Tracy Flick Returns, Drought Discoveries, and Omnipresent Student Journalists: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From disappearing bodies of water to expanding news deserts, we learned a lot over the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
A person who was fishing nearby walks past a formerly sunken boat resting on a now-dry section of lakebed at the drought-stricken Lake Mead on May 10, 2022, in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada.
Land O’ (Shrinking) Lakes
Like most people, I’m unnerved by the prospect of climate change melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels around the planet. I’m also concerned by record droughts lowering freshwater levels in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. So, in these dark times, I’ve kept abreast of an unintended “bright side” to the latter phenomenon. In the Western U.S. a megadrought has let fresh sunlight touch a variety of objects long obscured in freshwater depths. Of course, there was the barrel body in Lake Mead, accompanied by several sunken boats. Meanwhile, receding water in Lake Powell is revealing what NPR calls “America’s lost national park,” Glen Canyon. It was waterlogged in 1963 with the filling of Lake Powell, made possible by the Glen Canyon Dam (just as the Hoover Dam created Lake Mead), which itself became the target of the fictional environmentally-minded crew in Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. “Rock spires, arches, amphitheaters and ecosystems were gradually submerged,” NPR reports. “Stalled water crawled up slot canyons. Petroglyphs and pull-tab beer cans were covered over.” All of that is now being revealed again after 60 years. Across the Atlantic in northwestern Spain, the Alto Lindoso reservoir dropped to 15% capacity, revealing the entire village of Aceredo, which was abandoned and flooded in 1992, with tourists now able to walk its streets once more. And in the Middle East, falling river levels in the Mesopotamian “Cradle of Civilization” have uncovered a whole ancient settlement. When the reservoir formed by Iraq’s Mosul Dam was drained due to drought, the Tigris River revealed 3,500 year-old ruins of the city of Zakhiku from the ancient Mitanni kingdom, which existed between roughly 1500-1300 BCE. None of these discoveries compare to the literary romanticism of uncovering a submerged legend like, say, the lost city of Atlantis. But in a real-world age of destructive climate change, you can’t be too picky. —Christian Niedan
Maybe This Is Fine?
I don't speak German, but this week I learned a new German concept that really struck me: weltschmerz, or world-sadness. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic uses this word to put new words to a concept I've been thinking about for some time. He coined the term mediaschmerz, or sadness about the news cycle and news media, which he described as distinct from our own feelings about everyday life. His article is inspired by the new Federal Reserve report on economic well being of American households. The report finds that self-reported financial well being increased to the highest percentage in the report's nine-year history. But while most Americans felt that they were "doing at least okay" in their personal finances, our perceptions of the well being of our local and national economies plummeted. This finding wasn't particularly surprising to me, as I've seen many examples of data that show large gaps between people's perceptions of their own satisfaction, happiness, and school quality and their perceptions of how the larger world is doing (which is typically much worse). The Federal Reserve report is especially interesting, though, because in 2021 the U.S. economy measurably improved—even as our perceptions about it dimmed.
Thompson explores possible reasons for this discrepancy. He mentions partisanship and resistance to change, as well as a third idea: inundation in depressing stories. He describes how our constant consumption of the news on TV, social media, and the internet can lead to a "perma-gloom" (another term I love) about the state of the world, even though we may feel resilient about the parts of our day-to-day lives that we can control. I myself have deeply felt mediaschmerz in the past few weeks, which makes me dread the daily news notifications that get sent directly to my inbox. Thompson doesn't take a stance on whether this overwhelming sense of pessimism about the world, coupled with optimism about ourselves, is a good or a bad thing. The idealist in me cries out for optimism in both facets of my life. While I can't change the media, I'll do a shameless self-promotion of the solutions-focused journalism of The Elective. I'll also update the classic dog-surrounded-by-fire meme. At the risk of sounding far too cheesy, while everything may not be fine, I want to acknowledge the firefighters working hard to put out our world's many fires that are just outside the meme's frame. —Hannah Van Drie
Feel funny talking to your baby? Try reading to them. You'll be helping their brain development and it's a good bet they'll be super happy just spending time with you.
Here at the College Board, I lead our Policy team and work to build an evidence-based set of policies that will help students on their pathway from K–12 to a career they love. Needless to say, I’m a voracious consumer of research, journal articles, and media that link policy to evidence. This week, a piece on neuroscience in Scientific American clearly explains new learnings about how babies’ brains work and develop—and how these findings can be applied to policies such as paid parental leave.
Research has told us for years that babies’ brains develop most in the first three years, and that being exposed to words is the best predictor of language development. But in the SA piece, we learn the best kind of language learning happens not just when babies overhear words but when caregivers have conversations and interactions involving language with babies. (We’re not talking about conversations about geopolitics; a simple back and forth with a few words and hand gestures is plenty!) To do this, of course, you need to be present—and that’s where policy comes in. Another study highlighted in the piece found that children with mothers with paid leave—regardless of socio-economic status—had better language skills. To the Scientific American authors, the evidence provides a policy roadmap to improve children’s language outcomes.
