Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Erosion of Associative Learning (and Its Detrimental Effects)

Many moons ago, back before anyone had the ability to do anything, because cell phones, smartphones, the internet, email, text messaging, Facebook, personal computers and cable TV had yet to be invented, or were still in their infancy, I was a high school freshman.

I don't remember much about freshman year except for my friend Jordan being thrown out of Ms. Hall's Algebra class, and he'll probably say I have the story wrong. So this is representative, not explicitly real, but bear with me.

Let's say in my World History class I was assigned to do a report on Belgium.

Since the high school library was reserved for playing origami football, which consisted of folding sheets of paper into triangles that could be flicked for field goal attempts, this would involve riding my bike through the streets of Skokie to the library on a Saturday morning.

Along the way, I would likely stop to get something to eat and also visit Record City, to see what new albums were on the racks.

Once at the library, on route to the collection of encyclopedias at the back of the second floor, I would pass numerous books on display and on shelves, and probably be prompted to check something out, which has dual connotations in a library.

While World Book was always my encyclopedia of choice, there was also Encyclopedia Britannica, Funk & Wagnalls and several other multi-volume sets.

Even if I took merely the “B” volume of World Book back to a table, before or after I honed in on Belgium, it was certainly within reason that I might notice entries on “The Beatles” or “bees” or “baseball” or “Barcelona” or “Beethoven” or “Harry Belafonte” or “ballet” or the “Battle of Gettysburg” or “bass guitar” or—well, you get the idea.

Nowadays—and I should give the caveat that without kids of my own, my speculation certainly lacks much acute awareness of today's teenage tendencies, but is based a bit on observations of a niece and two nephews—kids doing a report on Belgium would presumably just go to Wikipedia or Google or other online resources (I was surprised to learn that World Book has an online encyclopedia for which schools can secure access) and search for “Belgium.”

And though information on millions of other subjects is instantly accessible, unless teens—or even adults—are prompted for a reason to explore something they weren't looking for, they probably won't.

Hence, while more information is more instantly available to more people than ever before in history, my sense is that this is actually resulting in people generally knowing less, not more.

Technology, in Itself, Isn't a Bad Thing, but...

Let me say, before I completely convince you that I'm a curmudgeonly technophobe, that I love modern technology, at least on a personal level.

I love the expediency that text messaging can provide. I like being able to watch entire television series with nothing more than a few clicks. I like always having “my music” with me. I like sharing my blog posts on Facebook and occasionally offering some witticism that makes me feel glib. I like using the Kindle app to read books on the train. I like buying replacement ink cartridges for my printer in 1-click. I like referencing IMDB during movies (at home).  And not a day goes by when I'm not looking something up on Wikipedia.

I also understand that most people are going to embrace the technology that is available—and the simplicity it often brings—and that young people who have grown up with such omnipresent technology aren't going to actively seek out the “analog” predecessors to the digital age.

There is not much reason I can think of to tell a 16-year-old to use a phone book, physical road map or—except for those really interested in learning the nuances of photography—a film camera. Many things that once were ubiquitous are now largely obsolete, and no tears need to be shed in the name of progress, even for us sentimentalists.
But my guess is that most 16-year-olds, unless imparted with certain passions by their parents, cannot name the four Beatles, or likely a Beatles album.
They probably don't recognize the names Sandy Koufax, Joe Louis, Milton Berle, Leonard Bernstein, Humphrey Bogart, Stan Laurel, Ian Fleming, Jonas Salk, Shirley Temple, Scott Joplin, Orson Welles or Louis Armstrong.
“So what?” you might say, “those were all people of a different age.”

Yes, but that's my point.

The heyday, if not full lifespan, of everyone I named was largely before “my time.” Yet, I'm pretty certain I knew who all of those people were before I went off to college at 17. And while I certainly came to know about many more people, topics, interests & pursuits in, and since, college, I don't know how many of those—or similar—once household names would even be recognized by the average 30-year-old today.

The Lack of Personal Passions Can Have
Not-So-Superfluous Repercussions

Before I ramble on, let me throw out a few caveats. I have always had a curiosity about entertainment, culture and creative arts, and I don't mean to imply that in order to have a fulfilling life, people—of any age—must share my passions. Though I do believe having a passion for something—astronomy, birds, fashion, architecture, tennis, the Civil War, Scrabble, etc., etc.—can not only be quite gratifying, but even emotionally nourishing.

