Bryan Caplan  

Try This on Your Favorite Curmudgeons

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If your holiday season was anything like mine, you've heard some elderly relatives denounce the "kids these days."  "They don't read the newspaper!"  "They don't know when World War II ended!"  "How can democracy survive with this level of ignorance?!"

My latest response to these doom-sayers is to ask them two questions:

1. What year did the Berlin Wall come down?

2. What year did the Soviet Union collapse?

So far, I've found that despite their self-righteous daily newspaper reading, my older relatives can't answer these questions correctly.  Indeed, they can't get within five years of the most important historical events in the second half of the 20th century. 

Question: Can the curmudgeons in your family do any better?  I'm very curious to hear your answers.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Paul Sand writes:

Being the only curmudgeon in my family: I got the Wall-fall right, missed the Soviet Union's demise by a year. (Although in my defense, I'm such a paranoid anti-Commie, I probably didn't really believe the USSR was gone until the following year.)

Caliban Darklock writes:

I think a quite accurate criticism would be that these are not American events. Nobody is expecting the kids these days to know when the Falklands war occurred; that was distinctly relevant to Argentina and Britain, but much less so to America.

Not that I have a better test or anything.

David W writes:

Not American events? How do you figure that? I thought it was generally agreed those represent the American victory in the Cold War.

Mercutio.Mont writes:

What dates did the curmudgeons give, Bryan?

Seems easy to remember that the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union fell in the late 80s / early 90s... did they answer the mid nineties or early eighties or something?

Jeff H. writes:

Perhaps not curmudgeons, but I've come across several who couldn't name the treasury secretary.

Jody writes:

FWIW, I know them both. Then again, I'm not a curmudgeon (32) and I read the paper (but not as much as I did before grad school - it's a time issue which didn't improve after defending).

That being said, I'm more surprised by Jeff's observation of Paulson's anonymity.

Les writes:

Bryan: a serious answer to your question would require searching for a well-designed research survey on these questions.

Anything less is simply useless anecdotal opinion, of no value.

Joshua writes:

I got the Wall and was a year late on the Soviet Union.

And, while alive at the time, I was too young to remember either!

(But then I'm a 20-year-old nerd and news junkie who reads economics blogs, so I'm not exactly part of an average sample.)

Babinich writes:

Bryan says:

"If your holiday season was anything like mine, you've heard some elderly relatives denounce the 'kids these days.'" 'They don't read the newspaper!' 'They don't know when World War II ended!' 'How can democracy survive with this level of ignorance?!'"

The argument can be made that today's generation has far less a regard for history, hard work, and morals than past generations have.

As far as this generation is concerned, I had an interesting conversation with a high school mathematics teacher. He told me that a student in his class could not tell time when looking at a traditional (hour and minute hands) clock.

Clearly, this reality does not indict an entire generation but his point was that today's generation tends to rely on technological devices rather than intrinsic knowledge.

Now ask yourself, is the hard work put into the process of learning problem solving, logic, facts, and figures less productive than not exerting the effort to master the above because one can use Google to find an answer?

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

If you want to see pathetic examples of a lack of basic knowledge, watch Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" segments. He may show you the worst of the worst, but I think he makes his point.

DK writes:

isn't telling the time on a traditional clock MORE reliant on a technological device than reading the time in numbers? it's a bit like learning to read in morse code instead of letters.

Babinich writes:

"isn't telling the time on a traditional clock MORE reliant on a technological device than reading the time in numbers? it's a bit like learning to read in morse code instead of letters."

I am not sure what you point is. My point is that if a person cannot tell time by looking at a traditional clock that is a problem.

Relying on a GPS system to get you "there" without fail is a problem. Not being able to balace a checkbook or structure a budget is a problem.

Not knowing how to solve basic mathematical word problems (interest, measurement) is a problem.

Technology will never supplant learning and knowledge.

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