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    A provost examines the world on campus and in higher ed.

Slow News Day
June 12, 2011 - 6:45pm

On November 9, 1965, my doctor appointment in mid town Manhattan lasted longer than I expected and I needed to be at a meeting at The City College within less than 30 minutes. So instead of a casual walk from Madison to 7th or 8th Avenue to get on the subway, I decided to make use of connecting trains. I was very fortunate, the train came immediately (at about 5:25PM) and though it was very crowded, I was on my way. Well, on my way, turned out to be an exaggeration. We did get out of the station in a timely manner but somewhere between that station and the next station, the train stopped and everything went black. I was in fact caught in a major northeast/New York blackout and it took me and my fellow riders almost five hours to be led out of the train to an above ground exit. No fun at all. What made it especially difficult, in addition to the very crowded conditions, was the panic that set in among a number of passengers. An hour into our five hour ordeal, a passenger in the train indicated that she thought we were trapped because of a nuclear attack. The panic spread to a few more people in the train but luckily, cooler heads prevailed and we, for the most part assumed, what turned out to be the case, that we were in the midst of a major blackout.

The speculation regarding a nuclear attack most upset the few kids that were in the train. A blackout is frightening enough for children; add a nuclear attack and the situation becomes especially hard for most children to handle. The parents and friends of these kids did all that they could to calm them down but as their crying demonstrated, there was very limited success.

Fast forward through the decades to Saturday, May 21, 2011. According to Harold Camping, the world would end that day. An earthquake would spread through the time zones from east to west; the rapture day would be here at last. Yet, even though there was significant press coverage regarding the coming end of the world, no one seemed consumed by the prediction (though a few students – tongue in cheek – did ask if the grading process could be speeded up so that they would know their grades prior to the 21st). But as the day approached, I did notice that my kids, who are relatively young, and their friends seemed somewhat cranky but I wasn’t sure why. On the morning of the 21st as I am out running errands with my 9 year old daughter, I comment to her that after a week of rainy weather, it was great to have a beautifully sunny, clear day. She responds by asking if the world is about to end. I say absolutely not and try to assure her that periodically throughout time, people have been predicting the end of the world but the world keeps going. I stress that throughout her lifetime and many succeeding lifetimes, the world would be fine. She seems reassured but nevertheless does decide that she will wait to take a shower or do her homework until Sunday.

Dedicating as much press as was dedicated to an end of the world prediction shows it was a slow news period of time. And yet maybe during such periods, the press should still not highlight extreme predictions. As grownups, we pay no attention to such stories and continue to do what we do. We often even joke about predictions of this type. But for kids, with all the complexity and uncertainty that already exists, we do a tremendous disservice by highlighting predictions like this. Kids should have the opportunity to be kids. What we find funny or off the wall, they may find very scary. We should remember that before we highlight future predictions like this, and if they are highlighted, we should remember to explain in advance what they do and don’t mean. Since Camping has issued a revised end of the world schedule for October, we will get another chance to do it right.

 

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