And though I believe—without a shred of scientific research—that modern technologies have likely detrimentally impacted what I have termed “associative learning,” i.e. discovering something of interest you weren't intentionally seeking, even with this erosion seeming particularly acute among younger generations never weaned on roaming through record stores (see this somewhat related piece) or flipping through physical dictionaries, I'm not saying that the internet is solely responsible.

Also, while I don't think they provide quite the same type of peripheral information-ingesting and interest-prompting that physical encyclopedias, book/record stores, newspapers, magazines, bulletin boards, etc. once did, I should note that websites like Amazon, Pandora, Netflix, Spotify and, less actively, Wikipedia do try to turn users onto things not overtly sought.

And, theoretically, Facebook, Twitter and other web vehicles have exponentially mushroomed the concept of "word of mouth." Though I can't recall the last time I've seen anyone recommend a good book.

Hopefully, in this day of ubiquitous text messaging, status reporting and headphone wearing, people--including parents and kids--still occasionally communicate verbally...and even share interests and ideas.

For interpersonal interaction can be even more influential than encyclopedias, magazines, etc. in introducing one to possible new interests and passions.

Parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, other adults and even friends of the same age can hugely influence a child's sphere of interests, and even their interest in having interests. It's no accident that the early-twentysomething daughter of a friend of mine older than me loves Cream and Hendrix and old blues players.

My father certainly influenced my interest in baseball, Broadway musicals and more, and introduced me to Bridge on the River Kwai before I hit high school. And an aunt who always seemed to be traveling the world is undoubtedly part of why I so love to do so. Her apartment was always filled with books and travel mementos, and I directly trace my desire to visit Australia—which I did in 2001—to having seen a photo of the Sydney Opera House in one of her Time-Life books over 20 years earlier.

But, without being a parent nor having much conversation about this with those who are, my perception is that even interpersonal enlightenment seems not to burn as bright as it once did.

The reasons for this could likely fill a whole other essay, and I won't dig deep into them here. Certainly the advent of electronic communication, personal entertainment devices and myriad distractions have likely cut down on verbal interaction--and overt bonding moments--between parents and teenage children.

It's hard to imagine a dad influencing, perhaps even passively, his kids to watch, say, The Honeymooners, as it would have been 30 years ago, when reruns would've been on 1 of 10 available VHF or UHF channels, not a lot harder to find among hundreds of cable channels and infinite other viewing options.

I also think there's something to entertainment choices being so abundant, and thereby fractionalized, that fewer things become part of the mass zeitgeist, or at least noticed by a hefty portion of the population. Parents who grew up with Elvis, the Beatles, Stones and/or Dylan would be conceivably more likely to introduce their kids to their--and in some ways, everyone's music--than, say, 40-year-old parents of teenagers today. Because with the parents being teens between '86-'92, perhaps they don't feel the need to expose their children to Ratt or Extreme or The Outfield or Fine Young Cannibals or Bananarama or Milli Vanilli or whoever they were listening to. And all of those artists were in heavy rotation on MTV, and thus fairly mainstream. With music options in the internet age even far more individualized, there's likely to be even fewer common touchstones passed down from generation to generation.

How Cultural Literacy Can Provide a Psychological Foundation

Shocking, I know, but I never spent much time going to high school parties, or hanging out on Chicago's Lincoln Avenue (or other bar-besieged “hot spots”) or even dating a whole lot. Thus, I had plenty of time and some kind of "chicken or egg" inclination to read books, watch old movies, listen to—and constantly explore--music and otherwise indulge my creative curiosities.

Hypothesizing that some of the popular and/or stoner kids, frat boys and bar sceners may now be blissful, well-adjusted adults, I'm not saying that the only route to “happiness” involves exploring the various components of the “Paul is Dead” hoax from years ago. Especially as it's rather difficult to spin an MP3 backwards.

