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Students, here’s what you are missing by not reading the paper

It might come in useful someday. Really.

Students getting off a school bus outside Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. College Prep in September 2016.
It’s back to class for Chicago Public Schools students, and Neil Steinberg has some advice for the new academic year — advice he fears most won’t see, considering how few teens read newspapers these days.
Sun-Times Media

Hi, kids! How was school? Hope you had a good first day. Hope the rain didn’t mess things up too much.

Kidding. I know students don’t read the newspaper. Not when they can endlessly flip through Instagram posts on their smartphones and check out what their friends are doing.

So, OK, none of the some 360,000 students enrolled this year in Chicago’s 642 public schools are reading this. A shame. Because if I remember correctly, students can feel cut off. I wish they knew they are actually a major force in the city, by numbers alone: 13 percent of Chicago residents are enrolled in the Chicago Public Schools. If CPS were itself a city, it would be almost as populous as Cleveland which, with 385,000 residents, just nudges past. Fold in Catholic schools, and the “City of Chicago Students” becomes the 47th-largest city in the country, surpassing Oakland or Minneapolis.

See what you miss, not reading the paper? OK, you don’t see. A survey last year found only 2 percent of American teens read the newspaper.

Who are these people? As with any large city, CPS is too vast to generalize, ranging from 3-year-olds in pre-kindergarten programs excited to learn about the color blue to 18-year-olds learning to fertilize with fish poop (not a made-up example: the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in Mount Greenwood had four large tanks, raising tilapia, when I visited. The wastewater was being used to nourish the school’s crops).

From elite high schools like Northside College Prep, where it is not unknown for suburban families to lie about their addresses, trying to sneak in students, to Consuella B. York Alternative High School, which families work equally hard to keep their kids out of: it’s the high school inside Cook County Jail.

Whatever grade or school, just paying attention in class can seem a lot to ask. To also follow the news is a bridge too far. I get that. The news is so chaotic and ... granular. It unfolds so slowly. Nothing like a video game, where you hurtle through a colorful tube of geometric shapes flying at you and then on to the next, even harder, level. That’s accomplishing something!

Yes, the news in recent years often involves Donald Trump, and I can see the allure of ignoring that. I’m trying to imagine how the Great Pumpkin seems to young people. Ordinary, alas. My two boys, young adults in their 20s, shrug him off as funny, certainly nothing to get into a panic over. That’s probably typical. By the end of Trump’s second term, early in 2025, many students won’t remember a time when he wasn’t president.

The news gets overlooked, like much learned in school. And to be honest, remembering my own education, too often that is no big loss. We were constantly being taught practices about to wink out of existence: cursive handwriting comes to mind. Long division. Plus details of no relevance whatsoever. Henry Hudson, the explorer, was a big deal. In second grade.

You still need to pay attention, because among the useless stuff is knowledge that will be important, but you can’t be certain what that stuff is, because different people value different knowledge. Think of school as panning for gold — you have to sort through and discard tons of ore to get a few shining nuggets you keep.

Knowledge that at first seems superfluous can, over a lifetime, eventually come in handy.

Such as? Volume = π x radius (squared) x height. The formula to determine the volume of a cylinder. You learn it, thinking: how will this ever be of any conceivable use?

Then 25 years later, you find yourself needing to order enough dirt to fill the hole left behind by an above ground pool your wife had removed so your toddlers wouldn’t drown in it: a hole 16 feet across and six inches deep. Calculate wrong, and you’ll have a truck from Red’s Garden Center show up and dump three times more dirt than you actually need.

You don’t want that; trust me here. And I’ll leave you with a parting suggestion, or what would be a parting suggestion if you read this, which you won’t: Whatever work you do, double check it if you can. And have a great year.