Monday, October 29, 2007

Dumber than dirt?

Via the indispensable Opit: SFGate columnist Mark Morford talks to a friend who's a long-time high school teacher, and comes away convinced that we're doomed:

We are, as far as urban public education is concerned, essentially at rock bottom. We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults and society as a whole will pay dearly, very soon, and if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.

It's gotten so bad that, as my friend nears retirement, he says he is very seriously considering moving out of the country so as to escape what he sees will be the surefire collapse of functioning American society in the next handful of years due to the absolutely irrefutable destruction, the shocking — and nearly hopeless — dumb-ification of the American brain. It is just that bad.


(H)e simply observes his students, year to year, noting all the obvious evidence of teens' decreasing abilities when confronted with even the most basic intellectual tasks, from understanding simple history to working through moderately complex ideas to even (in a couple recent examples that particularly distressed him) being able to define the words "agriculture," or even "democracy." Not a single student could do it.

It gets worse. My friend cites the fact that, of the 6,000 high school students he estimates he's taught over the span of his career, only a small fraction now make it to his grade with a functioning understanding of written English. They do not know how to form a sentence. They cannot write an intelligible paragraph. Recently, after giving an assignment that required drawing lines, he realized that not a single student actually knew how to use a ruler.

It is, in short, nothing less than a tidal wave of dumb, with once-passionate, increasingly exasperated teachers like my friend nearly powerless to stop it. The worst part: It's not the kids' fault. They're merely the victims of a horribly failed educational system.

Leaving aside the question of massive systemic failure of the public education system (which can be argued at length), the question remains, are we raising monumentally stupid kids, or is the nature of knowledge merely changing?

I tend to believe that it is more of the latter, the result of social and technological changes more than anything. Ezra Klein recently noted, "Google's like the brain I never had, the knowledge I never acquired." Why take the time to do any serious studying when the knowledge of the world is available with a few keystrokes? Whether it's classical philosophy or some obscure rock band that disappeared after a couple of poorly-selling albums, I can find out what I need to know within seconds. When I was in school, I couldn't find much of that information without trudging to the library, and the knowledge stored there was often incomplete.

The kinds of knowledge we need to get by in the world constantly changes over time. Everybody has heard about the buggy-whip manufacturers becoming obsolete. I've noticed a similar sort of buggy-whip story around town recently. The number of places one can go to get film developed has dwindled in recent years. Digital cameras have lessened the need for film developers. We may reach a point where the specialized skills of the darkroom will only be of interest to antiquarians.

The concern remains, though, that in the future, people will come to rely more upon that external knowledge and not develop the innate skills needed to communicate and to function in the world. Yet even many of those skills have been altered by technology. Language is constantly changing, as anybody who has studied Shakespeare knows. Texting and IM are causing similar changes in communication today. Often it's not a matter of the kids not knowing, it's simply that they are sharing their knowledge in a way the old folks don't understand.

One still has to wonder sometimes whether we are becoming too dependent upon our electronic crutches. Not long ago I was picking up supper at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The cash register wasn't working properly, and the young lady behind the counter was in a panic. She didn't know how much change to give me without the register telling her. The store manager came out, pushed a few buttons, and got the cash register working properly again. "I'm glad I got it working", he said. "Otherwise, we'd have to close." He explained that the register kept track of sales information that the company felt was important. He also said that he had a hard time finding employees who could make change without the machine telling them how much to give back. "They don't teach math in school no more. They just hand all the kids a calculator." We may reach a dangerous point where the vast majority find themselves dependent upon a very few who understand the inner workings of the machines everyone relies upon. I would hope that future generations retain and pass along enough innate knowledge in order to keep that from happening.