Thursday, September 11, 2008

Kids today

I was just reading an article titled "On Stupidity" which in general terms is one of a long line of essays and books bemoaning the decline of intellectualism. The article is written by an American Professor of English (I feel for the guy, it must suck being an academic in America these days) and he touches all the usual bases regarding the problems he sees with new students.
It was, however, refreshing how positive his conclusion was. I was fully expecting this to be another "kids today" moan but he acknowledges that young people for all their perceived shortcomings may actually be better prepared for the rapid changes facing the world. This was a relief because I hate it when people reflexively blame everything on young people. I hated it when I was a kid and I hate it now.
If you could find the oldest writings in antiquity, I swear it would be complaining about kids at some point. Daubed on a cave wall somewhere are marking that were the maker's way of saying "What the hell is wrong with kids today? They've got no respect, they never listen and don't even get me started on that noise they call music!" Every single generation has copped this shit and every generation of adults think they have a harder time with kids than the generation before.
The article provides a handy checklist of the shortcomings the Professor sees with his incoming students:
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.
Like I said, his conclusion is very balanced otherwise I'd be kind of pissed off by what looks like a "same old, same old" list of complaints. But I would make two points about that list. First, as I look around me, that list isn't the problem with young people, it's the problem with people! Look at the debacle the "debate" going on around the US Presidential elections is descending into if you don't believe me. Young people definitely aren't responsible for that bullshit.
Second, kids don't exactly have a lot of power over the path they follow to get to university. Kids don't run the schools that fail to provide them with a better education. Kids don't run the media that is consistently doing a disgustingly effective job of dumbing down public discourse. And kids definitely don't run the governments that seem hell bent on fucking up anything and everything that might possibly make things better.
The complaints about digital media and the internet dumbing everything down really shit me to tears. The powers that be are terrified of the idea of information getting out of their control. The internet is one of the most powerful tools for the dissemination of knowledge that humanity has seen. The fact that is can be used to spread trivialities and lies is not the fault of the internet, it's the fault of people pushing lies and trivia.
Like every generation, kids aren't failing they are being failed. Instead of obsessing that the internet is teaching kids to skim and they're losing their ability to explore ideas in depth, educators and parent need involve the internet in the learning process. And for that to work, us old people have to work! It's pathetic to think in a world that is changing so fast education has to be locked into old ways of learning. The idea that the internet can't provide depth is flat out ridiculous. With one click on a search engine you can find thousands of references for any topic. It just requires a little creative thinking to come up with ways to explore depth.
Try these:
Use a search engine to research a topic. You have to use at least three different sources. You can't use anything that shows up in the first 50 search results.
Instead of saying you can't use Wikipedia because it's unreliable (a common restriction), use Wikipedia but you have to reference the talk page for each topic. Explore the conflicts/differences of opinion that are creating edits. Find other sources that back up the conflicting points of view.
Translate a classical text (poem, prose or play) into txt abbreviations and emoticons. Discuss what bits of meaning get lost in the translation. Do you think you can bring through the themes more clearly by using txt and/or emoticons?
Write a MySpace/Facebook/blog for a famous historical or fictional character.
Find someone (a journalist/academic/politician/pundit/blogger) you disagree with but you can still respect what they say/write. Explain why you find yourself able to respect someone's intelligence and/or honesty while still disagreeing with them.
Wow, why am I giving this stuff away? I should be charging some government department a fortune for saving the future like this. If you're a local teacher feel free to invite me in to run a session in your classroom. Actually, no. Don't invite me into a classroom. I'm sure one or both of us would end up being arrested. But feel free to use any of these ideas. I'd love to hear stories of any of them in action.
If you want to see a horrible yet funny vision of a constantly dumbed-down future, watch the movie Idiocracy. It may well be a documentary that slipped through a crack in space/time caused by the Large Hadron Collider. But if things turn out that bad, it won't be the fault of successive younger generations. It will be the fault of successive older generations who fail their children.

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