Novelist, Lawrence Naumoff, who teaches creative writing classes in a university, is quoted as saying he sees a bad trend in his students. They have no curiosity, no interest in learning for the sake of learning. They attend his class, never find out his name, and get what they have to in order to get a grade. This is both sad and scary to me because it reveals a major societal downturn. Not that I am surprised, I’ve been watching this slow slide for decades. The last time I brought it up was in a debate in my Advanced English class in 1964 and met with such distain, I’ve kept it to myself ever since. I guess it is safe to speak about this now since others are beginning to see the light.
It is a given that collected general knowledge is the engine of problem solving; problem solving is the foundation of positive growth. If we cannot figure out how to make do with what we have and what we know, then we end up like many of the hurricane Katrina evacuees, not all of which allowed themselves to be ignored by inept government. Helplessness is not a sign of positive growth in the human condition. If we are moving forward in the wrong direction, we might as well be moving backwards.
Some might argue against this but I believe modern technology is at the root of this trend and is, at the same time, both friend and curse to civilization. Because of constant and ever changing technology, there is so much that is new to learn, all things old must be kicked to the curb. This includes most of the greatest most inspirational and elevating elements and processes of civilized society and human achievement acquired at enormous cost. But who cares anymore? The scramble to know about the latest thing seems to have overtaken the need to spend time learning what we have gained from the past. Unfortunately, all that is new to learn is not always worth learning but we are coaxed to believe if we are to survive in a high tech world, we must keep up so we spend our time learning it anyway. We think we are being productive because we now have things that save us time, and we tell ourselves that we are so smart for all we know even as we grow dumber and dumber. We don’t have to commit anything to memory anymore because some soulless device keeps all the data for us. But regardless of how many conveniences we have at our fingertips, time is one thing that cannot be saved; it moves on. To compensate we cut back minutes in one activity only to add on minutes to another. In the end, we find we are hustling faster, sleeping less and worrying more…and ultimately, for all our trouble, knowing less and less. And when the lights go out or the batteries die, all our data is useless to us. We stand there, ignorant as babes.
Today there is so much information to assimilate, it all must be compartmentalized, divided and doled out in specialized increments. This narrowing down of focus is so pervasive in our culture now, which effects how and what people choose to learn, it spans all industries and professions. The practice of medicine is a prime example of specialization and reduction of broad knowledge. There is no such thing as a liberal education any more, which means there is a huge loss of general curiosity about many and assorted things. Who has time to be curious about anything that does not pertain to the moment at hand?
Unfortunately, what is forgotten about the benefits of knowing a little about a lot and grasping the bigger picture of how all things work together, is that life, regardless of all its new innovations, continues to be made of many experiences. Some of these are thrown at us suddenly and unexpectedly. Problem solving is born of multiple opportunities of having been able to apply liberal knowledge. If we lose our ability to solve problems that we have never been faced with before simply because we have no baseline of common knowledge to draw from, we become completely vulnerable to disaster.
This then is the point: when we lose our natural curiosity and love of learning for the sake of learning, eventually we forget how to learn deeply and, more importantly, how to discern what is significant to our ability to survive independently. It is a very bad sign, albeit true, that the more basic problem solving skills we lose because we are trusting in someone or something else to be responsible for our survival, the less chance we have to survive. But it is ever so, and a rule of the natural world, that no one is as interested in an individual’s wellbeing than the individual him/herself. Does it make sense then to ignore the basic answer of doing what is in our own best interest and learning how to learn, to be curious and garner information that can not only improve us as humans but society as a whole?
B.F. Skinner said: “Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten” And … “The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.”
So, who is B.F. Skinner?
I have no idea, but I bet I will go find out.
(Psalms 139:12) Even the darkness hideth not from thee, But the night shineth as the day: The darkness and the light are both alike [to thee]. (139:13) For thou didst form my inward parts: Thou didst cover me in my mother's womb. (139:14) I will give thanks unto thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: Wonderful are thy works; And that my soul knoweth right well.