U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Chicken Little meets a Historian

I feel like I’ve been reading a lot of newspaper articles lately about the sky falling, our students getting stupider and lazier, technology is going to destroy the earth and our minds, etc so forth. And I think, I’ve read letters from two hundred years ago from professors complaining about their students being stupid and lazy. And sometimes it’s just that they are 18 and sometimes it is that we are insecure and don’t understand why they aren’t lapping up what we have to offer and sometimes it is because we are transitioning from being responsible for a single student (me) to many students–most of whom are not meant to go to grad school and do not think like we do.

Or technology does do nasty things and great things…and has been doing so since humans realized they could start fires. But what is interesting is the specifics of what technology is up to. So for instance, there was a recent New York Times article about cell phones destroying kids’ ability to think deeply because it is causing everyone to be ADD through multi-tasking. I’ve had some time recently to just concentrate on research and I find myself spending waaaaaay more time on Facebook than when I was teaching and administering. This is because my brain needs a rest from the writing to ponder. And sometimes I ponder staring out the window. And sometimes I ponder doing mindless things on Facebook. And when I was in grad school I would have felt immensely guilty at the “procrastination” but instead I choose to think that I’ve written about 30 pages based on new research in the last week and a half…while taking time off for Thanksgiving and an art project and some chicken-little like updating on facebook about how my writing is causing the sky to fall (cause externalizing the anxiety lets me go on with the writing process).

My question for you all is this–do you ever feel the same way about the over-blown nature of “sky is falling” media? How do you sort through the end-times rhetoric for things that are actually changing? How do we balance history as change and history as the same themes arising over time?

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I was thinking about something similar to this yesterday when a former student of mine sent me a note on Facebook. He had just completed grading a stack of papers (his first as a TA in grad school) and was shocked at how bad they were. It occurred to me that since he was a very good student and only read his own papers he had no idea just how poor some of his classmates writing was when they were first year students. So a part of the overreaction might also be a first time understanding by new faculty of just what was going on all along.

    I do think that the new technology can be both wonderful and problematic but we need to learn how to use it in ways that help us. Being able to search catalogs from my office as opposed to having to visit every archive has been wonderful, being able to share drafts and manuscripts via email is great, scanning documents has been an interesting option, but…
    Students texting or going on Facebook during class on their phones and computers serves to distract an already distracted group. Technology has helped students to cheat. The use of technology in high schools and college has led most students to believe that college is merely a set of answers to question that need to be found (often via Google searches). Too often our society has come to the conclusion that the answers are the point of college; i.e. when was the Civil War? Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? Etc. That is not history.

    Technology can oversimplify and it often removes the most important part about college which is the thought process. I want my students to learn to ask questions and learn how to think through questions. Our high speed technological world which emphasizes answers without process needs to be addressed, but I would agree that we do get a bit “chicken little” when it comes to fear that all technological advances are harbingers of the end of the American mind.

  2. my own ‘chicken-little’ moments have less to do with technological changes than with financial and institutional ones (although they’re inflected by technological change). it seems to me that the current hypnosis in the humanities with ‘the digital’ is in real danger of helping to further commodify academic production. this, matched with the institutional and economic pressures on universities toward quantifiable accountability…and we rapidly have a very different set of values attached to scholarship.

    i’m more worried about what happens to scholarship than what happens to teaching for two reasons. first, it’s plausible that academia as a macro-institution or sector could have some control over incentive-structures in scholarship, although we can have no control over what sort of student body walks in the door. second, teaching will always be local in the sense that it will always have to respond to a whole range of specific needs and situations. quality teaching is possible with any kind of student, and what it looks like will always depend on the student, so there’s not much to do but be alert and prepared.

  3. Pascal says in the Pensées that man’s unhappiness comes from his inability to remain quietly in his room. But if man could remain quietly in his room, civilization would not have gotten very far.

    Humans get distracted. That goes with the territory of being human, I think. I’d be more worried about the nefarious uses of this technology (cheating, refusing to think for oneself) than stuff like checking e-mail or playing Farmville in class, which is fairly benign when measured against the whole of the universe.

    Besides, college is supposed to prepare students for the real world. So where else are they going to learn to procrastinate by surfing the web, shopping online, chatting on Gmail, etc., while they are supposed to be doing something else if they don’t learn it at university? It’s all about practical training these days, after all. We academics can’t disappoint employers by unleashing a bunch of people lacking essential job skills on the world.

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