Educational Meltdown?

Why are so many people hooked on screens, whether it’s Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, instant sports streaming, or something else? Instant gratification, of course. Entertainment, news, weather, or even quick short research inquiries. Convenience as well, of course, with driving directions dictated to you by Siri or some other compliant [usually, anyway] electronic voice.

I’ve already offered comments, mostly negative, on Google, and the fact that algorithm-based short popular answers amount to “Top 40” knowledge, and that Google provides knowledge with less depth than a wading pool while giving its users the illusion that they know a great deal when what they know is usually little more than a superficial gloss that they won’t retain because true knowledge is rooted in deeper study and actually knowing the underlying structure and principles.

Unfortunately, there’s another, and darker side, and that’s the impact on education. Over the past few years, I’ve talked to educators across the United States, and almost all of them are having problems with the ability of younger Americans to concentrate and to stay focused on anything not involved with a screen, preferably an interactive screen. They’re also easily “bored” and want to be “entertained” by their instructors, and the highest ratings on student surveys almost invariably go to the most entertaining professors.

This isn’t exactly new, but it’s gotten steadily worse. If memory serves me correctly, back in 1960 Fred Pohl wrote about this problem in a book called Drunkard’s Walk, although that wasn’t the main theme of the book. Pohl accurately predicted the growth of what I’d call “edutainment” where college professors can only keep the attention of students so long as they’re entertaining.

At the same time, as social media has allowed college students to withdraw more and more from day-to-day personal face-to-face interactions, they have become more and more emotionally fragile, less able to take even constructive criticism, and more and more needing constant praise and encouragement. The number needing counseling has skyrocketed.

On top of that, far too many of today’s students have trouble remembering information discussed in class or information that they’ve read, even from a screen. Again, this isn’t totally new. Cram and forget as a technique for passing classes was certainly around when I was a student, but back then some of that information was actually retained.

But this all fits in nicely with the new order, where a President can say something, and then deny it a day or two later… and no one remembers except the purveyors of “fake news,” who aren’t believed by anyone who disagrees with them.

So maybe it’s better this way, where no one remembers history, or unpleasant contradictory facts, so long as they’re entertained and everyone praises them.


The more I see in “social media” and in the news media, the more obvious it is to me that, not only do most people really not understand how politics, government, and the legal system work – or fail to work – most of them really don’t want to understand… and the media, in large part, abets that lack of understanding.

Trump, or any other President, proposes an annual budget… and immediately there are headlines about what the President is going to do…. and all sorts of reactions. No… that’s not necessarily what is going to happen. That’s what the President says he wants to happen, but it’s going to take authorizing legislation and then appropriations to change the existing way things are done. I’ve never seen a President’s budget proposal adopted without significant changes, and many Presidents have had their budgets totally ignored by Congress.

If Congress gets hung up, and it usually does, then a continuing appropriations bill will let matters proceed as they did in the previous year. But any change – positive or negative – requires authorizing and appropriations legislation by both the Senate and the House.

Likewise… for all the rhetoric… no one is going to take all guns away from the American people. The most Congress will ever do – even the most left-wing Congress possible – is to prohibit specific weapons, as it already has with machine guns and fully automatic weapons, and the number of bullets in a magazine. Anything more would require the repeal of the Second Amendment, and that isn’t going to happen. Yet a huge number of gun advocates are deeply convinced that a ban on assault weapons will lead to a ban on all weapons… or that limiting magazine sizes is tantamount to “taking their guns.”

Three years have passed since Trump promised to revitalize the coal industry. Despite relaxation of some environmental standards, there are fewer coal jobs now than then. Why? Because alternative power sources and natural gas are cheaper than coal. Net result – more pollution and fewer jobs. But there’s scarcely a word about that in the coal producing states… or anywhere else.

During the long Presidential campaign, at least two candidates have been questioned on their performance as public prosecutors… and the possibility that they prosecuted minorities too vigorously, especially in cases where later evidence showed that some of those prosecuted were unfairly convicted. That’s tragic… but the blame shouldn’t immediately fall on the prosecuting attorney. If a prosecutor ignores existing evidence, that’s a real problem, but if the prosecutor prosecutes based on the evidence presented, then they’re doing their job, and the blame for evidentiary failure should fall on the law enforcement system that provided the evidence. Prosecuting attorneys are overworked as it is, and to expect them to add detailed evidence-gathering and checking to their duties is not only unrealistic, but impractical. It’s not their job, but apparently the media and some political reporters aren’t interested in either accuracy or practicality.

Then there’s the right-wing claim that convicting Trump of the impeachment charges would overturn the election results and change government. Exactly how? As I’ve noted before, Mike Pence who is a Republican even more conservative than Trump would have been President. That fact didn’t ever seem to get raised or noticed.

I could go on and on… but…maybe… just maybe… I have trouble getting my head around how so many seemingly intelligent people don’t know or don’t want to know anything contrary to what they want to believe… even when it’s laid out in law and the Constitution… or in dollars and cents.

Hail Caesar?

After breaking pretty much every convention, and certainly the expectations of the Founding Fathers, Donald Trump has essentially declared he is Emperor, or at least as much of an emperor as is currently possible. But, I have to give him credit, he’s done things that I didn’t think were possible.

With the exception of Mitt Romney, who’s now facing potential censure by the Utah state legislature for his vote to convict Trump, Trump has turned the Republican Senate into slobbering and apologetic lap-dogs. He’s continuing to gut environmental protection, and the people who suffer the most are, paradoxically, those who support Trump. His tariffs and trade wars are hurting the farm sector, and he’s kept the support of out-of-work or underemployed and undereducated white males, as well as the evangelicals, despite having given them nothing but enormous quantities of the rhetoric they want to hear.

