The dumbing of the Intellectuals(by Hanspeter Schmid, published in the IEEE PCS Newsletter, vol. 41, no. 4, July/August 1997.) This article is actually the response on an article written by the newsletter's editor, Donna Wicks.
First the original article:
The Dumbing of America(by Donna M. Wicks, published in the IEEE PCS Newsletter, vol. 41, no. 2, March/April 1997.) It's not likely, that the trend toward "using" technology without any concern for "understanding" technology will reverse.
A friend of mine recently lent me a book by Paul Fussell that deals with `the dumbing of America'. In Fussell's book, the author discusses what he believes is the death of American sensibility and taste.
My friend gave me the book because of my frequent laments about what I also feel is the `dumbing of America'. However, my concerns arise from what I believe is a diminishing interest in `knowing' technology while there is a rapid increase in the interest in `using' technology
Isn't it ironic that Americans (my apologies to the international reader -- I only presume to be familiar with the U.S. culture) teach children it isn't polite to point and yet demand point-and-click technology?
VCRs and TVs are programmable only through on-screen menus, and personal computing software thet isn't `user-friendly' doesn't stand a chance in the ever-growing market. Plug-and-play packages are gaining popularity, but from experience, I am inherently wary of any such item.
A school district in Michigan has decided to spend $60,000 to replace all the antiquated rotary telephones because children today don't understand how to use such a device. School districts all over the country are facing budget crunches and yet this district finds $60,000 so that children don't have to `think' about how to use a rotary phone.
There are numerous examples of how we have come to rely on technology to think for us. Do you know any cashier that can count out change without the assistance of the cash register. Take that same cashier's scan device away and you will spend twice as long in the checkout while he figures out how to ring up an item manually.
As an older student (I am pursuing a BSEE), I have, on many occasions, amazed my classmates with the ability to add two numbers -- even when a decimal point is involved. I had two lab partners who used to tell me I scared them with my ability to do this. Never mind the fact that I am probably the last generation that didn't grow up with calculators; the inability of students to compute answers manually scares me.
In this issue's Masters of Style column, the Fermi practice of approximating answers is discussed. I doubt few college students today could begin to use this technique effectively.
My husband, an associate professor of electrical engineering, is often amazed at the outrageous answers students supply to test questions. He firmly believes a good engineer should have some feel for what a correct answer to the problem is before solving the problem and not resort to the plug-and-chug method.
It's not likely that the trend toward `using' technology without any concern for `understanding' technology will reverse, but engineers and technical communicators can help educate the public. Technical information should not be so watered down as to be absolutely useless. I can't tell you the number of computer manuals I've read in the past year that have said nothing with so many words (e.g., the computers-for-dummies series).
It is a double-edged sword to be sure. If information is too complex, the average reader will not bother with it, but if it is too simplistic, the reader gains no benefit. There has to be a middle ground. Perhaps as technical communicators, that is where our focus should be. What do you think?
The dumbing of the Intellectuals(by Hanspeter Schmid, published in the IEEE PCS Newsletter, vol. 41, no. 4, July/August 1997.)
I have read ``The Dumbing of America'' (March/April 1997) and found it very interesting, but I disagree with the author's description of the symptoms of, the reasons for, and the importance of the ``dumbing''.
``Using'' technology rather than ``knowing'' it, is very human: look at how a child plays and learns. The idea which you support, that it should be the other way around, is the idea of intellectuals, and of science as it is perceived by them. This idea is both old and wrong.
In his 1984 autobiography, Paul Feyerabend wrote: The treasures unearthed by science seem to have an advantage: being related to each other in lawful ways they can be manipulated or predicted by using the laws. But that makes them important only if the resulting scenario is pleasant to live in. The objection that the scenario is `real', and that we must adapt to it no matter what, has no weight, for it is not the only one: there are many ways of thinking and living .
Likewise, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in 1919: We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. .
Here the difference between being dumb and being uneducated becomes apparent: the uneducated person cannot tackle the problems of science, the dumb person cannot tackle the problems of life. There are both uneducated people with lots of common sense and dumb intellectuals. Now what is it that a dumb, uneducated person needs most? Common sense or education?
Teachers have of course recognized this, but their reaction is usually the wrong one. People, intellectuals especially, seem unable to be content with a little more freedom, a little more happiness, a little more light. Perceiving a small advantage, they seize it, nail it down, and in this way prepare a New Age of ignorance, darkness and slavery, wrote Feyerabend .
They apply their way of life, `their' science, to what it cannot describe, and they fail, for you cannot teach wisdom by rules. But they don't even notice their failure. The British comedy series ``Yes, Prime Minister'' spoofed: No wonder that our children leaving school, although socially integrated and creatively aware, can't actually read/write or do sums , and don't even know about the importance of society, culture, heritage and tradition. They don't know about what we generally call common sense or, in its more advanced forms, wisdom. (**)
A simple example: you use a word processor, but do you know how to really use it? Do you know where the different fonts come from, what they are used for? Are you aware of the millenium-long tradition of calligraphy and typography which could tell you how to creatively design appealing and at the same time readable documents? Could you make a document look good even if all you had were a fountain pen and a sheet of paper? Isn't all that much more important than knowing how to change a line in some configuration file?
So don't let the word processor dictate how your document looks! You must know what you want and then make the word processor typeset it for you. But where is the manual that teaches you the basics of typography and how to apply them using this particular word processor? There probably isn't one!
More importantly: don't let technology dictate how you live! Look at as many different ways of living and thinking as possible, live your own life, and make technology help you with living it. We don't need no education , but we need common sense, and dearly so.
Do you hear me, engineers and technical communicators? This is what you must teach!
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 1919.
 Yes, Prime Minister, British comedy series, mid-eighties.
 Pink Floyd, The Wall.
... But they don't even notice their failure. No wonder that our children are leaving school.
The British comedy series ``Yes, Prime Minister'' spoofed that children, although socially integrated and creatively aware, can't actually read/write or do sums. Children don't even know about the importance of society, culture, heritage and tradition and hey don't know about what we generally call common sense or, in its more advanced forms, wisdom.