A Generation So Much Dumber Than Its Parents
Speculating on education in a specialized world
By: Alex Trachsell, Senior Editor
My high school “world issues” teacher had a knack for passive aggression. He seemed to have encyclopedic knowledge of all things Canada, especially Canadian music, and was always casually disappointed that his students didn’t. I remember him mentioning the line A generation so much dumber than its parents / came crashing through the window sung by Canadian icon Gord Downie on the song “At The Hundredth Meridian.” In fact, my teacher loved that line. He repeated it all the time.
During high school, however, I couldn’t agree with that sentiment. I was in an accelerated math and science technology program, and in my senior years I branched out into the humanities and social sciences. By the end of high school, I had taken electives in law, world issues, philosophy, and history, on top of my program’s required math, science, English, and civics/careers courses. And I was good at all of it, despite spending much more time watching baseball and preparing for Friday night Dungeons and Dragons. Yep, I was a natural legend, and I certainly felt smarter than my parents. (I promise that I end up getting my comeuppance in this story.)
Then I got to university, the spawning ground of the infamous imposter syndrome, and… I felt even smarter. Trinity students know the swelling effect that the old stone, harrowed traditions, and even the College newspapers could have on our egos, but isolated from the “Trinity-effect”, my confidence in my own competence already seemed pretty high. Before my admission to Trinity, I had planned my courses with the express purpose of learning about the world and what needed to be changed in it (not a particularly modest goal). To achieve my ends I took a smorgasbord of different classes, from philosophy to sociology to political science. All these intro classes equipped me with the language I would need to get closer to understanding our social world. And I felt like I was getting closer.
Then came second year, the time when most of us chose a couple of fields in which to specialize. Slowly, as I delved into my chosen fields of economics, political science, and philosophy, slowly, my teacher’s (and Downie’s) accusation started to ring true. At first, I’d hear the ringing in the classes I was taking for my economics and political science minors. “You’ve probably done this in your stats classes,” I would often hear in 300-level economics courses; and no, to this day I don’t really know what a regression is or how to “do” one (unless we’re talking about my social skills during the pandemic). The ringing
would even surface in courses for my major, philosophy. I was repeatedly surprised at how often questions of linguistics, anthropology, and sociology (fields once part of philosophy) would emerge and be swiftly left behind (evidently my professors had grown deaf to the ringing). No longer taking the buffet of courses from first year, I had no illusions that my degree would help me understand these sociological, linguistic, and anthropological questions. It seemed like my specialization was making me dumber.
Now that I’m in fourth year, I’m feeling dumber than ever.
In reality, though, I know that’s not true. If my goal was to understand the social world, I’m undoubtedly closer to achieving that goal than I was in high school. I’ve aligned politically with everything from communism to market-loving neoliberalism, and I’m pretty happy with where I’ve settled. And by “happy” I’m not attempting to appeal to emotions! — I mean only that I think my beliefs are very responsive to what many agree to be the “facts” — facts that I wouldn’t have learned without the variety of courses I took in first year.
Does that mean that what our generation needs is a year of an undeclared liberal arts degree? Maybe, but I think a different fact of the social world (one that many fields can agree on) is at the root of the problem: specialization. The most middle-of-the-road economics textbooks will tell you that specialization is the simplification of tasks in an economy and is driven by the efficiency generated by specializing and trading with specialists in other tasks. Émile Durkheim, largely responsible for creating sociology as a specialized field distinct from philosophy, agreed with this characterization, despite his less than flattering critique of the process. Durkheim’s Division of Labour in Society is chiefly concerned with the threat specialization poses to social solidarity, since we have less in common when our occupations (how we spend most of our time) are increasingly narrow and unique. However, specialization poses a similar threat to having an educated population.
Now that one can specialize in sociology (both in university and in one’s career) without ever having studied philosophy, one ends up with a highly specialized, narrow knowledge. Conversely, one can study philosophy without having empirically studied society (in other words, “without knowing what one is talking about” — for some reason, philosophers get away with this). As the world gets increasingly specialized, our degrees and occupations reflect a smaller and smaller part of the world. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised when we feel like each generation knows less and less about the larger world. So don’t worry — it’s not just our generation that’s dumber than our parents, the next generation is going to be more specialized and much dumber than us.
Oh, sorry, that’s a bit pessimistic. Maybe making world issues mandatory in high schools might just solve the problem. In the words of Gord Downie, I don’t know what came over me / I’m too dumb for words. I don’t think I’d like it here at all / but I swear, I swear I’m on the verge.