Apr 16, 2008

Dumber and Dumber

Something in Ched's blog today caught my attention. She asked, are kids dumber now than in preceding generations? I don't think that they are stupider, but they can get by with a smaller base of knowledge because of technological crutches. Years ago smart people began to predict that we would become fat and useless because technology was taking away hard work and giving us too much leisure. That has kind of turned out to be true, generally speaking. Our brains are no different from our bodies. Don't demand that they work hard and they will become dull. I kind of think of a knowledge base as either having a specific application, or contributing to our wholeness as a person. There is considerable overlap, but think of them as two separate things for this discussion. It seems to me that the world is more specialized than it used to be, so knowledge has become more focused. The growth of new media has allow us to become more selective in pursuing information and the result is the loss of general knowledge. I heard Stephen Fry talking about Oscar Wilde this week. He was telling an anecdote about Wilde translating the Bible from Greek as a part of his acceptance to study at Oxford. How smart must Victorians have been? Few today can translate Classical Greek, but few need to. Are we the worse for the wear? Who knows? Maybe what we used to learn isn't that important anymore. When I was teaching at the middle school, one of my chronic discipline problems was a young girl named Tamika. One morning Tamika was being detained in the office for one offense or another. She had been sentenced to sit there until after lunch. From where she sat, she could not see the clock and as we all know, time moves more slowly when you are stuck somewhere, so she was antsy about the time. As I passed by, Tamika asked me what time it was. I replied that it was a quarter until noon. She asked again and again I told her a quarter until noon. At that point she told me to stop 'messing with her'. I was perplexed. What occurred to me a few seconds later was that she didn't know how to tell time on an analog clock, or at least was not familiar with the terminology. I told her it was 11:47 and with a big, huffy sigh, she said thanks. Does it matter that Tamika could only tell time on a digital clock? My intuition says yes, but I'm not sure I believe my instincts. She also could do math with a calculator, but struggled to do it manually. She knew what to do, but not how to do it. She has a calculator for the 'doing it', so she will get by. I happen to think that the narrowing focus of our knowledge base is a negative. Assuming you accept my premise that it has narrowed. I think kids today are as smart as we train them to be. Unfortunately, reading has become passé for many kids and reading was the chief way in which they garnered a good base of knowledge. The calculator has robbed them of their number sense. If the calculator say something, they have no way to tell if it makes sense. On the week's Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, Yau-Man Chan, physicist and engineer, as well as star of Survivor, talked about how his graduate level physics students no longer understand how many of their experiments work because of digital instrumentation. They plug in numbers and get a result. Much like popping a quarter into a gum ball machine and getting some gum. These are not stupid people, but they no longer need to know certain things to succeed. So, I guess I would say that by most standards kids today are less knowledgeable than their predecessors. The question is, how much does it matter? Things in this blog represented to be fact, may or may not actually be true. The writer is frequently wrong, sometimes just full of it, but always judgmental and cranky


Julia said...

I think it does matter, a lot. I think it's important that we give our kids a broad base of knowledge so they will be have more opportunities available to them. I wouldn't want to be dependent on a calculator, and I would feel personally limited to need one. I think it's important that kids learn how to find answers to what they want to know themselves. With the internet it's easier than ever to find your answers; just be sure to maintain some skepticism.

I think the folks at coreknowledge.org have the right idea. How can kids know what's available in this world unless they have been exposed to it? How can they understand current politics unless they've learned the history of how the world got to where it is now? How can they use or improve technology until they understand the basics of how all the simplest things work? How can they create or appreciate art until they've at least been exposed to some? How can they function as adults who think critically unless they've learned about the complexities of the world?

This is probably going to come across as condescending to some people. I think a lot of the extremists and fundamentalist leaders are able to get followers because they offer a black and white view of the world, and that's very attractive to people who don't understand a lot of things. I say this as a person who was formerly pulled into one of those groups. Seeing religion in a black and white way was very comforting and I turned off a part of my brain to accept that.

Nan Patience said...

It's always fun, trashing the generations coming up, isn't it? Gives us a much-deserved sense of superiority.

But I'm sorry to say that something about it rubs me the wrong way.

Steve said...

I think you hit the nail on the head in your paragraph about Oscar Wilde. Do we really need to know how to translate classical Greek? It's impressive, but maybe no longer all that essential.

There's a generation gap at work here. The things you and I consider broad-based knowledge may not be among the standards of knowledge that are valued by a younger generation. On the other hand, they know how to do things -- like compose music using Apple's Garage Band, or how to repair an iPod -- that I couldn't begin to fathom. Knowledge changes over time.

I do worry that young people don't know O. Henry (to use Ched's example) or geography. But there are a lot of popular Victorian authors that I don't know. Maybe it's just all part of a changing world.

Kurt said...

We shouldn't bemoan that obsolete skills are no longer learned. But what the Survivor guy is talking about is the loss of concrete experience that one gains from interacting with the physical world and that gives one an understanding of a problem as opposed to just finding the answer to a problem with, say, a calculator.

These are the all-important post-apocalyptic skills, and those without them will be in serious trouble during the coming End Times.

Ms. Wollstonecraft said...

The dumbing down of children comes when children's books (even simple ones written by Richard Scarry) have been changed to be EASIER to read--big words taken out. Too challenging for a child. Richard Scarry book--too challenging, think about it.

also changing the rules of games so every child wins.

everything is easy everybody wins--it's so obvious to me as a parent that my kids did NOT get the same education that I did, they did not get the same books-- everything was made easier, they got top grades without trying very hard. Much had to be read and taught at home to make up for the lack. In college they met kids who had gone to prep schools and private schools who had had a more rigorous education, and they were drawn to these kids. More interesting conversation, they said.

d. chedwick bryant said...

I think kids still have the Capacity to learn advanced math and understand it, and actually enjoy it-- the way it was taught to me, without a calculator of course!

Learning things we don't need to learn, things that won't be useful... how do we know it isn't useful really--how do we know it didn't expand our minds a little to learn some of the ancient ways?

d. chedwick bryant said...

It isn't about knowing a particular author, it's about being able to read and actually understand what they wrote, and it isn't trashing a generation to worry about their education,
and to want it to improve.

Washington Cube said...

I'll spare you one of my usual comment diatribes, but I believe it is a serious problem...very serious.

Here's an example. When I was little, I read an old copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verse." I still have it. One poem, "My Shadow," talks about "india-rubber ball." Well...even in my generation we didn't say india-rubber...just "rubber," and I was clueless as to what an "india-rubber ball" was. I looked it up to understand it, and think where that lead me into rubber exportation, etc.

It is a changing world, but many children/teens don't even know how to "fix an iPod." The Apple store fixes the iPod...or Mommy and Daddy buy them a new one. "I don't know where I got it. Hands brought it."

I remember telling a younger friend once about an Al Jolson song. Naturally she said, "Who's that." When I explained how I had learned all of his songs as a child, she said, "I'm not that old," and I said, "Well neither am I...but I know who he is...just like I know who Napoleon is, and I wasn't alive during his era either, Elizabeth!"

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