But I don't believe it's coincidence that despite not having, in the past and/or present tense, many of the
traditional trappings of happiness, success, fulfillment, etc.--popularity, romance, great jobs, wealth, a wonderful physique, big house, fancy car, spouse, children or even a pet—I have generally been pretty happy and, without meaning to suggest there is anything wrong with doing so, have never used psychiatric or recreational drugs, nor indulged much in alcohol.

Understanding that behavioral health issues have myriad underlying factors, I don't mean to over-imply that the seeming dearth of associative learning--and the resulting lack of life-sustaining pursuits and passions--is a significant factor in tragic number of suicides, substance addictions, cases of depression or even just insecurities and self-esteem issues among teens, young adults and, well, everyone.

But it's quite likely I wouldn't be here if I didn't have Bruce Springsteen or a good book or a classic movie to turn to when things weren't going so great, or even when I would've otherwise just been bored.

i.e., There's nothing wrong with Facebook in itself, but if it's all you have, life can be a bit harder to face, particularly through the tough times.

Encourage Looking Beyond the Instant to Find Other Interests

I certainly can't turn back the clock, and I'm not suggesting all households start subscribing to physical newspapers again (though it couldn't hurt) or that physical bookstores be supported by the government if no longer fiscally viable.

But though I admittedly have more consternation than answers, I do think there are ways to encourage a re-acclimation to associative learning.

With apologies to parents and teachers and librarians and others who are already actively trying to expand the “field of focus” among young people, I believe moms, dads and educators need to expressly stimulate additional interests, as the days of seeing other encyclopedia entries or perusing record stores is long gone.

Part of this whole diatribe was prompted by hearing that one of my nephews had to do a report on a famous person. I forget who his subject was, but I thought this was pretty cool, even if his point of reference was But when I asked if he would be reading his report to the class, he said no, that wasn't part of the assignment.

So instead of learning about 30 great, famous and/or interesting people, he learned about just one. The solution to this seems pretty obvious, though I'm not naïve enough to think that if kids hear a classmate's report on Charlie Parker, they're instantly going to become bebop afficianados.

But if you know a teen who loves 'The Hunger Games,' recommend that they look up Wilma Rudolph or Jesse Owens on Wikipedia.

If they like Jay-Z or whatever rap star I should be naming, suggest they seek out Grandmaster Flash, or even Gil Scott-Heron, on Spotify.

If they go to high school football games, bring up clips of Walter Payton, Jim Brown and Joe Namath on YouTube.

If they've seen Wicked on stage or liked the Les Miserables movie or watch Glee, show them Singin' in the Rain, My Fair Lady and West Side Story, or even take them to other live shows. 

If they love seeing the latest superhero blockbusters, find a Bruce Lee movie on Netflix or Amazon.

And if they spend excessive time staring into space--when not staring at their phones--download a book by Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawkins to their smartphone. 

You see, the tools to support associative learning are more readily available—and easily accessible--than ever.

What needs a good bit of updating for the digital age, however, is the power of suggestion.

If You Want to Know...Learn

In the spirit of stimulating associative learning, I thought I'd conclude this by throwing out 30 names that I'm glad I've come to know.

I'm not saying these are all people that everyone needs to know--and certainly not teenagers, as my awareness of many came much later--nor necessarily the foremost practitioners in their respective fields.

But depending on your age and interests, there may be several names below with which you're unfamiliar; as they have all enriched my existence to some degree, perhaps you'd like to learn more about some.

Each name is linked to their Wikipedia entry, with an additional "(more)" link that provides examples of their work. I've also written about many of these people here, so just use the search field at right if interested in what I had to share.

In turn, in addition to providing comments on my thoughts above, I'd be happy to hear of people and topics that I may be oblivious to, especially as my focus is heavily on practitioners of entertainment and athletic arts. And even in those fields, I'm either largely or completely unaware of any active painters, poets, sculptors, cartoonists, columnists, jazz musicians or classical composers I should be paying attention to.

So feel free to bookmark this, and return to expand your horizons--and mine--when time and inclination allow. And, just maybe, share it with your kids.

Gary Larson (more)
Norman Lear (more, "All in the Family")

1 comment:

Ken said...

Seth, I think this is your magnum opus essay. It is insightful, analytical and nuanced as well as on! Congratulations!!