Cheating? Dumbing Down? Hold On a Minute

So, we provide the arena in which (and the tools with which) “cheating” loses much of its meaning, and when the young people embrace it all, they are described as lazy. Once more, here’s a “problem” that does actually exist in the world, and yet the finger of blame is again pointed at the youth who are simply employing the methods (Google, Wikipedia) and using the tools we ourselves provided them with. This digital revolution has changed everything, yet we resort to laziness ourselves when we end up namecalling the kids (lazy cheats!) who are effectively unable to opt out. We gave them the smart phones and other digital tools. We adults invented texting technology. Instead of pointing fingers, why don’t we—educators, parents, etc.—engage the kids in discussions about what was once considered cheating and is now, quite honestly, far more of a grey area now Google and Wikipedia are literally at their fingertips? Why is it a bad thing, for example, that tools such as EasyBib make the dull task of writing a bibliography so much easier?

And while we’re at it, the assumption that textspeak and the 140 character restrictions in social networks such as Twitter are necessarily “dumbing down” are often taken as self-evident when the case hasn’t been made to anyone’s satisfaction.

There are very real issues within the world of education, and some of them involve how to assimilate or utilize digital technology and social media. We can’t stuff that genie back in the bottle. So, instead of doing our best Chicken Little impersonations, let’s talk (and text) about it.

A few thoughts:

We generally react to change negatively, at least initially. Until that change becomes the new “normal”. So, let’s not overreact.

Language is not fixed. It evolves constantly, and often in different ways entirely dependent on the context. Teenagers texting will write a different form of English than, say, a political speechwriter. But that’s just it: we tend to see textspeak as an adjunct of adolescence. But that same political speechwriter, on her way home to her husband might easily text “B home soon, will p/u milk. We need n e thing else?” And those same teens will use language more akin to the formal structures of a political speech when they hand in their latest social studies assignment. I mean, the Romans abbreviated plenty of words, too. Did the finger waggers of the day look disapprovingly on them for it? Perhaps.

And back to those 140 characters. Sure, the restriction is a challenge and can be annoying sometimes. But think of the satisfaction you feel when you manage to lose a letter here, turn a “great” into a “gr8”. The very same people who decry the loss of problem-solving skills among young people are missing an example of that exact thing right before there eyes. In a sense, it’s more akin to haiku skills than an example of “dumbing down”.

Finally, we need to remember that correlation does not always equal causation. We blame the internet when we see poorly worded or grammatically challenged language, when we should be acknowledging that we didn’t previously have access to all that bad writing when the internet didn’t exist. It’s like saying American Idol has caused the number of bad singers to increase. No, we just didn’t hear all those poor singers before.

Anyway, whatever we believe, it’s worth pointing out that “self-evident” truths rarely turn out to be all that true, and we should always be on our guard for them, but also keep our minds open to all sides of the debate. And, even more importantly, continue the debate.