A “Generation of Nincompoops”?

AP writer Beth Harpaz worries that we are raising “a generation of nincompoops” because modern technology has obviated the need for kids to learn basic mechanical skills:

Are we raising a generation of nincompoops? And do we have only ourselves to blame? Or are some of these things simply the result of kids growing up with push-button technology in an era when mechanical devices are gradually being replaced by electronics?

Susan Maushart, a mother of three, says her teenage daughter “literally does not know how to use a can opener. Most cans come with pull-tops these days. I see her reaching for a can that requires a can opener, and her shoulders slump and she goes for something else.”

Teenagers are so accustomed to either throwing their clothes on the floor or hanging them on hooks that Maushart says her “kids actually struggle with the mechanics of a clothes hanger.”

Many kids never learn to do ordinary household tasks. They have no chores. Take-out and drive-through meals have replaced home cooking. And busy families who can afford it often outsource house-cleaning and lawn care….

The issue hit home for me when a visiting 12-year-old took an ice-cube tray out of my freezer, then stared at it helplessly. Raised in a world where refrigerators have push-button ice-makers, he’d never had to get cubes out of a tray — in the same way that kids growing up with pull-tab cans don’t understand can openers.

But his passivity was what bothered me most. Come on, kid! If your life depended on it, couldn’t you wrestle that ice-cube tray to the ground? It’s not that complicated!

Mark Bauerlein, author of the best-selling book “The Dumbest Generation,” which contends that cyberculture is turning young people into know-nothings, says “the absence of technology” confuses kids faced with simple mechanical tasks.

But Bauerlein says there’s a second factor: “a loss of independence and a loss of initiative.” He says that growing up with cell phones and Google means kids don’t have to figure things out or solve problems any more. They can look up what they need online or call mom or dad for step-by-step instructions.

I worry a lot about ignorance, including political ignorance, economic ignorance, and to a lesser extent ignorance about religion. But the kind of ignorance Harpaz emphasizes strikes me as a nonissue.

Most of it consists of ignorance of mechanical skills that have either been rendered obsolete by modern technology or are rapidly on the way there (as in the case of using old-fashioned ice-cube trays and cutting open tin cans). In every generation, there are some mechanical skills that were essential in earlier times that are no longer useful because technology has created machines that perform the same functions more efficiently. When I was in high school in the 1980s, I learned how to use a typewriter. Very few teenagers have that skill today because word processors are both simpler to operate and more efficient. In the generation before me, many if not most schoolchildren knew how to use abacuses and slide rules. By my day, we were using the much simpler and more efficient calculators. Does that mean that we were “nincompoops” compared to those who grew up in the 1950s and 60s?

Harpaz and Mark Bauerlein worry that kids who can look up instructions on the internet or their cell phones won’t learn how to “figure things out or solve problems.” To my mind, learning how to access the knowledge of others is itself a very important ability, one that those skilled at using the internet have an important advantage in. As great social theorists such as F.A. Hayek and Edmund Burke pointed out, even the smartest and most capable individuals can benefit a lot from the vastly greater store of knowledge compiled by the rest of society. If Bauerlein is right, than 19th century Americans should have been concerned about the spread of mass literacy and the declining price of books caused by improved printing technology. After all, kids who can look up instructions in books where their parents had to use their own know-how couldn’t possibly learn how to “figure things out” on their own!

Moreover, using technology or knowledge compiled by others to perform simple mechanical tasks frees up time and energy for more important types of learning. I’d rather that kids spend time learning history, economics, science, and foreign languages than spend time learning how to open cans and use ice-cube trays. I’d also rather that they spend more time surfing the internet (which improves research skills) or even talking to their friends on their cell-phones (which develops useful social skills) than practicing simple mechanical tasks. If that means they learn to tie their shoe laces at a slightly older age, I think Western civilization will still survive and even benefit from the tradeoff.

There is much to lament about the state of public ignorance and children’s education. But we should focus on ensuring that kids acquire the kind of knowledge that can’t easily be replaced by technology, not petty mechanical skills that will soon become obsolete, if they haven’t already.