Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The creeping ignorance of society

I have been trying to understand how people can be intelligent and accomplished in their areas of expertise and yet be so ignorant in everything else. I have come up with at lease some clues to this particular phenomenon.

The answer lies I think in the advancement of technology. We - and by this I mean society and/or people in general - were generalists. By this I mean besides being expert in one particular area, they had to have some general knowledge of nearly everything that had to do with living and surviving where they were. Raising crops, hunting, building etc.

When the industrial revolution started and more mechanical apparatus appeared, they had to learn about that to. You simply could no just own an automobile, you had to know something about how it functioned as well. Or your tractor or electric appliance.
There were few mechanics and service personal to maintain it for you. And most could not afford to have some one else do this for them. Even the rich had to know how to fix their cars if they broke down as this generally happened far from any service facility.

People built their own houses, ran the plumbing and when electricity came in, quite often wired them as well. You had to know something about you heating system to keep from freezing in the winter.

This was even the case up through the 1950s and even part of the 1960s. It was very common for people to do at least some repair on their radios and television sets. After WWI housing was quite scarce so if you wanted or needed a house, you bought the land and built it yourself. Building even electronics form kits was very popular up through the late 1960s. Companies like Heath and Allied Electronics, Eico, Dynaco and even the Fisher Radio, H.H. Scott and Harmon Kardon all offered kit forms of the audio equipment.

But by the 1970s this all changed. People stopped having to know how to do these things. In fact servicing and/or building most things was difficult if not impossible by the 1980s. There became a bigger and bigger disconnect. There general knowledge and desire to find things out the existed also cultivated a general interest in other respects of life as well. The country, politics, medicine, science.

Thanks to technical advances we not longer need to be generalists and can focus on specifics but this I think has a down side in that we have in general learned to ignore or
at least do not wish to learn about anything that we do not want to or do not feel is relevant to or lives. This attitude seems to be advanced in higher education where one is expected to choose a very specific major.

Even within a discipline this is the case. Specific areas of engineering, computers, medicine, physics and on and on. People have become ignorant of the world around them because it is no longer required to be knowledgeable about it to function in society.


Alan said...

There is also the fact that "education" has largely become "training" and the notion of being a multi-disciplinarian has all but faded from our society.

The dangers of that in itself can not be overstated. Technocrats need ongoing reminding of the human being at the end of their policies and developments.

cmaukonen said...

Very true Alan.


That was what the undergraduate lower division was supposed to be for.

Those two early years to buttress what you were supposed to have already learned in high school.

But I will admit that the general liberal arts degree has lost its economic value.

cmaukonen said...

Well It was not supposed to have any tremendous economic value. It was supposed to increase you overall knowledge of the world and provide a foundation to build upon. Training was supposed to happen in your first years of employment. Specialization in graduate school.

Now college has become some glorified trade school.

Amike said...

Being as I spend about 40 hrs a week on a college campus and have for going on 40 years, I suppose I should kick in on this one. But I'm expecting my ride to show up and take me to my home away from home. Here's a couple of things to read to show you that everyone isn't in the glorified trade school business. And this has some good stuff on it. The problem here is similar to the problems with generalizing about the social role of religion...There, the right has the floor and the general public has no inkling that there is, indeed a left. I remember when the criticism was that colleges were hotbeds of left-wing radicalism and impractical ivory tower liberalism. Wasn't true, actually, but noise at Berkely and other places got generalized into "common knowledge". Now the generalization is directed the other was. (shrug) (sigh)... But be assured that everyone on university and college campuses isn't a technocrat chasing bucks.

cmaukonen said...

I know aMike there are some very good small liberal arts schools out there and I should have been a bit more specific. I was mostly referring to the larger state universities that seem to have become diploma mills.

I would loved to have been able to go someplace such as Brown or Amherst or Wellesley. But these seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

Amike said...

Again, I think there needs to be some context here. I don't teach at an ivy--far from it. My university began as a YMCA institute-as did Northeastern in Boston. But here's where I think the context will put some light on this.
A hundred years ago, eight and a half per cent of American seventeen-year-olds had a high-school degree, and two per cent of twenty-three-year-olds had a college degree. Now, on any given weekday morning, you will find something like fifty million Americans, about a sixth of the population, sitting under the roof of a public-school building, and twenty million more are students or on the faculty or the staff of an institution of higher learning. (My Emphasis)

Read more Or, to look at another way, in terms of percentage of the population as a whole we graduated more history majors last year than the entire number of graduates during the hey-day of the liberal arts. And that's with only 6% of the graduating class graduating with a degree in history.

So what may seem like "creeping ignorance" can as easily be interpreted as the opposite. When college was for the elite, it made no difference whether one went to college or not--even for "professions". Lincoln practiced law with less than an elementary school education in formal terms. I'm not surprised that persons from the class which has to work for a living has chosen degrees in fields like business or accounting... they can't live on an endowment from Grandpa Gotbucks.

I'm also not surprised that they may have attitudes toward "intellectuals" which mirror Spiro Agnew's. The Buckleys and Vidals of the learned elite have given them ample reason to do so. According to them, those practical men and women didn't belong in colleges and universities in the first place.

So I'd say compare these new Collegiates to those whose aspirations took them into high school in the 1920s and 1930s. My dad went to high school to get a better job and not be stuck with the kind of opportunities available to my grandfathers with their eighth grade educations.

Alan said...

Amike - in that context, would you care to comment on, say, the communication skills (including both thinking and language use) of today's college students compared with those of a Civil War-era correspondence between an ordinary member of the enlisted ranks and his family back home?

Barth said...

Once it became accepted that Gerald Ford and then Ronald Reagan were qualified for the presidency, the idea that anybody could do it set in.