Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dumbest Generation

Perhaps "the Dumbest use of statistcs" would be a more apt title for this book. He begins with some anecdotes describing massively overworked students. Then he attempts to turn it on its head and cites study after study showing that kids are getting dumb today. We are bombarded with statistics and anecdotes without much coherent organization. He rants against "search engine learning" while writing a book in that exact style.

The arguments come up flat. Young people are "stupid" because they don't know the basic facts that the older generation know. Isn't that the nature of knowledge? Some facts fade in importance through history and new facts get added. Today, detailed knowledge of Sumerian leaders is not well known, but a few millenia ago, everybody in the fertile crescent could name their last few leaders. Even looking at things such as "reading" can be misleading. A few century ago, reading was a primary source of popular entertainment. Now other media sources such as TV, internet and music provide the source of entertainment. This sounds awfully similar to arguments that have been going on for thousands of years. Back in the days of ancient Greece, Socrates was worried that Greeks were getting stupid because they were writing instead of carrying on knowledge orally.

The core argument boils down to: younger people access "popular culture" in a different way than older people. If a teenager eschewed internet for newspapers and novels, he would be able to relate better to his seniors. However, he would find it difficult to relate to his peers who would expect electronic communication and knowledge of current pop culture. For teenager's life, social networks and communication with others is important. Problems of the larger world are of little importance compared to problems in individual cliques. Digital technology use mirrors these needs.

Another argument is that too much time and money is spent on technology. This is deemed as not producing useful results. Alas, this comes back to the Socrates argument. If the ancient Greeks spent a lot of time on reading and writing, yet tested the outcome on how well people could orally recite the Iliad, they would get bad results also.

Technology in the classroom is a problem, but not necessarily for the reason the author gives. Technology in the classroom is often used to simply do what could otherwise be done without technology. Add in the overhead of "starting" and "using" the technology, you end up with a net loss. Students are criticized from doing "real work" with the technology. You can see this in the recent case of the Los Angeles school district. The district gave everyone iPads, but quickly took them away when students learned to hack them to surf the web and load games. Alas, the district is removing the learning devices right when students are truly learning. Hacking requires advanced research and problem solving skills that are more directly applicable to work. Running simple "educational" apps is often just a waste of time.

He even goes on to criticize accounts of kids that do amazing things with technology as being the exception, rather than the rule. This is akin to noting a teenage novelist as being an anomaly and thus attacking the waste of time schools spend on creative writing.

Individuals now focus on many short bits of information on a screen rather than long, detailed arguments.

He had background in "the arts", and thus wants people to be interested in "the arts". But, much of the "arts" is actually popular culture from the years past. The really good stuff filters down to become the arts (as well as the seed for "contemporary art.") Involving oneself in popular culture is a way of developing the "new art".

The endless blather of cherry-picked anecdotes and studies will either have you cheering (if you agree) or seething (if you disagree; however, it does a poor job of providing any convincing argument. It is not until the final chapter when we finally breaks from the pattern and starts to express his own ideas. This actually is a compelling argument. There is some advantage of requiring adherence to a given standard. The "arts" have found their way down to our time due to a long-term filtering of the less-valuable. Alas, the many citations he gives detract rather than add to this argument.

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