I attended a workshop recently and the presenter offered the following pronouncement: we are living in an amnesiac culture. He argued that people today, and in particular the youth, understand the world and their lives ahistorically—without knowledge of or care for the past. As we have exported such trivial things like knowledge of the past to the external hard drives we all carry in our pockets, we circumvent the past’s ability to inform the present.
He went on to argue that this added to the corrosion of deep, interpersonal bonds among teens and twenty-somethings today. This melded with a broader national conversation, played out in newspapers and scientific journals that bemoan the plight of today’s secondary or college-level student. Hours of texting and tweeting, so it is argued, have left them ill-equipped for face-to-face conversation or sustained thought. With scores of Facebook friends (though in fact most high schoolers eschew Facebook as the refuge for the elderly), they maintain a façade of greater connectivity, but in truth their connections are threadbare and illusory. Their acquaintances may have multiplied, but their friendships have all been weakened in the process. They think they have gone farther and wider, but that is merely because they skim across the surface, mistaking breadth for depth.
Certainly, there is some truth to these assertions. Across the nation, there has been a push away from content knowledge in favor for skills training, a skepticism of the richness of the humanities and a corresponding prioritizing of the more practical STEM subjects. Furthermore, this past year, when I polled my students about their technology use, I learned that a majority of students use a tablet, phone, or computer for over three hours a day—and a shocking (at least, to me) number of them confessed that their main use of their time online was the consumption or creation of memes. Just this past week, walking on the college campus where the workshop was held, we passed by students who stood face to face and yet ignored each other in deference to the glowing screens they cradled in their hands. We are all guinea pigs in this grand experiment of ubiquitous social media, of living in the distraction economy, and none of us knows the consequences.
However, I think overgeneralizations like this do a disservice to today’s youth, who on the whole have impressed rather than depressed me, filled me with an optimistic rather than a dour outlook on our future. I do indeed encounter people with no understanding of the past. But wasn’t that always the case? There have always been those who won’t invest the mental energy to investigate the past. I can’t speak to whether the numbers of these amnesiac people are greater or lesser than before, but I can speak to the fact that I have encountered countless students with a staggering awareness of the world for ones so young. Many of the students who pass through my classroom are just as invested in their learning and their friendships as I was as a student. While they are moored to their technology in ways that do concern me (as are so many of us nowadays), they often use it to fuel their curiosity and to deepen relationships with people across the world who share common interests. Theirs is a generation of striving, and I for one am heartened as I watch them etch their mark on the world.