As with any research, there are surely limitations. And with any policy, there are meritorious debates about tradeoffs, costs, and priorities. But my takeaway is that we have to continue demanding evidence to help us prioritize and design policy solutions to improve student outcomes. —Michele McNeil
Always, Tracy Flick, always.
Election is one of those unnervingly brilliant books that somehow distills all of life’s big social and political questions into a semester’s worth of high school life. Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel (adapted by Alexander Payne into a brilliant film in 1999) takes a darkly hilarious blowtorch to our collective ambivalence about merit, ambition, popularity, maturity, social class, and a thousand other things that transparently obsess high schoolers—and even more transparently obsess adults. Anti-heroine Tracy Flick has absolutely earned her status as a cultural reference point for Gen-Xers and my own, elder millennial cohort. Now there’s a sequel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, and I am psyched to read it sometime this summer. In the meantime, Molly Young’s fantastic review in the New York Times has already made me smarter.
One of the central tensions of Election is that, on paper, in all the ways you can measure, Tracy deserves to advance and achieve her goals. But somehow the rawness of her ambition, the straightforward way she ticks the right boxes, alienates her peers and mentors. Young nails the paradox in her review. "Advancement in most white-collar jobs is less about actual competence than about convincing people in power that you’re competent, even if you’re not,” Young writes. “That, and possessing a quality related to likability but not identical to it—the quality of being a person whom other people want to see succeed.” I had never thought about that distinction between actual appeal and the not-quite-the-same ability to win the support of powerful people. But that’s what Election and its sequel are all about. “Do people (mostly men, but some women) hate [Tracy] because of … misogyny?,” Young asks. “Or is it because they can’t stop themselves from punishing a person who insists, absurdly, on believing that life should be fair? Or is it because Tracy, for all her political ambitions, still fails to grasp the most important political skill of all, which is the gift of making other people feel good about themselves?” Great question. I’m excited Perrotta is taking another swing at it. —Eric Johnson
University of Illinois Springfield student journalist Grace Barbic reporting from the Illinois state capitol as part of a 2021 internship with the wire service Capitol News Illinois.
The Fourth Estate 101
One of my favorite movies is John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, as a frontier-taming lawyer and white-hat gunslinger, respectively, it’s great cinema and a first-rate Western. But it’s also an exemplary journalism film, with an editor and a small-town newspaper central to the drama. In one scene, where Stewart’s lawyer is running a literacy and civics class, he holds up a copy of the Shinbone Star saying that “the best textbook in the world [is] an honest newspaper.” It’s a great line and observation, magnified now by the reality that newspapers, honest or otherwise, are dying. In 2020, the University of North Carolina's Expanding News Desert report found that 2,000 of America’s 3,143 counties no longer have a daily newspaper. (The scope of our news desert problem has surely grown during the pandemic). That’s bad for democracy—local papers, besides being watchdogs, are a binding agent for communities. It also means citizens have less insight into what their elected officials are up to—with no independent oversight, all kinds of corruption can take root and proliferate. Even in places where papers are hanging on, their reporting staffs have been gutted. But salvation for many papers has come in the form of student journalists. “Through formal and informal collaborations, college journalists are helping to serve the communities where their universities are located by making sustained contributions to local media,” write Lara Salahi and Christina Smith in The Conversation. How sustained? A recent report from the Pew Research Center found that 11% of state capitol reporters are students; in some places that number is considerably higher, like Nebraska where a whopping 58% of the capitol press corps are student journalists. Salahi, a journalism professor, and Smith, a researcher who studies trends in rural community journalism, go on to outline a few “news-academic partnerships” that puts college journalism students into real-world newsrooms, not only for practical experience but to practically ensure the publication remains viable.
Student journalists have become so important to the local media ecosystem that, in Hawaii, governor David Ige recently signed the Hawaii Student Journalism Protection Act to provide “freedom of speech and press protections to students publishing school-sponsored media at Hawaii public schools and the University of Hawaii,” per an AP report. As a former student journalist and editor, this kind of broad acknowledgment of the importance of student reporters—and the protection of their rights to do their work—is long overdue. Student journalists—be they in college, high school, or even elementary school—are still journalists, even if they don’t look the grizzled part. They do important work, and, as the Pew research proves, fill coverage gaps the shrinking and consolidating industry is all too happy to ignore. Still, I was shocked by the sheer scope of student presence in state capitols. I’m with Salahi and Smith, who see a lot of potential in growing the relationship between higher-ed institutions and newsrooms. And while my cynical journo brain says they’re going to be hard pressed to find work when they graduate, my optimism is boosted by how entrepreneurial so many are. “It seems news-academic partnerships are just that: partnerships, and more collaborative than competitive,” Salahi and Smith write. “We hope they might also lead to new journalistic endeavors, like the start of a new news outlet, or revival of an dying one.” Me. Too. —Dante A. Ciampaglia