Symptoms of Decline?

Recent studies on brain functions and learning have determined that learning associated with increased brain function is largely dependent on three factors: concentration, difficulty, and leaving one’s “comfort zone.” The first makes perfect sense and certainly is nothing new or unanticipated. If you don’t concentrate on learning — whether facts, concepts, or new skills — you won’t learn them, plain and simple.

The second factor is a little trickier. If what you’re trying to learn is simple, you may learn it, but it won’t improve brain functioning. If it’s so difficult that you can’t even begin to understand, you won’t learn or improve brain functions, either. The optimum for learning and increasing brain function and neuron creation is trying to learn something that is very difficult for you, and at the edge of your ability, but still possible.

The third factor is that for actual learning to take place, you have to consider factors and facts that move you outside your “comfort zone,” possibly to consider other viewpoints or facts that you might otherwise reject and to examine them open-mindedly, and not with a view merely to dismiss or discredit them.

Now… what do these findings have to do with “decline,” as indicated in the blog title?

First… concentration. The growth of the computer and video culture has resulted in a generation that is having an increasingly difficult time concentrating on a single subject for any appreciative length of time. In addition, all too many schools, particularly in the lower grades, are pandering to this decreased attention span by switching subjects more frequently. Any subject — or book — that requires time and effort to master, particularly if not filled with action or gee-whiz amazing facts, is termed “boring.” Unfortunately, a great many basics of any culture and civilization could be termed boring, yet mastery of many is vital to maintain civilization and technology. Perfection in engineering requires painstaking and often tedious work, but without it, equipment, bridges, highways, and buildings all can fail… with catastrophic results, as we have been recently reminded.

Second… difficulty. Because of the “every child is wonderful” syndrome permeating U.S. culture, there’s also an increasing tendency to praise young students rather than to challenge them to the limits of their ability. There’s also a tendency to limit challenges in the classroom because it will hurt the “self-esteem” of less talented or less motivated students. While many private schools and some charter schools are not falling into this trap, all too many other schools are… and since future learning patterns are set by early learning patterns, all too many children are not only not learning, but they’re not learning how to learn.

Third… comfort zones. Our entire high-tech communication and learning systems are designed and operated to allow people to maximize remaining inside their comfort zones. Pick only the friends you want. Talk to them on your cellphone, and ignore anyone else. Pick only the music you want, and isolate yourself with your earphones. Watch only the news that caters to your biases. Study at your own pace, never under pressure. This also translates, more and more, into behavior patterns where people listen less and less to those with whom they disagree, while becoming more and more intolerant of differences. We can see this playing out in our political discourse daily.

I’ve talked to scores of teachers over the past few years, from all over the country, and most of those I’ve talked to agree that, while students are certainly as intelligent, if not more so, than their parents, a majority of them have difficulty learning anything that challenges them. They especially have difficulty in transferring skills learned in one discipline to another, or even learning from their own mistakes in writing one paper and applying what they should have learned from those mistakes to the next paper.

At a time when we live in the most complex and high-tech societies in history, the ability to learn and to keep learning becomes more and more important, and even as we have discovered what is necessary to enhance and improve that ability, as a society we’re turning away from the kind of education and discipline necessary. Almost fifty years ago, in The Joy Makers, James Gunn postulated a future society where everyone eventually retreated into their own comfortable self-reality bubble, blissfully unaware that the machines that maintained them would eventually fail and unable to comprehend that, let alone develop the expertise to continue society.

Is that where we’re headed?