In “Automation Makes Us Dumb” (Wall Street Journal, 22-23 November 2014), Nicholas Carr posits that as today’s computers and software programs get better and better, some even learning from experience, concomitantly “Worrisome evidence suggests that our own intelligence is withering as we become more dependent on the artificial variety” (C1). Carr supports his claim with evidence from computer-dependent pilots to the computer-designed world of architects.
What Carr doesn’t mention as an affected area is higher education, and so we started wondering about the “Carr Effect” on today’s students. We have had this concern for a while; in our Teaching Applied Creative Thinking (2013), we have a chapter on the subject called “The Techtonic Shift in the Role of Technology: This Shift Changes Everything” about making technology work for the instructor, not the other way around. As we stated in that book, “Technology allows students to become information producers instead of merely information consumers . . . if the instructor is willing and able to facilitate a creative environment” (29).
Interestingly, in that chapter, we focused on the dangerous effects of technology and cited as a primary source the very same Nicholas Carr. In his The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010), Carr argues that “while the brain is very flexible (what the neurologists call neuroplasticity) long-term exposure to the Internet negatively affects our ability to think deeply and to concentrate on a topic for a prolonged period of time” (30). (Tweet this quote.)
Now what Carr is claiming is that automation doesn’t require skilled operators because the skill can be built into the machine. Are our students starting to experience what Carr cites as “skill fade” (C1)? (Tweet this quote.)
Recent administrations of the NSSE have concluded that today’s college seniors average around five hours of study per week (see Academically Adrift ). If Ericcsson (1993) is correct and it takes 10,000 hours to develop expertise in a subject, simple math reveals that these seniors, who average around eight hours/day on electronic devices, fall way short of developing necessary expertise in their field of study. Simple logic also suggests that the majority of their time on electronic devices is not being used for study. As Carr notes, “our skills get sharper only through practice, when we use them regularly to overcome different sorts of difficult challenges” (C2). As we have pointed out in previous posts, neuroscience has demonstrated the importance of frequent retrieval in order to generate deep learning. (Tweet this quote.)
Our point is not only that the technology of deep learning doesn’t exist, but that student skills are constantly eroding. And to be honest, the future looks bleaker. First, do we really think that students are going to use less technology? Second, if technology has already produced machines that learn to land 747s better than human pilots and can design wondrous buildings, how far off is a software that will write student papers completely? Simply type in a subject, add a tentative thesis, and ask the machine to find the latest research so as to write a review of literature.
Have you ever seen an episode of Jay Leno’s “Jay Walking,” Watters’ World (The O’Reilly Factor), or even Jimmy Kimmel wherein college students are asked very simple questions about Columbus’ three ships, who is Jonathan Gruber, or who fought in the American Civil War (“Silver War” as one of Charlie’s students famously named it), and the students do not make their home institutions look good? Is technology at least partially responsibility for the dumbing down of the student’s mind?
Ask Nicholas Carr, but please don’t ask a machine.
Ph.D Hal Blythe writes literary criticism to mystery stories. In addition to the eleven books he’s published with New Forums, Hal has collaborated on four books on a variety of subjects, over 1000 pieces of fiction/nonfiction, and a host of television scripts and interactive mysteries performed by their repertory company. He is currently co-director of the Teaching and Learning Center for Eastern Kentucky University. Meet Hal Blythe.