Everything should be made as simple as possible - but no simpler.
- Albert Einstein
Is it just me, or is there a backlash in North American education against historical and cultural awareness, being well-read, and generally being thoughtful and reflective?
Of course, the above is a leading question. Perhaps I'm confabulating two things: the generation gap and a real trend toward dumbed-down vocabularies. I will talk more about the latter at a later time. Where I'm coming from is that when I was a child and young teen, I would go out of my way to use big words. I stopped doing that (or so I thought) around the age of 15, but lately, students' standards of "big words" has changed from four syllables to two.
Edit, 11:25 CST: As zengeneral pointed out to me in a private conversation, I may also be confabulating historical and cultural awareness. e.g., "What self-respecting person of discipline X never heard of so-and-so?" is historical, while "What X-ician doesn't have a working knowledge of language L?" is cultural. To me, it's a fine line.
What I wanted to talk about today is that I also see an alarming decline in cultural awareness within technical fields. For example, I get a lot more blank looks when I refer to things that "once upon a time", ever computer science major in the USA knew, not just the "hardcore geek".
- Famous computer scientists: Dijkstra, Knuth, Hoare, Turing, Hopper - this one really surprises me, as I don't think my colleagues have been lax about educating people about such things
- Famous mathematicians and "hard" scientists: Just about anyone you care to name, though to be fair, I guess this is because I'm in a CS department.
- Famous computing and computer science research: Garey and Johnson's study of NP completeness; the Enigma project; NCSA Telnet and Mosaic
- Fundamental ideas in mathematics, CS, engineering: stochasticity (randomness) of processes, decision theory, metrics and figures of merit, sequent calculi, computability (huh?), linear independence (WTF?)
Similarly with popular culture:
- The "greats" of SF: late greats such as Heinlein, Asimov, Lieber, Norton, even Tolkien; new greats such as Orson Scott Card, Julian May, Dan Simmons
- Classic games: Sid Meier's Pirates!, pre-Civilization turn-based strategy games (I was shocked recently to learn that "Empire-style" and "Roguelike" are no longer recognized terms)
Did I just get old? Did a new generation of we-think-we-invented-everything kids spring up while I wasn't looking? (Yes, I realize that this is a continuum, and that every cohort of children are generally like this.)
Or are people trying to get dumber? I hate to sound cynical (I really do), but it feels like an assiduous, fashionable, and self-justifying trend. I just don't want to have the next two decades go down in history as the American Cultural Revolution. And of course, I could just be overreacting to the backlash against classical knowledge in CS/IT, or in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), but it's eerily familiar sometimes.