Are we really dumber?

2 01 2009

stick

I found this article via the Conservative Blog for Peace. It seems that pundits are calling people my age the “dumbest generation”. I may have no problem admitting that. However, as in all things, I think context is key to truly understanding the issue.

Apparently, the argument goes that people who are 18-30 years of age know nothing about politics, history, geography, or anything else deemed to be “high culture”. I will tell you that this is completely true. Just looking at my younger siblings or even most of the kids I went to school with, their knowledge of such things is limited to non-existent. Whenever I go to classical music concerts or anything of that nature, the crowd is often geriatric compared to the general population. (This was even worse when I was an eighteen year old college student going to the opera.) So superficially, this article is completely right, though the question then becomes: “so what?”

One play that I have been fascinated with, one that I also saw as an under-aged theatre-goer, was Moliere’s Le Bourgeois  Gentilhomme (which I saw, by the way, accompanied by the original music of Lully). In it, a merchant plays the role of dilettante and cultural-upstart who is taken advantage of by sycophants who want to drain his money away in exchange for making him “cultured”. What ensues is a whole lot of trouble for the poor noble-wannabe. The lesson (if there is one) is that you have to be who you are and to aspire to what you are not can make you look foolish. It also seems to say, at least for me, that culture cannot be bought, and class is not something you can purchase like a new sports car.

As AG has always pointed out to me, our expectations of what “educated” and “cultured” mean are the result of a commercialized culture coming out of World War II. The GI Bill and the rise of a culture of leisure created expectations that “real Americans” went to college, pursued a firm career path, read the Sunday paper or the New Yorker on the weekend, and discussed it all around the water cooler on Monday morning. A lot of this has to do with the creation of an imagined middle class white (yes, I will bring race into this, to the chagrin of many of my white readers) affluent community; a legion of informed citizens who are a bulwark of the Republic against the threat of ignorance and inferiority. This of course was an irrational expectation that could only be lived by the few, and the technocratic needs of the aforementioned Republic eventually put the study of Attic Greek or 19th century European history well into the background.

All this occurred not before the idea of “intelligence” had become a sine qua non of social acceptability. How many times have I heard a group of women, sports heroes, or movie stars being described as “smart, funny, attractive, etc, etc.”, usually in that order? If all of the people that the T.V. says are smart are truly that intelligent, one wonders why this country has any problems at all. Intelligence seems to be one general quality among others; a gold star that we have put on people’s foreheads to validate their worth. Truth be told, I know people who are in high places who are dumb as door nails. Most people who I went to school with at my elite university were not smart at all; just lucky, wealthy, well-groomed, attractive, and, at best, really hard-working.

Going back in history, we see that this sensationalist article’s expectations could only be fulfilled by the very, very few. I have seen some bloggers gawk at U.S. president John Adam’s curriculum for his son: a mixture of readings in Latin and Greek classical prose and poetry for a boy of elementary school level. But that was an upper class education for a child of a statesman; in all probability, there are many more children in the world right now who might be receiving an education just like it. We do know that there are many more children who are receiving an education period. To expect for a society to give an education of the landed gentry to children who live in an economy based on generalized commodity production is just a pipe-dream simply put. As someone who knows one dead language and a lot of those useless facts, I am not the least bit of a romantic about any of it.

In the end, as I have written to some, I expect for people in human society in general to care little about “truth”, history, or philosophy, even though they are my passions. If everyone did, and everyone was like me, nothing would get done, and I have to be really honest about this. I do not dream of a society of philosophers, theologians, or theorists. Such fantasies are often just complaining about why people don’t think that “little old me”, with my super-imporant blog, is interesting. And if I decry the loss of folk religion, it is because I expect, for better or for worse, that (pace the Neo-Caths, Lefevrists, crazy Orthodox converts, and religious bloggers) this is the only religion that most people will ever have. Most people are going to be “dumb” by the standards of this article, and it would be nice if we got back to the idea that it is okay for a person just to be pretty, to have have a strong back, or nice, without having to include the mandatory tax of “smartness inflation”. It may be undemocratic, but it’s the truth.


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19 responses

6 01 2009
Lee Hamilton

The purpose of education has changed radically. That’s because who is doing the learning, and who is paying for and administering it, has also changed over time. This shift is the result of a number of factors, including what’s called the “massification” of higher learning (Arturo mentions the GI Bill – we had something similar here in Canada), the growing role of professional associations in the quality assurance function determining university and college curricula, and the expansion of the regulatory role of government into the education sphere.

