In the previous blog, I mentioned that there are several noetic effects of the Fall that have a direct impact on the quality of our American college education. In this blog, I want to address the first major issue regarding American higher education: a growing lack of mental discipline from students.
This growing lack of mental discipline is observed in three basic ways: ignorance, distractedness, and fatigue. Because of the noetic effects of the Fall, we are all subject to these issues in varying degrees. The Fall has clouded our ability to understand the world around us and has weakened the mental capacities of our mind. Therefore, to some extent, a sense of ignorance, fatigue, and distractedness is axiomatic.
However, it does appear that our intellectual ignorance is growing, despite the claims of a more enlightened society. What cultural forces have contributed to “dumbing down” of the American mind and what impacts do these have on the quality of college education?
A Common Diagnosis
Many commentators have monitored these issues and the most cited cause of this is the transition from print media to video media. Unsurprisingly, print journalists are among the loudest voices that decry our current situation and they were among the first to note that this trend has accelerated with the past decade or so because of the explosion of social media. Journalist Charles Pierce, author of Idiot America, adds his perspective:
The rise of idiot America today represents–for profit mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power–the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is an expert.
I believe that Pierce has targeted a symptom of a deeper problem in his above statement. The social media revolution in particular (and the internet revolution of the 1990s in general) has given us unprecedented access to information and news, but it has also devolved the American mind in its wake. Despite having 24/7 access to news and events, we remain ignorant of many basic things and we tend to only have a surface-level/partial understanding of the things that we know.
The age of social media has trained us to become very adept at skimming large amounts of information, but it has also deteriorated our ability to think critically. Since we are losing our critical analysis skills, this means that we are also losing our intellectual discernment. We are losing the ability to determine what is intellectually valuable, who is intellectual credible, what is trivial, and what is purely speculative. In essence, we are the generation that is “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”
Since our minds our withering away, we are now much more prone to distractedness and mental fatigue. This is not merely a commentary to the young generation, but it also applies to many of us who went through higher education before the internet revolution and have become progressively dumber due to its gradual impacts on our mind. Many of us have gotten to the point where we would agree with the modern adage of our day “Why spend time learning about history and dates when you can google it?”
A New Diagnosis
While it’s convenient to point the finger at the current generation because of its addiction to the internet, I want to ask a question that is rarely asked: Why has this change in media become so attractive? If it has been documented that the internet is dumbing us down, then why are so many still drawn to? I believe that the honest answer is that this mentality is the fruit of a long history of pragmatism and anti-intellectualism within American life. In other words, we have forgotten the primary and central purpose of formal education – the discipleship of the mind.
If we would be honest, the social media revolution (as well as the internet revolution of the 1990s) caters to what the modern American mind wants: a desire to know things and to appear intelligent without having to apply the necessary mental work.
The modern American mind seems to have a strong aversion toward deep, challenging, and penetrating thought and the media revolution gives us a way to remain constantly distracted without being focused on anything in particular. Because we have abandoned the very notion of the discipleship of the mind, it’s easy to understand why technological innovations that allow us to bypass the mind would become popular. The progression of anti-intellectual and pragmatic thought has borne their fruits in our generation. Those who thought that it was unnecessary to demand intellectual rigor and discipline from their children have produced a generation of unthinking, uncritical, and ignorant young adults.
Now, before we point the finger at the outside world, it’s important to realize that these cultural forces have also invaded young Christian minds. In many places, young Christian minds are just as vapid as their secular counterparts. How many of us have heard the expression: “Don’t give me theology. Give me something practical”? As mentioned previously, the mode of Biblical spirituality is more intellectual than mystical and the Christian faith places significant importance on the value of the mind for the purpose of godliness. However, the pragmatism of previous generations has led to the stereotype of the slow-witted, willfully ignorant Christian.
The Present Trajectory
This trajectory that we have observed has a very profound effect on the state of higher education. If we no longer value intellectual discipline as a nation and would rather google search all of our information, then it will be reflected in our colleges. In many ways, this means that the very mission of colleges and universities has changed. To put it bluntly, we don’t desire to educate people anymore… we train them to get jobs. This means that many degrees will be considered as worthless (i.e. most humanities) and many degrees will be created simply because the job exists (i.e. construction management).
We are already seeing these trends at the college level. There have been numerous reports on historic small liberal arts colleges that are closing their doors because they are “outdated”, whereas there continues to be rapid growth for for-profit institutions (who are notoriously known for producing shoddy education) and steady growth for technical schools. We continue to read reports of students with advanced degrees in humanities from respectable schools working as a barista, while trying to pay off $100K in college debt (a blog for another day). From the academic affairs side, it is truly sad and troubling to see that most of the faculty at colleges and universities are adjuncts because their work and skills aren’t important enough to hire them as tenure-track faculty. If trends continue as they are, then colleges and universities will be qualitatively no different than trade schools, which is a fundamental change in the mission of the university system.
In my view, this trajectory will not change unless our culture repents from its disposition towards the mind. The Christian faith exhorts us to seek wisdom and to turn from folly and to the extent that we abandon that foundation, we will reap its reward. The God who made our bodies also made our minds, and thus, He knows how it should be properly maintained. For this reason, education is not merely training to obtain employment – it is a means of discipling the mind. In other words, education is not merely a vocational issue, but it is an issue of morality. If our culture continues to throw off this connection between education and the discipleship of the mind, then we can only expect to continue to see the “dumbing down” of the American mind and the quality of American education.
This is also an exhortation to self-identified Christian colleges and seminaries. As Christians, part of “not conforming to this age” means that our disposition concerning the Christian mind and Christian education should dramatically change. If we abandon the call to diligently train our minds by yielding to the anti-intellectual disposition of our age, then our graduates (and our future pastors) will become intellectually vapid – much like the culture around us. Our witness to the world not only pertains to matters directly related to salvation, but it involves how Christ transforms the whole man – including the mind.
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