s negligible or zero dollar or labor-denominated opportunity (e.g., energy, money or attention) cost involved here. As for time-denominated costs, during the blocks of time allocated to the same TV sets, surely, if only haphazardly, Joe Biden or 1776 must have had more than one cameo by now (which,however, probably, like so many people during past elections, never registered).

As neuronal and meme backup of recall of 1776, there is the well-publicized NBA team, the Philadelphia 76ers, who, contrary to what anyone at a university frat house may tell you, are not named after a super-sized case of beer.

Exposure to the same mass media that spew pop culture should suffice to unintentionally, accidentally discover that the July 4th holiday was not randomly set and actually also celebrates the most important year in American history, that the U.S. has a Vice President and that it’s Joe Biden (who has, over the past six years, regularly made it into broadcast as well as print news for eye-rolling, sometimes endearing gaffes—unless, of course, these students completely ignore and are ignorant of news, too).

Note the two most likely culprits for such monumental ignorance: lack of exposure and lack of interest, focus, attention or awareness of the risks of not knowing what an 8-year-old with crayons knows. The former is truly almost impossible to comprehend and can in part be blamed on the mass media that panders to the pop-entertainment culture and its associated handlers; so the latter is the likelier suspect and carries worrying overtones.

The Most Disturbing Implications and Cautions for Hiring

Among the most disturbing implications of that level of indifference and apathy-driven ignorance are these:

1. national pride. understanding and identity limited to chanting “U.S.A! U.S.A.!” with a beer or a rock in hand (which is a huge red flag for any “sensitive” government job, e.g., intelligence, national political, or military career.)

2. probable greater engagement with and awareness of national and local entertainment or pro-sports and their “history” (and stats) than with national, regional or local community issues, their import or their background. (Although this does not rule out participating in wet T-shirt, school-sponsored car washes for charity.)

Clearly, any career in corporate PR with a prominent community-relations component is unlikely to be suitable for someone with neither community awareness, interest nor concern.

3. probable indifference to all non-entertainment and non-sports history, including the history of the the interviewed students’ declared majors, such as clinical and general psychology, sports management, human sciences, and the history and evolution of your company, including its milestones, growth, markets and its mission.

4. possibly weak independent judgment and very probable peer-group pop culture-driven conformism (with implications regarding ease of cultural and other conditioning, i.e., brain-scrubbing and soaking).

For jobs requiring sharp, independent judgment, a conformist preoccupation with pop culture, sports and celebrity at the expense of everything else is not among the most desirable traits.

Two Diagnostic Interview Questions

So, I’m going to propose injecting a couple of questions (or comparable ones) into job interviews, in order to test for such traits in a minimal way, without bias toward either those engrossed in pop-culture to the exclusion of history or toward those whose knowledge includes real history.

These questions are those in the title of this article:

1. Did Jersey Shore Win the Civil War?
2. Is Brad Pitt the Vice President of the United States?

The only way a job candidate can get these wrong is by saying “yes” or “I don’t know.” These will be the least desirable candidates, because they will lack knowledge of either pop culture or of history, or possibly of both. The test will be effective, because a “no” answer will imply a knowledge of at least one of the two references in the question—the pop-culture reference or the historical reference.

The qualifying “no” answer can then be used as a springboard to more detailed questions to determine which type you are interviewing: pop-culture conformist and/or history iconoclast. From a strategic standpoint, it can be argued that the ideal candidate for most jobs will have both kinds of knowledge (if only because of the embarrassing implications of being or having an employee who can’t compete with 8-year-olds with crayons).

Assuming average millennials can still distinguish reality (“Independence Day”—the historical celebration) from entertainment (“Independence Day”—the Will Smith SF movie), they should be able to get these two questions right and bring something of use to the job.

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