Ask a college administrator or a public policy maker and they’ll tell you that the purpose of learning is to maximize labour market participation and unit productivity. Eyes are riveted on international indicators, and the policy emphasis is on evidence-based decision-making based on econometric data to justify resource allocation. If that sounds pretty dry, that’s because it is. It’s a “decapitated” process – no consideration of the more fundamental non-economic, non-quantifiable function of education…such as the creation of a common culture, the perfection of the soul or any such intangibles. It’s about increasing the value-added productivity of your labour force in established and emerging global value chains. That’s why the university as an institution has been changing so radically.

6 01 2009
Leah

There is confusion about what the purpose of education should be, which seems to have been a question ever since the days of Socrates. Learning for the sake of learning? To learn a trade? Good citizenship? How to be a good member of whatever religious group you happen to be affliated with? To learn how to take standardized tests? These questions were less important when only a few people received structured education. Now that everyone is expected to receive quality education (however that may be defined), the question of what makes an educated person is more confusing. Being smart, however, is not the same thing as being cultured or educated. Many innovators in the field of computer science, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, are not what we would considered cultured, but are quite brilliant at what they do. Much is made in current educational and scientific policy about making America more competitive in basic science and technology, but not so much interest is being invested in whether Americans produce quality art, literature, or music.

6 01 2009
Visibilium

Scy, that’s an interesting topic, and I look forward to seeing your thoughts. I’m often amused by our age-old inclination to associate the well-born with virtue. Now, well-born can mean either old-monied in the capitalistic sense or aristocratic in the medieval sense.

Lee, maybe all we’re grappling with is a lack of discipline. I hear that the Marines can cure attention deficits.

6 01 2009
Lee Hamilton

Oops – I intended to mention Allan Bloom (“The Closing of the American Mind”) alongside Jacobs and Berman in my post above. How could I forget. The first time I read Bloom, I was totally captivated by what he had to say about all this.

5 01 2009
Lee Hamilton

I’m a bit of a pessimist – I think we’re undergoing a slow-motion cultural collapse à la Jane Jacobs (“the Dark Age Ahead”) and Morris Berman (“The Twilight of American Culture” and “Dark Ages America”). As for the generational thing, I think the problem extends well beyond a breakdown in knowledge transfer. Information is being acquired, stored, accessed and applied in such radically different ways that (the scientists tell us) the neurological architecture of the brain itself is adapting, and that the mental development of the “digital generation” is radically different from what has occurred before. It’s further argued (by some) that these differences necessitate changes in the format and content of pedagogy system-wide in order to maintain the relevance and effectiveness of curricula and accomplish the socio-economic objectives of education (narrowly understood). Obviously, this has some fairly far-reaching implications, and it’s something a lot of universities, colleges and policy makers are grappling with right now. Here’s an interesting article I came across that discusses some of the science that is being brought into the debate, focusing an the celebrated workplace skill of “multitasking” but which is just as applicable to the hyper-stimulated “attention deficit” digitized environment which young people are now growing up in:

“The Myth of Multitasking”
http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-myth-of-multitasking

5 01 2009
The Scylding

Arturo, your post touches on something I am planning to write on in the (hopefully near) future – on our confusion of the terms educated, civilised, wise, cultured, class, etc. combined with issues of nobility, equality etc. I’ll let you know when I do so….

5 01 2009
Apolonio

Arturo,

The purpose of education is to open man to all of reality (J. Jungman). Education, then, must propose a life, a worldview, which makes man receptive to reality. In our technological age, we are filled with information but lack no depth. That seems to be the reason why people are dumb. It is not so much with intelligence but lack of attentiveness. Technology gives the impression that reality is neutral and hence, there is no realization of the world as it is (a gift). It is not simply that our stupidity are now shown through technology when back then it was not. The way we see reality is simply different. Just think of how we think of the world, God, tools, work, etc. It’s different. So it seems to me that the problem is 1) education and 2) technology. Both have to do with the personal character by the way.

4 01 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Apolonio,

Yes, that may be true, but it is completely off-topic, since what is being discussed here is education in itself, not street-smarts or personal character.

4 01 2009
Apolonio

Art,

For Bernanos, imbecile meant those who are mentally weak, those who lack the child-like, marian, receptive attitude to reality.

