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Why Calling Gen Z Protesters "Uninformed" Is Misguided

Gen Z is no less informed than older generations—but they do have different values.

Key points

  • Evidence does not indicate that Gen Z is less informed about history and politics than older generations.
  • Younger people have different political priorities than older ones.
  • Gen Z tends to be less trusting of the media and less nationalistic.
  • Through this lens, recent protests likely reflect Gen Z's values and ability to think critically.

In well-publicized remarks on MSNBC about students protesting on college campuses, Hillary Clinton said that young people today “don’t know very much” about Middle Eastern history or history in general, for that matter. Her analysis suggests that the protests against Israel’s military actions in Gaza are a result of ignorance and misinformation rather than a reaction to the genuine facts of the situation.

Though her comments were met with opposition on social media, in the popular press, and by some other politicians, it is likely that many Americans who oppose the protests find merit in her view. It fits well with the generational stereotype of Gen Z college students as entitled “snowflakes” who are overly sensitive and out of touch with the harsh realities of the real world. Perhaps, rather than responding to the facts, they are reacting emotionally due to an overdeveloped sense of empathy for the underdog.

It is not hard to see how this explanation would appeal to those who find the protests distasteful. However, just because something is appealing doesn’t make it true.

Clinton’s remarks were not informed by empirical data; rather, she was likely drawing her conclusion based on her many conversations with young people. We all do this, of course, but social scientists have long argued that making deductions from personal impressions alone is not a sound method.

As every student in an introductory social psychology course learns, human beings frequently draw incorrect conclusions. We are inherently biased, for example, by searching for information that supports what we already believe and discounting that which does not. The question we must ask is: What is the evidence for her position?

In fact, the available data do not support the idea that Gen Z is less informed about history or politics than other generational cohorts. A recent survey study using 15 questions did not suggest that Gen Z is significantly lacking in their knowledge in these areas, with the cohort sometimes scoring higher and sometimes lower on specific items than other generational cohorts.

This finding does not imply that current college students are experts in history but rather that they are not significantly less knowledgeable than older folks. In reality, all Americans could likely benefit from learning more history as we have been weak in this regard for many decades.

As a college professor who has taught for 30 years, I was relieved to find that the data support my own non-scientific impressions of Gen Z. On numerous occasions in the past few years, I have been pleasantly surprised by the insightful comments of my students.

In those courses that touch upon politics and history, I have observed what I would call a broadening of perspective, one that does not view issues purely through the lens of American interests and that requires integration of knowledge across time and place. Thus, my students seem to spontaneously understand the similarities between colonialism in one century and country with colonialism in other centuries and locations. In my view, that is pretty sophisticated thinking.

There is indeed evidence that Gen Z has different views about politics and foreign policy specifically, but they appear to rely more on different priorities and perspectives than on lack of information. One recent study reported that younger voters ranked fighting climate change as a top priority, and also endorsed the protection of jobs for Americans and improving relationships with allies. Older voters, on the other hand, prioritized protecting Americans from terrorist threats and reducing illegal immigration.

Younger voters also are less supportive of the U.S. taking on a global leadership role and are less likely to favor defense spending. They expressed greater endorsement of international efforts to support human rights and basic living standards and lower favorability toward military intervention than older cohorts.

Research also indicates that younger Americans, both Millennials and Gen Z, have less trust in the criminal justice system and the federal government than older generations. They are also more skeptical of the media and more likely to rely on multiple sources for their information.

In terms of demographics, younger cohorts of Americans are much more racially and ethnically diverse and more likely to have experienced discrimination. They report lower pride in being American and are more likely to believe that there are other countries that are better than the U.S. Finally, younger people globally support informal political participation such as protesting more than do older people.

Taking all of this into account, it is not surprising that many younger Americans are joining protests against Israel’s current military action in Gaza. Their commitment to human rights and low tendency to endorse military actions would compel them to object to massive destruction and loss of human lives, particularly given their endorsement of less conventional forms of political participation. This is a generation that does not tend to buy the idea that America is the greatest country in the world and that what it and its allies do is always for the greater good.

One could even argue that younger people are less likely to fall prey to the ultimate attribution error suggested decades ago by social psychologist Thomas Pettigrew. He described a technique people use to maintain a positive view of their own group and a negative view of the other.

According to this theory, when our own group does something good, we attribute it to our virtues, but when it commits a negative act, we blame external factors. Conversely, we do the opposite with outgroups, blaming them for negative actions and suggesting that positive actions were just good luck or caused by situational factors. Thus, we do harmful things because we have to, but they do bad things because they’re evil. It might well be that young Americans’ skepticism frees them of this bias and allows them to think critically about the U.S. and its allies.

One of the core goals of a college education is to learn how to think critically, not accepting information at face value but rather evaluating it carefully based on available evidence. We often say that we aim to teach students how to think, not what to think. We thus cannot blame them for thinking differently from others and putting their conclusions into practice. To do otherwise would require them to reject their values and shirk their responsibility as citizens of a democracy.

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