Forgive me for going all Thomas Friedman – "Here's this thing I noticed from this person I talked to, and here are some broad generalizations about mankind based thereupon!

" – but the longer I teach the more this nags at me.

College-aged people today are on the internet about 18 hours per day. They go nowhere without a suite of disposable Chinese-made electronic devices, almost all of it devoted to listening to their horrendous AutoTuned "music" or browsing the internet. As a teacher this is problematic inasmuch as at any given moment 75% of the class have their laptops open and are diligently staring at Facebook. Another 15% are furiously texting away with their iPhones and Blackberii in their laps. The remaining 10% are either sleeping or, for want of other ways to occupy themselves, paying attention.

This can be irritating, especially when students choose to sit front and center in the classroom and pound away at their cellphone at point blank range.

When I am trying to be optimistic, however, I consider that this should be producing generations of young people with good basic tech skills. They should be computer literate given that they are using one almost constantly. They should understand how to find things online given that they are online constantly. The constant reading and sending of email and other forms of communicating on the web should, theoretically, provide some incremental benefit to their writing abilities.

If any of you work in tech support, I bet you know where I am going with this.

These kids, unbelievably, are more technologically inept than my 60 year old colleagues whose first experience with computer data processing involved punched cards. Contrary to all logic and my minimal expectations, their near-continuous computer usage has had no effect on them.

None. Many of them are absolutely fucking baffled by the concept of correctly attaching something to an email. Perhaps 1% of them understand how to take a Word document and make it into a PDF. Most of them have never used basic software like Excel or PowerPoint that comes pre-installed on their package-deal laptops. Installing a program is as comprehensible as open heart surgery. I recently overheard students talking about upgrading to Windows 7 and one asked earnestly if she needed to send her laptop back to the factory to have it done.

All that time on the internet must be helping though, right? Unbelievably about half of the students I encounter (and this is a pretty decent school, mind you) have not the faintest idea how to find something on the internet. I assign research papers in every class, and in the course of that assignment I am bombarded with emails to the effect of "I am having trouble findin sources for my paper on executive orders. do you have any suggestions?" As calmly as possible I am required to reply suggesting they enter "Executive Orders" into Google and, if they're feeling really punchy, visit the online library catalog and do the same. They ask me where they can find copies of the Constitution since the full document is not in any of our textbooks; again I have to point out that putting "Constitution" into a search engine produces quite literally hundreds of results, all of which will provide the mysterious information they seek.

In short, this constant exposure to the best consumer technology on the market today has had two effects: they know how to open Facebook and they know how to text message their friends in gibberish, in some bastardized version of the English language that has been lured into a windowless van and fingered. They have learned nothing else. My attempt to find a silver lining on the fact that they are forever glued to computers has failed. I suppose, given that high schools do not send students to college with basic math and writing skills, that it is silly to expect that they would arrive with basic computer skills. The only thing sillier is expecting that they might acquire any on their own.

39 thoughts on “NPF: FRIEDMANESQUE”

  • Odd, isn't it, that many–most–of them have the skills in question, but don't seem to realize that said skills can be put to use in non-moronic ways. There's not a student in any of my classes who doesn't know how to find the latest piece of B-List-Celebrity Sex Tapeage, or how to download whatever crap Pink is slinging this week so they can make it their new ring tone, and said abilities could easily be applied to research and file conversions. There's something perversely comic about people being too stupid to know that they're not that stupid. Oh, well, at least they've learned how to type–if not how to spell.

  • Disclaimer: I'm a 31 year old former dropout and worker that went back to school at the University of Minnesota this fall.

    I can't say my experiences with "traditional students" have been as bleak as you describe but I have sensed a definite generational divide.

    But I have to ask: Are they good at anything? Can they at least do some form of multi-tasking like flirting with each other in person while they're texting someone else?

  • As one of those students (not one of yours, but in general at a school with outlets for every row of seats) let me make a confession: it's entirely true. Not all of us are on Facebook, though. I prefer google reader, since if I'm ignoring whatever the professor is saying I should at least be getting some real world knowledge out of it. And, to be fair, in some of the classes it's not like you're missing much. On a fair number of occassion's I've been doing research while the professor has been blathering on about something that should have become basic knowledge a few week prior, if not before ever getting to the school in the first place.

