Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Technology, dumbing-down and the intergenerational transmission of knowledge

James Farrell had an interesting post On Club Troppo, The pull of immaturity, looking at Mark Bauerlein's book The Dumbest Generation.

I will leave you to read the post, but I did start me musing.

I have a problem with the idea that the new mobile and on-line technology has dumbed down an entire group - those up to thirty - simply because it doesn't fit with my knowledge of the history of the technology itself. It simply hasn't been around for long enough in its current form to have the type of impacts discussed unless, of course, one adds in television.

I am inclined to agree that, at least so far as Australia is concerned, there has been some loss of the previous sense of history, although I do not think that this is limited just to the under thirties. I am constantly surprised at the things my daughters and others do not know.

The traditional rule of thumb that I have always used is that knowledge of the past remains "current" for about three generations, with the depth of knowledge declining as events become more remote. So I knew something about key things that had affected my grandparents, more about those that had affected my parents, still more about things that were current in my own life.

Outside this "current" knowledge, the transmission of historical knowledge between generations depends upon other mechanisms including the school system.

I have previously argued, and still think that I am right, that the 1970s represented a tip decade, a break in the previous continuity of life and thought. One outcome from this has been a decline in historical knowledge. However, this leaves me wondering just how we might actually test all this in historical terms.

This is not an insignificant question.

We can never fully understand the past. Accepting this, the depth of our understanding depends on our ability to get inside the heads of people at a particular time. History is about events and change, so to understand the flow it helps to understand how people's thinking changes with time.

One way of doing this is to look at the information available to people at any point. This actually requires a bit of a shift in thinking.

Traditionally, if I am looking for information on a particular event I will look at the primary and secondary sources directly relevant to that event. So, given my interests, I might browse the Armidale Express over several years looking for specific bits of information.

If, however, I am interested in what people might have thought in a general sense, then I need to look at the pattern in the paper as a whole, including advertisements. I also need to understand what other sources of information might be available.

To illustrate this, take the suggestion that the current generation knows less about current affairs than previous generations.

Accepting that I am not comparing like with like, prior to the Second World War, papers in country NSW carried international news because those papers were still the primary source of information about current events. Knowledge of at least current international affairs was far more limited than today.

So we have to be careful about suggestions that one generation knows less than previous generations on a topic unless we carefully specify just which generations and indeed what topics we are talking about.

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