In “Meet Generation Z,” I wrote that never before have we had so much access to information and so little wisdom. It would be difficult to forecast the many implications this will have on coming generations, but here is one dynamic that no longer needs imagining: The lost art of independent thinking.
According to a survey of British university admissions staff, nine out of 10 were concerned about students “not being able to think and learn independently.” More than half felt their students were “unable to carry out extended writing,” and the same number were “unable to remember facts, possessing a ‘Google it’ mentality.”
In an article on the survey in Times Higher Education, Jeremy Lewis asks: “So what is going on? Why is the most widely connected generation in the history of humankind seemingly so ill-prepared for university social and intellectual life?”
His conclusion is that the “connected” nature of their lives has left them unable to think for themselves. They know how to work the system—such as performing on exams—but do not know how to challenge ideas.
As I first wrote in “Serious Times,” the inadequacy of not being able to think for yourself cannot be overstated, particularly as this information is not simply at our demand but under our control. We live in a world where we can see only what we choose to see, hear only what we choose to hear, and read only what we choose to read.
Through the technology of cyberspace, we have the ability to filter out everything but what we wish to be exposed to, creating what University of Chicago professor Cass Sunstein has called the “Daily Me”—a self-created world where we see only the sports highlights of our favorite team, read only the issues that address our interests and engage only the op-ed pieces with which we agree. The highly lauded personalization of information protects us from exposure to anything that might challenge our thinking or make us uncomfortable.
Unchecked, we begin to follow only the echo of our own voice; or, even worse, the voice of someone else. While the media may not tell us what to think, it certainly tells us what to think about.
It brings to mind the brutally honest confession of Tony Fadell, one of the minds behind the iPod and iPhone:
I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world? Did we really bring a nuclear bomb with information that can—like we see with fake news—blow up people’s brains and reprogram them? Or did we bring light to people who never had information, who can now be empowered?
The probable answer is, “Yes,” which brings about a very specific challenge.
Many in higher education continue to grapple with how best to respond to Generation Z in colleges and universities, concerned about whether they are able to serve a generation that is highly industrious, entrepreneurial, collaborative and connected.
Perhaps they should be focusing on something else that’s even more essential, such as teaching them how to think.
This article originally appeared here and is used by permission.