Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On(line) Stupidity

Thomas Benton has a scathing critique of today's college students and their intellectual acuity (or lack thereof) at the Chronicle of Higher Education. A few excerpts and comments.

Several books — with an emphasis on education and the young — argue that it is precisely the point-and-click culture of the Internet that is damaging our intelligence and our civic culture.

Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World (2008), by Naomi S. Baron, shows how the proliferation of electronic communication has impaired students' ability to write formal prose; moreover, it discourages direct communication, leading to isolation, self-absorption, and damaged relationships.

Worst of all, the prevalence of multi-tasking — of always being partly distracted, doing several things at once — has diminished the quality of our thought, reflection, self-expression, and even, surprisingly, our productivity. Baron's solution is to turn off the distractions and focus on the task and people at hand.

The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008), by Mark Bauerlein, provides alarming statistical support for the suspicion — widespread among professors (including me) — that young Americans are arriving at college with diminished verbal skills, an impaired work ethic, an inability to concentrate, and a lack of knowledge even as more and more money is spent on education.

It seems that our students are dumb and ignorant, but their self-esteem is high so they are impervious or hostile to criticism. Approaching his subject from the right, Bauerlein mentions the usual suspects — popular culture, pandering by educators, the culture war, etc. — but also reserves special attention for the digital technologies, which, for all their promise, have only more deeply immersed students in the peer obsessions of entertainment and fashion rather than encouraging more mature and sustained thought about politics, history, science, and the arts.

I think some of this is, of course, over the top. Calling students today "dumb and ignorant"seems vitriolic, while blaming "digital technologies" for this perceived ignorance smacks of good old fashioned Luddite thinking. The "self-esteem" rap does seem justified (every semester students complain of certain test grades with a variation of "I feel my score does not reflect the amount of time and effort I put in to studying for this exam,"), but to call today's youth the "dumbest generation" is far-fetched and doesn't square with evidence to the contrary.

While there is vigorous debate going on about the effect of the internet on literacy, it seems too simple to dismiss the slang of texting, or the solipsism of social networking sites, as being "what's wrong with kids today." When I was in college 20 years ago, educators were blaming Call Waiting and MTV for the very same things.

A better analysis might be Susan Jacoby's "The Age of American Unreason", which follows up on Richard Hofstadter's infamous "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life" from 1963 (something I read in grad school).
[Jacoby] argues that American anti-intellectualism has reached unprecedented heights thanks to the converging influences of junk science, fundamentalism, celebrity-obsessed media, identity politics, urban-gang culture, political correctness, declining academic standards, moral relativism, political pandering, and the weakening of investigative journalism, among other factors.
Benton then lists several problems, as he sees it, amongst students today.

As someone involved in education, I take the concerns of all of those writers quite seriously: The abilities and attitudes of students affect my life on a daily basis. It is my job, as I see it, to combat ignorance and foster the skills and knowledge needed to produce intelligent, ethical, and productive citizens. I see too many students who are:

  • Primarily focused on their own emotions — on the primacy of their "feelings" — rather than on analysis supported by evidence.

  • Uncertain what constitutes reliable evidence, thus tending to use the most easily found sources uncritically.

  • Convinced that no opinion is worth more than another: All views are equal.

  • Uncertain about academic honesty and what constitutes plagiarism. (I recently had a student defend herself by claiming that her paper was more than 50 percent original, so she should receive that much credit, at least.)

  • Unable to follow or make a sustained argument.

  • Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills matter).

  • Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.

  • Increasingly interested in the social and athletic above the academic, while "needing" to receive very high grades.

  • Not really embarrassed at their lack of knowledge and skills.

  • Certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the student.

Again, I would go back to my example of "I feel this grade doesn't reflect the work I did," comment above, which puts the burden of the student's failure on us rather than on them.

Nevertheless, while Benton gets a little too political for my tastes regarding Bush/Gore, he does make some broad points which are worth thinking about. There is a "customer service mentality" prevalent in higher education today where students now view themselves as "clients" who need to be "served" rather than educated.

It's almost as if the work done to get into college is viewed as an end in itself. The point of the degree is viewed much like technical or vocational education in the past: give us the piece of paper so we can get out of here and go and make money. If this is not going to be on the test, then who cares?

Benton also misses what I think is the primary culprit of this attitude amongst students: the pathological reliance on high-stakes, standardized testing in grades K-12, which demands rote memorization and conformity, and discourages the critical thinking skills necessary to cut it in higher education. But that's another post (or book).

h/t David Schwartz, The Die is Cast, for the article.

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