His supporters cite the great economy, but the vast majority of economic benefits have gone to the top 5-10% of the population. Serious and well-researched studies show that real inflation is running at 6% annually, while the “official” rate is 1.8%, or thereabout. Who cares? The stock market is at an all-time high – except all the Trump cheerleaders don’t seem to understand that the stock market is so high and the Fed can still push T-bills because there’s no other place to get any return on savings… and, again, those capital gains and dividends [now approaching an all-time low, by the way] aren’t generally going to Trump supporters, who are lucky to get 1-2% on their savings accounts, if they even have enough money to save.

Is Mitt Romney the closest we can come to a Brutus? Well, the original Brutus ended up committing suicide after Antony and Octavian defeated him in battle. While I don’t expect Mitt Romney to do that, he’s definitely committed political suicide, particularly with the Republicans.

What’s overlooked in comparing the United States republic to the Roman Republic is that the root cause of the disaster that destroyed the Roman Republic and threatens ours wasn’t a bullying strongman like Caesar or Trump, but the underlying corruption of the Senate… and just like Brutus’s assassination of Caesar, which simply resulted in one strongman replacing another, the figurative or literal assassination of Trump, or even his defeat in the next election [which is appearing highly unlikely] will not address the underlying problems of corruption, especially a Senate that’s up for sale to the highest bidder.

The “Truth” Problem

One of the “interesting” aspects of the Trump presidency is the amount of misstatements, false statements, and contradictory statements that issue from the man’s mouth and tweets. One of the more intriguing aspects of this is the polarized reaction of Americans. From what I’ve observed, the President’s supporters either endorse those statements, in many cases finding them true, or admit that many aren’t… and that they don’t care. His opponents reject pretty much anything he says either unheard or with outrage.

Obviously, people have very different ideas about “truth.” I did some research and discovered that philosophers have about as many definitions of truth as there are philosophers, and that there are quite a number of theories that attempt to define truth… or not.

I was clearly misguided; I thought the degree of truth of a statement rested on how close it came to objective verified facts.

In a way Immanuel Kant addresses this, by saying that truth “consists in the agreement of cognition with its object,” which I’d interpret as meaning that if what I see seems to agree with what the object is and does, that is truth. But that means truth is defined by my belief, not necessarily by factual objectivity.

Some philosophers at least deal with the possibility of objectivity.

According to Søren Kierkegaard, at least as I understand what he wrote, there are two kinds of “truth” – objective and subjective. Objective truths are based on facts, while subjective truths are concerned with a person’s way of being and what they believe.

These days, however, especially in the United States, there’s little distinction between these two kinds of truth, which isn’t totally surprising in a nation that all too often equates popularity with excellence and where many believe in promoting self-esteem based on words alone, and not upon achievement.

Martin Heidegger pointed out that the essence of truth in ancient Greece was lack of concealment or bringing into the open that which was previously hidden. That’s definitely not the sort of truth favored by politicians.

And then there’s Friedrich Nietzsche, who essentially rejected any objectivity in truth and claimed that the arbitrariness of human nature meant that humans defined truth as an assemblage of fixed conventions for the practical purposes of repose, security, and consistency… and possibly of gaining power, although I didn’t find that spelled out directly. But it seems to me that Trump could just claim that he was following Nietzsche.

Personally, I tend to favor Alfred North Whitehead’s observation that “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.”

And Trump is exceedingly good at treating partial truths, or even tiny shreds of truth, as whole truths that his supporters swallow whole… or, as the old saying goes, “hook, line, and sinker.”

Multiplication Effect

When I submitted my first stories to F&SF magazines in the dark ages before computers, or even word processors, manuscripts had to be typed, double-spaced, and be largely error-free. Back then, I was a decent typist, but not a great one, and even with Wite-Out [a liquid paper correcting fluid], I had to retype more pages than I ever wanted to count. But that need not to make mistakes made me much more careful.

Even so, with a typewriter I was much more fortunate than the novelists of the late eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth, who had to handwrite their manuscripts – and to do so in clear enough penmanship so that their words could be understood by the editor and the typesetter. The limits of technology required people to be much more painstaking, because the costs and the time required for redoing were much higher.

This example applies to all technology. I’ve run across clerks who can’t see at a glance that what they punched into the computerized terminal came out wrong, because no one “needs” to know addition, subtraction, and multiplication tables – or numerical estimation. Several years ago, when my publisher went to a new system, it took over two took years to get certain royalty statements unscrambled, even though I spelled out what was wrong and how to fix it out in detail within days of discovering the errors.

When my publisher went to convert older novels into ebooks, they used optical scanners and were sloppy about the proofreading. I still get emails complaining about the typos in those conversions… and some of those messages are anything but complimentary.

The university where my wife the professor teaches shortened the semester by two weeks. It was all programmed out – except that no one clearly looked into the implications because there’s no time in the schedule to conduct juries [applied musical skill performance tests]. Nor are there any performance spaces available. At present, the powers that be haven’t come up with a solution, but when they do I can guarantee that it will cause a fair amount of disruption… and likely take more time and effort than doing it right in the first place would have.

As I’ve said before, technology doesn’t automatically make anything better. What it does do is multiply what people do. If they’re good and conscientious, it allows them to do more good work. If they’re careless and sloppy… well, it multiplies the sloppiness as well… often to the point that even technology can’t easily remedy the mess… which is something that all too many technophiles want to ignore or overlook.