Wisdom of elders spurned in favor of high-tech fakery

One of my quirks is that I like to see how two or more disparate ideas can be related in unexpected ways. For example, the Discovery Channel's new series The Human Planet, the sorry state of the American educational system, the rise of technology and a recent article about the rise of narcissism among young people have a lot more in common than people think.

The show explores extreme environments around the world and the astonishing ways human beings survive there. A Himalayan man must escort his children 50 miles in the dead of winter to get them to a school, literally facing life-threatening challenges.

A woman leading a caravan of women across the Sahara Desert must teach her daughter to read the dunes to find a waterhole. Natives in Papua New Guinea teach their children how to build tree houses over one hundred feet off the ground. A Mongol man teaches his son how to capture an eagle chick and train it to hunt.

While watching these amazing stories, I realized that the essential ingredient human cultures need to survive is intergenerational learning: the older generation must pass its wisdom and knowledge along to the younger generation who are eager to learn it.

For years, Americans have been raising young people with a sense of entitlement — and an "it is all about me" narcissism. In doing so, we have created a younger generation that literally believes that the older generation has nothing of value to teach them.

The fact that the younger generation is much more adept at using technology only exacerbates the problem.

I encounter this every day in my teaching experience. The problem goes far beyond the "When am I ever going to use this?" whine. For some time now, students expect me to explain to them why they should learn anything that cannot be accessed via technology.

Ironically, when these same students miss a class, they expect to be excused from answering a question on an exam because they were not in class the day that topic was covered.

Unfortunately, the "You have nothing to teach me" attitude has a kernel of truth to it. When the vast majority of class time and educational resources are wasted in preparing for state mandated testing of dubious validity and relevance, it is difficult to argue that the younger generation should learn what their elders have painstakingly accumulated in order to be able to use it in new and exciting ways.

But, in fact, that is the secret of human survival — the accretion of "culture" which makes us who we are.

Once again, the old adage "Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." As the youth of today fail to acquire critical thinking skills, the disinformation disseminated by the Internet puts both themselves and our society at extreme risk. The line between reality and computer-generated images has become blurred.

For example, the recent Direct TV ad that shows a stereotyped Russian businessman with his miniature giraffe has had an expected result. There is a fake Web site that features a farm that purports to produce these tiny giraffes along with complete instructions for taking care of them.

These hoaxers have started a waiting list for prospective buyers, but when some of these gullible customers were eventually told that it was all a joke, they became angry because they had been cheated out of a new pet.

The absolute faith the younger generation puts in technology is frightening. A few years ago, some pundit constructed a table of the IQs of recent presidents as a hoax and listed the IQ of President George W. Bush as 91.

A Web surfer can find dozens of sites citing that statistic as reliable even though Bush's actual IQ is substantially higher.

I have had students tell me that a duck's quack does not echo, a fact they learned on the Internet. Actual experiments refuted this claim many years ago, yet a new generation of easily deceived souls is willing to follow the Pied Piper of technology to any place it may lead.

The scary aspect of all this is best exemplified by the story of the Saharan women navigating the dunes. Without the guidance of the older women, the entire caravan would be lost.

The willingness of young people today to blindly place their confidence in a technology that will lead them into unknown territory endangers all of us.