(Originally posted in 2003, and rerun several times since)
Stuart Buck encountered a teacher who said “Kids learn so much these days. Did you know that today a schoolchild learns more between the freshman and senior years of high school than our grandparents learned in their entire lives?” (“She said this as if she had read it in some authoritative source”, Stuart comments.)
She probably had read it in some supposedly-authoritative source, but it’s an idiotic statement nevertheless. What, precisely, is this wonderful knowledge that high-school seniors have today and which the 40-year-olds of 1840 or 1900 were lacking?
The example of knowledge that people usually throw out is “computers.” But the truth is, to be a casual user of computers (I’m not talking about programming and systems design), you don’t need much knowledge. You need “keyboarding skills”–once called “typing.” And you need to know some simple conventions as to how the operating system expects you to interact with it. That’s about it. Not much informational or conceptual depth there.
Consider the knowledge possessed by by the Captain of a sailing merchant ship, circa 1840. He had to understand celestial navigation: this meant he had to understand trigonometry and logarithms. He had to possess the knowledge–mostly “tacit knowledge,” rather than book-learning–of how to handle his ship in various winds and weathers. He might well be responsible for making deals concerning cargo in various ports, and hence had to have a reasonable understanding of business and of trade conditions. He had to have some knowledge of maritime law.
Outside of the strictly professional sphere, his knowedge probably depended on his family background. If he came from a family that was reasonably well-off, he probably knew several of Shakespeare’s plays. He probably had a smattering of Latin and even Greek. Of how many high-school (or college) seniors can these statements be made today?
(In his post, Stuart compares knowledge levels using his grandfather–a farmer–as an example.)
Today’s “progressives,” particularly those in the educational field, seem to have a deep desire to put down previous generations, and to assume we have nothing to learn from them. It’s a form of temporal bigotry. Indeed, Thanksgiving is a good time to resist temporal bigotry by reflecting on the contributions of earlier generations and on what we can learn from their experiences.
As C S Lewis said: If you want to destroy an infantry unit, you cut it off from its neighboring units. If you want to destroy a generation, you cut it off from previous generations. (Approximate quote.)
How better to conduct such destruction than to tell people that previous generations were ignorant and that we have nothing to learn from them?