No, we’re not raising a generation of nincompoops

That’s what AP writer Beth Harpaz asks in this article. Railing against kids who can’t figure out ice-cube trays (their fridges make ice), tie their shoes (their sneakers are velcro), or use a can opener (their cans have pop tops), she asks if this is “the result of kids growing up with push-button technology in an era when mechanical devices are gradually being replaced by electronics.”

I think she’s conflating a few things here. There certainly is a switch from analog to digital skills, but I don’t think it means kids are dumb. It means the tools they use are changing, and they don’t need to learn older tools. The can opener one really struck me – fine, your kid may not know how to use the can opener, but if they don’t need to, why does it matter? Is it equally offensive that they can’t use a church key? That they don’t know how to make those pull tab necklaces we were always convinced could be traded in for dialysis?

I use a calculator, not a slide rule, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know how to do math, it just means I’m using a different tool. Harpaz quotes Mark Bauerlein, author of the “The Dumbest Generation,” who laments that kids are losing critical thinking skills because they can just Google for answers. I would argue that they’re learning different skills by Googling an answer. Can a modern kid build a transistor radio out of a kit? Probably not (at least none I know). But they can probably film, edit and upload a video nothing flat. Why is one activity intrinsically more valuable then the other?

The arbitrariness of her list also piques. Harpaz acknowledges that some skills, such as adding Roman numerals, writing cursive or “looking things up in a paper-bound thesaurus,” are obsolete. Really? Why? Cursive is useless but ice-cube trays are important? And how did we arrive at that conclusion?

The other issues she brings up – not knowing how to use a clothes hanger because they throw clothes on the floor, never having taken a bus alone – have more to do with parenting than technology. Of course a kid won’t learn how to do something if you always do it for them. But that doesn’t mean that “kids today are nincompoops.” It may mean that some people overprotect their kids, but I hardly think that’s a new phenomenon, or something that should be blamed on the children.

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About mkschoen

In my previous life, I was a reporter and editor covering technology and business for sites including eWeek, ZDNet and CNET News.com. Now I’m a student working towards a master’s in library science.
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