Reflecting Minds

If one reads about the younger generation, those in the last stages of education or in the first stages of their working life, there are a fair amount of observations. There are those who believe that generation to be the brightest and most hard-working ever and those who deplore it as shallow and filled with self-indulgence… as well as a range of comments in between. Is there any way to reconcile that divergence?

I think so. I’d claim that this generation has perfected the “reflecting mind.” They are supremely able to reflect back simple facts and known applications, as well as deal with uncomplicated or routine or mundane tasks with speed — often only with the help of technology, however. Their reflexes and hand-to-eye coordination in general surpass earlier generations.

What they don’t do well, if at all, in many cases [Warning! This is a generalization that does not apply to a small and distinguished minority] is think and analyze. Nor are most of them able to learn from the experiences of others or from aural/oral communications.

More than a few educators — far more than those in my family — have noted that listening comprehension among students is markedly down. A doctor who teaches medical school has observed that even med-school students have trouble retaining material presented orally unless they take notes.

It’s not just listening retention. I’ve noticed something else as well, as have others in various fields, but one set of examples comes to mind. Although I’m required to proof-read the galleys of my books, they also go to proofreaders as well, and I’ve noted in the past few years, more and more proofreaders are asking me to clarify references unnecessarily. For example, in a forthcoming book, a pilot refers to a vessel by name. The proofreader requested that there be more identification, and that I show that the name referred to a class of ship. That would be fine if it had been 100 or 200 pages since the name was used, but I’d given that very description in some detail a page and a half before. Another proofreader wanted clarification of a point, requesting specific information — despite the fact that that same information ended one of the key chapters. My wife the professor has noted that even “good” students often cannot remember material presented in class lectures, discussed in workshops, and included in reading assignments.

Another example comes up in the Internet Database Forum, where readers ask me questions about books. All too often the younger readers ask questions about books of mine that they have read, when the answers were already in the books. Most of the time, older readers supply the answers even before I do; so it’s not as though the material is that obscure.

This non-thinking reflexivity shows up in other parts of society as well, such as in the stock market. Recently, crude oil prices have plunged, and consequently so have the prices of energy stocks — regardless of whether the company in question is even affected by the price of crude oil. Natural gas companies have seen their prices fall, even though natural gas prices have effectively stabilized and reserve stocks are declining. Pipelines, who get paid the same for transporting petroleum products regardless of crude oil prices, have also suffered stock price declines of roughly the same magnitude as oil producers. None of that makes any economic sense, but the computers and the techies react in nanoseconds.

It does make reflexive market sense, as noted by Henry Blodgett in an article just published in The Atlantic Monthly, where he notes that (1) the vast majority of stock trading is handled by younger people, well below 40, who have no historical memory and who react quickly, pragmatically, and instantly and (2) the greatest short term profits come from reflexively following the herd. He points out that the same kind of thinking was what triggered the real estate boom and bust. This is similar to jockeying for position among the lemmings as they rush to the ocean. You do just fine until everyone goes over the cliff.

In short, brilliantly reflecting answers back in a test-taking educational system prepares our students for quick answers and short-term decision-making. But it’s not doing them — or us — much good in the long run, because planning beyond the now requires an understanding of more than the present and the surface of the past, not to mention analytical and considered decision-making. Especially when such “brilliant” short-term decisions more often than not lead to long-term disasters.