The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 13, 2008

Our View: Americans aren't dumb, just choosy

The Internet is marveled at, and blamed for many things.

That is, it’s hold on the public is quite similar to the television used to be. And just as television was once blamed for “dumbing down” American citizenry, so does the Internet get accused today.

The latest debate on the perceived knowledge deficit in the U.S. was kicked off by a July Newsweek poll of “What Do Americans Know.” It was, as you probably guessed, less than reassuring. The Internet was only one of many factors weighed in the balance, and one English professor remarked that the Internet has conspired to make information-gathering a warp-speed, byte-size prospect not well suited to the retention of important material.

He has a point, of course. But others say not to worry, at least as the issue pertains to young people. The younger generations have always been belittled by their elders, they say, and today’s future leaders are every bit as intelligent as their predecessors — it just shows in different ways.

Just as it was foolish to castigate TV, it’s pointless to blame the Internet for this apparent decline in book smarts. The Internet has contributed, perhaps more than anything else, to the most amazing explosion of knowledge — accessible to all — ever released on humanity. If people can’t (or won’t) retain important facts as in the past, we should consider again how young people are schooled, and what kind of influence they’re receiving at home.

The bottom line, however, is that there are many diversions out there, of which the Internet is only one. Perhaps the issue is similar to the generational complaint about kids getting into trouble. Are kids really worse than they were in prior generations, or is misbehavior at least partially due to the fact that bad options seem to have proliferated since their parents were young? Likewise, kids aren’t dumber than before; there’s just so many more information choices out there than there used to be.

Still, it does seem clear that at least a portion of young people don’t appreciate the discipline required to learn. Bauerlein, author of the book, “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future,” said that when he once assigned the memorization of a 20-line poem to his class a student responded, “Why?”

Popular historian David McCullough made an interesting statement recently, saying he can’t understand people who say they love America but care so little about American history. Could that statement be applied to other disciplines; say, math?

Then again, why should students need to learn what 2 times 7 is when they have calculators?