Since I am a professor, people often ask me if students are becoming more stupid. My usual reply is that every generation thinks that the generation that follows is worse-mainly because they forget just how stupid they were. Most people don’t like that answer.
People do, however, like to write about how the current generation (current when they write) is worse than their own generation. The latest in this line of writing is Mark Bauerlin’s book The Dumbest Generation. The book, like many others, presents evidence of the ignorance of the youth of today. Some examples include:
- In 2006, 2/3 of high school seniors could not explain a sign saying “colored entrance” in a photo of a theater.
- In 2001, 52% of high school seniors asked to name America’s allies in WWII named Germany, Italy or Japan rather than the Soviet Union.
- In a 2004 survey, 25% of 18-24 year-olds could not identify Dick Cheney as the Vice President of the United States.
My own experiences tend to match the data. For example, if I am teaching on December 7th I will ask my students why this day is one of infamy. Most students have no idea what I mean. Of course, I teach philosophy classes rather than history classes, so perhaps the students are simply not in the historical mindset when I ask them such questions.
I’ve also gotten anecdotal evidence from other faculty. Each year, many professors claim that the students they have now are worse than the previous year. This claim is being made by professors are various universities-not just where I teach. Of course, this is anecdotal evidence and must be regarded with a degree of skepticism.
One way to explain this data is that the current generation is dumb. They don’t know many important facts and are regarded as poor students by educators.
There are, of course, other ways to explain this.
First, the current generation has a different mindset about facts. When I was a kid, there was a great deal of emphasis on memorization. While I never found rote memorization very appealing, it did make sense. If you needed some information and did not have the book on hand, you had to rely on your memory. Today, however, information is almost always available. Most people have web capable mobile phones and they can just look things up. As such, memory is not as critical.
People from my generation might regard today’s youth as lacking because they do not memorize things as well as we claim we do. To put things in perspective, our generation can also be compared to past generations. Back before books were readily available and literacy was rare, people were forced to rely heavily on memory. According to some accounts, some of the ancients could perform amazing feats of memory. So, compared to them, my generation is dumb as well.
But, this is only if dumbness is a matter of memory (or rather a lack of memory). While memory is important, it is unreasonable to say that people are dumb because they do not remember as well as generations that had inferior technology and hence had to memorize more.
Of course, it could be replied that such technology is making people dumber. To use an analogy, just as the car has made many people physically weaker (because people drive rather than walk), information technology is making people mentally weaker. This does have some plausibility.
Second, it can also be explained in terms of prejudice. People tend to regard themselves as better than others and this tends to transfer to groups as well. For example, people who live in one state tend to think of themselves as better than people who live in another state. Likewise, people tend to see their own generation as better than the current one. If each generation was, in fact, more stupid than the previous generation, then kids today should be about as smart as squirrels.
Third, it can also be explained in terms of memory. While kids today are supposed to have poor memories, the fact is that no one’s memory is very good. We have a tendency to distort what we think we are remembering. For example, the older generation always tells the younger generation how hard they had it as kids (“we had to walk uphill both ways, through the snow, past wolves, to school). So, when people look at the current generation as being stupid, they are most likely judging them against memories that are gilded by time and pride.
Fourth, my experience has been that professor are like everyone else in that they enjoy complaining about things. For professors, one main area of complaint is obvious the students. Hence, it is not clear that the students are getting more stupid. Further, when people get better at something, they are often more critical of others. So, as a professor gets better and better over the years, her students seem worse by comparison. Hence, the students could be just about the same-they only seem worse.