    That being said, facebook doesn't annoy me. When I am paying attention because there's something to pay attention to, I can block out that blather from the other screens in my view easy enough. Way, way, way, way, way worse is the one kid in every class who's playing a bright, shiny Flash game that I can't avoid watching because it's blinking so damn much. And there's always one in every class. I assume there's probably one in whatever class rooms you're teaching in as well.

    That said, Ed, if you want to do something decent for the kids in your class who do care when you are worth listening to, find the kid who's playing some god awful flash game and humiliate the hell out of him so he gives up that vice. At least then there's a chance you'll be able to impart some knowledge on some occassions.

  • A short attention span and the ability to multitask on low-intelligence jobs — this generation gives me great hope. They'll be great at asking their Asian owners, ten years from now, if they want fries with that. America the beautiful, baby.

  • Normally I'd be sharpening my knife in agreement, but…kids aren't born with this knowledge and lose it as they age, like some Narnia thing. If you don't tell them how to do something, especially something for which there is not any assurance of prior training to any standard, don't expect them to know.

    If this is school-wide, and not a strange fluke in your classes, perhaps computer orientation could be added to the new student drill. We had them in my day, before children were expected to be tech-savvy by virtue of youth and device ownership. Or you could simply add some how-to info to the Day One handout, including formatting specs and a caveat about papers in Comic Sans.

  • these people are starting to work their way into corporate america too. back in the day, the pain in my ass was the older employee that was clueless about computers. but most of them have figured it out. remember when you had to prove you could perform basic computer tasks before getting a job? i do. i guess i'm old. because now they don't ask at all they just assume people must have these basic skills to graduate college. er, no, no not at all.

    i've found this tool most useful in dealing with at least some of the stupid questions i get:

    it seems like you would make great use of it.

  • I teach in a high school (albeit a teeny-tiny charter high school, but still…) and I'm amazed by how few computer skills my students have, too. We're actively working on that, though; every student is required to take a tech seminar, and the teacher for that class is really top-notch.

    I'm working my best to send MY kids to college with basic writing skills. but I'm only one person…

  • "“I am having trouble finding sources for my paper on executive orders. do you have any suggestions?”"

    I spent about five hours online the night before last answering this question from about 10 different students. The thing about research, besides the obvious Google searches, is that you need to be a little creative to find exactly what you're looking for. They, by and large, are not that creative, or curious for that matter. I don't allow them to use computers in my classes. I tell them to take notes, and then go home and write them in a Word file. 95% of them don't know proper research paper format, and don't even get me started on the kids who turn in a paper in 14 Cambria font. I think what this post is getting at is that students only get the basic entertainment value of the internet and nothing else. Which is a little strange because I remember the day when my family first got dial-up, and you went on the internet because you could find some much different types of information. Sure there were Discussion Boards and the like, but I didn't think of social/entertainment sites as the entirety of the internet.

  • You just need to create a facebook page, or even better a facebook game ap with rewards, that teaches them basic research skills. It is entirely your fault for not embracing the new technology and using it to its fullest extent to teach them everything they need to know. Geez Ed, lectures are so yesterday.

  • Your post makes me quite happy. I'll have job security all the way into retirement and after as I teach these morons Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Quark, Word, Acrobat and other basic internet skills for side income. Allrighty, Grandpa is gonna be rich!

  • I, too, teach high school, but I'm at an alternative school in GA near Athens, and we teach the little buggers research skills, formats and organization, and appropriate use of tech in the classroom. BUT our kids come to us with damaged GPAs, and we offer no extra-curricular activities, so the ones who can afford it don't go to UGA; they start at the community colleges scrounging for students, and try to build a decent GPA to qualify for the state's HOPE scholarship. Then, maybe, a few go to the big schools. BUT I teach 3 classes with 24 students max; my brethren at the huge high schools teach 5 classes with 30 students! We can teach them those skills if the American public would pay for smaller classes, instead of these mega-schools that churn out NCLB product.