4 01 2009
athanasius

Essentially, college has become a finishing school for the well-to do, something that one needs to gain an entry-level white collar job,

Not always, I have two degrees and I am a manager at Walmart.

3 01 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Well put, Sam.

3 01 2009
Sam Urfer

I’ve felt for a long time that our age is not especially stupid or wicked, but that thanks to modern communications and information technology, people’s stupidity and wickedness are on display for the world to see as never before in human history.

3 01 2009
Leah

All one has to do is look at cartoons from the 1930s and 40s on Youtube that lampoon opera, particularly of the Wagnerian variety, to see that high art was no more appreciated by our grandparents than our modern peers. The works of great artists like Shakespeare and Mozart were popular entertainment when they were originally written. I guess time makes everything seem classier. We often forget that the notion that every adult citizen should be literate is quite recent, probably less than 150 years old. Recall, if you will the scene from “Huckleberry Finn” in which Huck’s father chastises his son for his ability to read, proudly citing the Finn clan’s long and noble tradition of illiteracy. Unless forced to by an educational institute, most Americans won’t read a book of any sort of their own volition. Hence, the argument about what ought to be in the canon of Great Books is moot, since John and Jane American don’t want to read “Moby Dick” or “The Color Purple.” Not when they can watch “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” instead.

3 01 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Yes, Apolonio, but most people back in Bernanos’ day couldn’t read anyway, so what type of criteria do you judge them by?

2 01 2009
Apolonio

I think it was G. Bernanos who spoke about our age as imbeciles. What we have, because of the technological age, is a bunch of people with information but lack depth.

2 01 2009
anon

Another note; I found the response by Mr. Roebuck to the article to be most amusing;

“In the past, children were generally taught, by their parents and by other of society’s authorities, that the God of the Bible exists, and the meaning of life is to honor Him by working hard to support and defend your family, your religion and your nation. Not all parents believed or openly articulated these ideas, but enough of them did that nihilism was held at bay.
But today’s parents generally don’t believe any of the above things, and so they do not impart them to their young. You cannot give what you do not have.
And why do parents no longer believe? The ultimate reason is that the philosophical system of the left, generally called liberalism, has near-total control of America, and the entire West. This means that most of society’s authorities teach liberalism, and most people believe it, aside from the occasional “unprincipled exceptions” to liberalism that are required in order to live a halfway-tolerable life.”

Actually the reason for “non-belief” is that there has been little or no real response to the questions posed by “liberalism” except for repression or violence.

2 01 2009
anon

I went to one of those elite universities, ( UCSC), back when it was elite and I must agree that it was basically a waiting room for the young elite preparing to inherit their parents’ status, wealth etc;

But, on occasion, one could actually encounter some real teachers and imbibe some real education.

One of my professors, Donald Nicholl, a British historian and Roman Catholic lay theologian, once stated that what the U.S. lacked was an educated peasantry. He went on to describe the hedge schools of old Ireland where peasant children were taught the classics and history and religion and literature etc;. Nothing more shocked a British aristocrat than to encounter an Irish peasant able to recite from memory a long passage from Homer in Attic Greek.

A truly educated peasantry would be a real danger to both “conservatives” and “liberals”. Better to keep the masses entertained.

2 01 2009
Leah

Most people by definition cannot be intelligent. This is because intelligence is an exclusive category; in order to be considered “smart,” a considerable amount of the population must be considered “stupid.” Having gone to elite, majority white schools my entire life, I can testify that it’s not the case that the kids in those institutions are smarter or have more potential than children anywhere else. Rather it is that going to college is the default post-high school option for children in that socio-economic bracket, so they prepare accordingly with the proper tests, supplemental activities, and classes. For example, when I was in elementary school, I was in “Challenge,” a class for the supposedly gifted. I say supposedly because the classes always consisted of every white kid in the “regular class” and me, a situation that always seemed quite spurious to me. Essentially, college has become a finishing school for the well-to do, something that one needs to gain an entry-level white collar job, not especially a place to learn the once noble trivium and quadrivium. It seems rather unfair to say that everyone has to go to college to have a middle class lifestyle since most people, regardless of their income level, really aren’t suited for academics. I think more trade schools that specialized in high technology or business would be a better fit for many than four years in a university environment.

2 01 2009
Visibilium

By all means, let’s squeeze into the highest fractile!

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