sam_altman

Americans Are Too Busy Creating To Bother With Learning

As a high school freshman I mentioned with awe to classmate Nick Shectman that a student at my previous school (Steve Garvin) understood computers better than did the computer teacher. At risk of aging myself, Garvin could do things with Radio Shack TRS-80s that were well beyond the capabilities of the teacher. When Shectman heard this, he calmly told me that he wasn’t surprised. He went on to explain that anyone truly knowledgeable about computers wouldn’t be teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th graders about them.

Shectman comes to mind every time I read about how a high percentage of Americans can’t name the Supreme Court justices, their home state’s governor, or hear about the man-on-the-street interviews conducted by Fox that reveal all sorts of Americans as incapable of naming who the first U.S. president was, who’s in office now, and other very basic things that all Americans would seemingly know. The alarmed reaction from members of the right tends to be that public schools and colleges aren’t teaching, that Americans aren’t learning, that Americans aren’t being required to learn, or some combination of all three. The alarm is well overdone.

For one, it’s too easily forgotten that progress is defined by what we don’t know, or don’t need to know, as opposed to what we do know. Traveling back in time to the 19th century, the most crucial knowledge for the vast majority of us then was most likely agricultural. That America’s youth were gradually allowed to forget (or never learn) what used to be so important speaks to progress.

Moving into the 20th century, it’s a fair bet that most drivers in 1924 knew how to change their car’s oil, along with its flat tires. In 2024 the speculation here is that much fewer Americans know how to change their car’s oil or tires than know who the first president of the United States was. Again progress, as is it arguably progress that seemingly a lot of Americans don’t answer George Washington when the question is posed to them. Think about it.

While they may not know that Washington was the first president, they do know how to ask the question on Google. After which, it’s no reach to say that knowledge of how to use Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo is much more important to one’s career track than is knowledge of presidents and Supreme Court justices.

Back to teachers, it doesn’t insult them one iota to say that as evidenced by them being teachers, they’re not imparting knowledge that is of any use for future progress or economic growth. This rates mention as educational scholars like American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess wring their hands about college “campus sloth” and students “increasingly exempted from meaningful expectations of rigor.” About the latter, the seriously fearful Hess speculates that an alleged lack of learning amounts to a “national security” crisis. He might someday agree that 2024 was an overwrought year for him. Think back to Steve Garvin to see why.

In thinking about Garvin in the 1980s, ask what a college professor could now impart to students about science, math, engineering, or any of the other “hard sciences.” As with his computer teacher back in the 1980s, those who know the subjects well are almost assuredly not teaching it.

That they’re not should exist as a source of calm with regard to the rigor (or lack thereof) on college campuses, not to mention how many American students are choosing the hard sciences as college majors. If their intention is to create the future, what could they possibly learn in the classroom that would help them create it? Hopefully the question answers itself.

Regarding the allegedly bleak present, AI pioneer Sam Altman was admitted to what Hess would agree is an elite university (Stanford), but Hess believes young people today view “admission to elite universities as the finish line.” Worse, once at the finish line, elite universities are said to not be demanding much. Hence the “national security” risk. No, not really.

In Altman’s case, and surely he’s not unique among Stanford matriculates, he couldn’t even be bothered to complete college. And he couldn’t because he was too focused on creating an all-new future rather than learn about the past from professors with skills and knowledge that would logically be a fraction of his own. Which is the point, or should be.  

We needn’t fear what they’re teaching today, not teaching, or what they’re learning or not learning. We don’t need to simply because the Americans who drive all progress are too busy creating all-new knowledge to bother with what’s known now, and this new knowledge will similarly free the proverbial man-on-the-street from having to waste time learning things that, even if they were once useful are surely not useful now.

Republished from RealClear Markets

Author

  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

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