    Sorry for the rant.

  • Desargues comment is right on target, and since we went "friedman" this morning… I have this friend at work whos daughter returned home from Smith and is now working at In-and-Out (a hamburger chain out west).

  • Ithink it's just a lack of motivation on the part of them young'uns. I was an older returning college dropout like your earlier commenter; my first term I had a physics class, and the professor told us that we WOULD use Excel for the lab data (this was 1998). I had never used it, but managed to figure it out in a week or two. The difference, I think, was summed up in a conversation I had with a 20ish classmate. She was complaining about college, the workload, blahblahbla. I replied "sorry, but going to class IS the high point of my day".

  • Displaced Capitalist says:

    I dunno. Although I've always been a bit of a computer whiz, but I never really understood how to do research until I entered law school. No problems whatsoever if my computer crashed to the blue screen of death, followed by a reboot where it says "cannot mind media in drive C:". Research was just sort of a mental block; I knew how to do it in theory but then when I sat down and started trying to focus my thoughts, my mind would just come up blank on where I should start.

    Then suddenly in law school it clicked and I started churning out the first consitently A+ papers I ever received in my life. Go figure. Maybe it was a maturity thing…?

  • We have at least two issues here, tech and research. Could these kids find good resources in a paper library? Can they distill or broaden research meaningfully? Have they been taught any type of logic, math, or geometry? They sound like unmotivated dullards who have problems completing their sentences. I hope that's not the case. But if it is, all the computers in the world can't help them.

  • It doesn't get any better in the professional world. Pretty much any time someone comes into my company with the title "account executive" or "project manager" or nearly anything "director" – I know their computer skills are going to be laughable. Creatives tend to have a pretty decent understanding of technology, but anyone on the business side of things might as well be a caveman. And of course, these are the people who have positions of authority so you can't call them out on their ignorance.

  • Also, get off my lawn!

    This is no different than any other generation. Today's mashing on the iphone was yesterday's doodling in the corners of the notebook.

    Every generation of kids is by and large a stupid collosal of lazy fucks. You'll be surprised how the doorknob that can't find a copy of the constitution on the intertubez will be a responsible intelligent adult complaining about the next generation and how they can't find the blue blart blart cube in the virtual reality hologoog (it's right there, moron!).

  • For what it's worth, I work in a place universally regarded as one of the finest research and teaching hospitals in the US, if not the world. I've been working here for quite a few years now, and one of the first things that struck me about the place is that we have one of the largest collections of highly-educated, intelligent idiots in existance. Most of us just learn what we need to know at any given moment, and kids often don't need to know how to find information any more as long as they can get the essays already written, or get their homework done for them on Yahoo Answers. The wealthy-family kids will be fine, as they always have been, throughout history, and who really cares about the kids who weren't smart enough to be born to wealthy parents. The world rolls on one way or another.

  • I'd like to proffer a modest retort to the kids-always-been-lazy crowd on this forum. There is a difference now that's making an increasingly marked difference. They generally call it globalization; it's got to do with the loosening of protectionist tariffs on the circulation of capital and labor. More concretely, the stupider one's labor force, the more likely that a corporation will look elsewhere for kids with real skills and the willingness to work for less. Why spend time and resources on training Western kids into skilled laborers when you can get that for a fraction fo the price in India, China, and Eastern Europe. The only theoretical advantage American kids have in a global market is native English. However, seeing as they're eager to turn it voluntarily into an incomprehensible pidgin, I suspect future employers may reckon it's easier to train Radhakrishnan to speak good English in Bangalore than getting Jayden in Queens to write a proper memo.

    Outsourcing blue collar jobs was only the first wave. Low- and mid-level collar jobs will come next. In America, we may end up with a situation where 45% of us flip burgers and shitty cars to the 45% who change our parents' diapers in nursing homes — while the remaining 10%, our feudal overlords, will condescendingly continue to throw us some half-witted entertainment on basic cable.

