October 21, 2008

The Dumbest Generation Is Only The Second Dumbest Generation

You know that 17 year old kid who thinks Obama is Muslim and Europe is a country and any girl that doesn't sleep with him is a slut?  I found someone dumber than him.  Wasn't hard, either.

The Atlantic asks, Is Google Making Us Stupid?  Just asking: could the real culprit be The Atlantic?

Nicholas Carr says Google is, because along with the massiveness of the available information comes an avoidance-- or simply lack of time-- for contemplation and concentration.  Or, to borrow a metaphor (I can't remember who said it) such knowledge is a "mile wide and an inch deep."  Oh, Artemus Ward said it about the Platte River.  Thanks Google, I feel smarter.

Carr also finds he is less able to read deeply, to concentrate; and he can't read novels anymore.  It's changed not just what he knows, but how he thinks.  He thinks in internet-style.

I'll generalize: it has changed how most people think.


The effect on medicine is noted by Carr, and by me: doctors almost never read an entire article, and rarely even abstracts.  Title, keywords, or title/keywords of shorter summaries written by someone else.

In Science appears Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship, in which a now not surprising finding is revealed: the more articles are available online, the less they are read.  It also shifts the age of the cited articles up to the past ten months.  Recent reviews get read; original studies don't, even to verify the claims.  Anything in science that's not "hot" now won't even get read.   It's groupthink reinforced by a research diameter of 2 years. 

Electronic subscriptions means even less awareness of the contents.  At least when you got the print journal, you flipped through it.

If you want to know why doctors seem always to be hashing the same ground, it's because they are.


As I've noted elsewhere, there are two important effects:

1. As Socrates said, people become "filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom" (e.g. Artemus Ward?)
2. you really only know what someone else wants you to know

But there's an another effect, and it has to do with the medium.

Nicholas Carr writes that Nietzsche (title of this blog, BTW) stopped writing because of eyestrain-- until he bought a typewriter and learned to touch type with his eyes closed.   His style changed; his already tight prose got tighter.  Nietzsche himself noted it, and quickly gave up on it;  and, according to Carr, a later scholar observed that the writing "changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style."

Anyone who writes for a living understands this; Neal Stephenson (Anathem) writes with a fountain pen; I can only write on a computer.  But-- and you should try this-- using any other medium makes one think differently.  I have used this technique to generate new ideas; my post on The Wrong Lessons of Iraq and the other on We Are All Mercantilists Now were both generated on my Blackberry.  It felt immediate, important, urgent, political.  I could never have written the Wanted humor piece that way.  I couldn't have even conceived it.  It was part me, part Movable Type.

So the internet allows the delusion that you know things that you really don't; the mistake that the thoughts you do have are your own, and not someone else's; and then changes the way you think, reinforcing this style of thinking.


Enter Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation: How The Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or Don't Trust Anyone Under 30).  Bottom line: kids today have (access to) lots of information, but no wisdom.  And, rather than the internet bringing diverse people together, it seems to foster tribes of the like-minded, who never closely examine anything different(ly). 

We don't know much, and we stick to those who who are like us, who provide our much needed affirmation.    If that's not a recipe for narcissism, I don't know what is.


Sounds much like the book by former assistant secretary of education Charles Finn, with Diane Ravitch, What Do Our 17 Year Olds Know?  You can guess the answer.  8000 seventeen year olds: half thought he book 1984 is about the end of the human race in a nuclear war; 35% didn't know Watergate was after 1950.  30% didn't know Aesop wrote fables.  They thought Jim Crow laws were good for blacks.  Etc.
Except it isn't all their fault.  Kids are only as dumb as they're allowed to be.  Here's an example: introductory "survey" courses in state colleges are universally accepted to be a joke.   But why not simply change that?  You can still keep the grade inflation and "everyone passes" ideology; but why not just have a professor who cares with rigorous content?  Well, because he doesn't care, and the school doesn't care.  They have other things to worry about then oversexed freshmen.  So how can you blame students for not knowing anything?  The college does not even allow them an opportunity for knowledge that they could lazily opt out of.  The system offers only no knowledge.


"Kids today" may be the Dumbest Generation, but the parents and teachers of the Dumbest Generation are themselves so dumb they not only don't know the information themselves, they don't even know what knowledge exists that is important to pass on. 

And I can prove it
: the above book What Do Our 17 Year Olds Know? was written in 1987.   Those dumb 17 year olds are 40 now.   Say what you want about the "elitist" conclusions of The Closing of the American Mind  but it was also written in 1987, about 1987 college kids-- who are now adults.

The adults are dumb, all right; but they don't know it.  They have a unsettling feeling that something is lacking.  The general narcissism and insecurity of parents today-- even/especially the "good" parents, is visible in their parenting.  At a birthday party, the kids are running Lord of The Flies while their parents completely ignore them, socializing; meanwhile, they hover over them at the store, at the playground-- "no bicycle without a helmet."  They secretly read their kid's email and Facebook accounts,  but have never once read the kid's math book.  "Oh, ha ha, I don't remember all that math!"  Idiot, could you at least pretend it's important?

If you do your kid's math homework with them every night, I swear to you that you won't need to worry about Facebook.  I will concede that monitoring their Facebook is easier.

Many professional parents and teachers I know fall back on empty words-- "classical education" or "the use of primary texts" but they don't know what those terms mean.  They nod respectfully at Aeschylus, but they don't have the first clue whether he fought for the Greeks or the Trojans.   You think these parents and teachers are going to know to tell the  kids to read Werner Jaeger?   They're not.  They're going to buy them a Leapster.


Simply put: adults today don't know what's important to know.  So they make things up to care about. 

No one won the culture wars; we forgot who the enemy was.  In 1987, when Allan Bloom or William Ayers argued for or against a "classical" education, they were arguing its importance, not the definition.  Now?  That's why there is so much noise about school vouchers for private schools-- it's a proxy for the culture war without having to know exactly what you're fighting for. There is a vague feeling that private schools are "better," that the surrounding students are "better," that it is more "rigorous," without really knowing what they are pushing towards or away from.  It is also evident that it is a fall back; it makes up for their own shortcomings.  Secretly: "Hopefully a good school will teach them better than I can."  Well, you'd be right on that point, anyway.

I'm not advocating a "return to the classics" (I'm not not advocating it either), but I am observing that the Dumbest Generation of Narcissists In The History of The World is not even remotely conscious of their ignorance or their narcissism, and the technology lets them get away with it-- they actually think they think they know, they actually believe they have chosen what they think is important.  And they are now parents and teachers and doctors and leaders.  As far as I can tell, this simultaneous conjunction of ignorance and unconsciousness has never happened before in history. 

I have every hope and faith in the youth of today, because otherwise we are doomed. 

"Don't trust anyone over 30" turns out, after all, to be very sound advice.


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