  • More concretely, the stupider one’s labor force, the more likely that a corporation will look elsewhere for kids with real skills and the willingness to work for less.

    I respectfully submit that it has nothing at all to do with the "stupidness" of a nation's workforce and everything to do with cost. We occassionally overseas outsource programming where I work mostly due to deadlines and the fact that we don't want to hire someone just for 30 days on a short-term project and the fact that we need to be cut-rate to be competitive on our short-term projects. The code we get back is always, and I mean always, more crappily written than code we get with our native work force. I've made the argument that it's not worth saving a few bucks now when we will inevitably have to rewrite it later, but nobody listens to Parrotlover at his place of employment.

    That said, if the product was of such higher quality because Mericuns R Lazee and Stoopid and Greedee, then why the hell do we not get superior code when we outsource to India/Romania/Philipines?!

    I don't buy it. I remember fondly being in class, not paying any attention to the professor, and the screaming madly at myself for doing that at home and writing stupid emails or visiting him during office hours to ask stupid questions. I was not alone.

  • Point taken, Parrotlover. But I feel like my own point hasn't much been addressed. Yeah, they'll outsource in favor of crappier code — but they WILL outsource. And, if it saves them money, they'll do it, as long as they can sell a shittier product. Look at Jay Leno's producers — they don't seem much fazed by the shittiness of their cheaper product.

    And the poorer most of us become, the more willing to buy shitty shit made elsewhere. Now you confirm, it seems to me, that this applies to computer code as well.

  • You do have a point, Desargues, in that respect. I was thrown off by the other part I addressed. Without tarriffs or some form of taxation on service-oriented outsourcing, we are, indeed, on a path toward a larger divide between the workers and the rich.

  • Ed,

    Quite likely you've already thought of this and rejected it for whatever reason(s), but just in case you haven't: I'm willing to bet your university librarians would be happy to work with you on developing an information literacy orientation to teach kids that those facebook and youtube searching skills they have can be applicable in academia.
    I mean, I don't know your university but for most librarians it is a thing we like to do.
    Also, that was never a problem for me in college/grad school as I didn't have a laptop or like to text, but, now that I've graduated and go to conferences a lot I find myself trying hard not to offend panelists by sitting in the back as I take my notes via Twittering them on laptop or yes, even cellphone. Maybe at least some of your students are doing the same.

  • More problems arise once students actually do find information on the internet. There's the portion that will plagiarize Wikipedia (I've had very smart students do this). There's another portion that will take some random-ass website that "feels" pertinent to their academic exercise and use it as research, especially when it confirms their suspicion that feminism is silly, or black people don't have it so bad, or that reading postmodernist literature will undermine your values and make you gay. There is always a small group of students in my lit classes though that hits the library, finds interesting articles, produces dazzling papers, and blows my mind in class discussion. These people are usually majoring in accounting or training to be dental hygenists, and then I hate them for choosing to be boring.

  • I'm really astounded it's as bad as you say. Can't you just declare "anyone found surfing the net during my class will be penalized in their grade for the day"?

    My daughter goes to a charter performing arts high school, where every student has a laptop – issued to them by the school, to be used to do research, submit papers and file homework. Knowing this was coming, before she entered her freshman year she spent the summer (at my insistence) with Mavis Beacon learning to touch-type.

  • Ladiesbane, with all due respect, I think the issues aren't separate at all–it's the issue of curiosity (or lack thereof). One of the things I'm focusing on this year in teaching is trying to get them to ask questions, because they just don't want to. It's insane. Not being able to research, to me, seems like a)inability to figure out what questions to ask, and b)inability to figure out where/how to ask them.

    High fives to Mrs. Chili & jeffteachers from another high school teacher. :) I'm supposed to be teaching research paper this trimester. Luckily I have access to four–yes, that's right, four–computers for my class of 20. YES. (In theory we will eventually have a "traveling laptop lab," but I am not planning to be able to use that for research papers.)

    I've been pushing for a keyboarding class for four years now and we still don't have one. It's pretty silly.

    ANYWAY, short of the poor-me rant, I think that another problem–at my school, at least–is that the kids are BAFFLED by the idea that what they learn in one class might be applicable in another class. That what they learned in US history might also apply in American literature is INSANE. That the MLA ciations they learned in English class are the same citations they're supposed to use in history class… they cannot handle it. WTF, students? WTF?

    I'm ready to start giving them algebra and biology quizzes during English class. FAIL.

  • Peggy, I would agree that lack of curiosity is by far the greater part of the problem. Even among the highly intelligent, well-educated folks I've met, there is a don't know / don't care attitude regarding subjects too far from the home field. But I also hear, again and again, people say, "How did you ever get to be your age without magically knowing [x]?" The answer is often, "Because no one showed me how." (Of course, I've shown my boss the rudiments of Boolean searches a dozen times to no avail. He's extremely smart, but it's just not happening for him.)

    As for your kids who don't aren't seeing the big picture, do any of them take foreign languages? Once I made a single paper, with minor adjustments, satisfy assignments in French class, lit comp, and philosophy (thank you, Sartre!) But then, my high school also required that writing be a graded part of every class, This probably stopped when a jock got a bad grade in PE for poor spelling, but it did raise the water level for a while.

  • One Friedman deserves another — to make strengthen Peggy's point about lack of curiosity.

    Yesterday, I was with the missus at the Griffith Observatory, looking at the marvels of deep space. In one of the halls, they have a long band sprinkled with bling shaped as stars and planets, and various large posters to illustrate the large-scale evolution of the cosmos. About 9.7 billion years into its existence, the first (known) life-forms appear, little club-shaped micro-organisms in the lukewarm original soup of nutrients. All of this was in the caption attached to the poster showing the bacteria. A 5-year old kid accompanied by his dad passes by, and asks (he probably couldn't read): "Hey, dad, is that fish on an alien planet?" The incurious redneck glances for half a second at the poster, refuses to look closer, and mumbles, "Yeah, I guess."

    If you don't nourish and indulge their curiosity while they have it, small wonder they get over it in school.

  • Ladiesbane: Yes! Kids will decide they're not "good" at whatever subject, and then not try. I mean, I suppose they've been beaten down by the educational system for a long time before I get them, but still. And like most things that are true about kids, it's true about adults too. I wonder if there's some sort of broader connection here to a desire to appear confident–asking questions is often set up as a sign of weakness–and an idea of CERTAINTY as the same as being right?

    We're working our way toward more writing–the bio teacher gives essays as part of exams, and the math teacher makes the students keep journals (in which they explain verbally how to do math problems–they hate it SO MUCH). But kids who know to make flashcards for English vocab words seem shocked when I suggest that for Spanish or biology. What?!?

    I'm procrastinating cause I should be grading finals, so back to that, I guess. Good thing I don't have Ed's job, or you'd all be in for a rant about WHAT IS SO FUCKING HARD ABOUT APOSTROPHES, GOD or similar. :(

  • I started back in college 28 years after dropping out. I'm awash in a see of idiots. The overwhelming majority of the people who do well in my classes are, like, me, old farts with gray hair. (Okay, it started turning gray when I was 19, but I am old enough to be the mother of most of these drooling morons.)

    I CONSTANTLY marvel at the Internets and the Google. What used to take all freaking night in the library can be done online in just a few minutes. Hell, the Almighty Internets even does APA formatting for me. I honestly don't like that my curmudgeon gene has been activated, but honestly…these people are MORONS. And they have no idea they're morons.

    You kids get off my damn lawn!

    Seriously, it's really disturbing to see the average level of brain power at work in my classes. If it's not on a screen with rapidly changing light and noise patterns, they don't have any interest. On the bus I see people of a certain age reading. Books. You know. Printed on PAPER. People of another certain age don't read. They text. They're not putting anything new in, they're just regurgitating the same thoughts out, over and over. Frightening.

  • Penny,

    Have you noticed that the modern university libraries tend to grow in size, but not in substance? For instance, people read the books in the library, then they write their own book based on what they read.

    So, like rising bread dough, the library expands with more books, but there is no more substance to it.

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