The Magazine

Misinformation Age

More computers, less learning.

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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We are supposed to be living in the "Information Age." If we are, exactly what topic are people so well--informed about? Video games? The same experts who know for sure that we are in mid--Information Age take it for granted that young people are colossally uninformed. And young people are more likely than anyone else to spend long hours beating their way happily through the dense, trackless electronic jungle. They grow up with computers, the web, cell phones, hundreds of cable TV channels, and digital electronics in countless forms.

Consider the Information Age in the context of the dominant news story of recent years, the Iraq war. You can be superbly well--informed about Iraq if you follow the right websites. On the other hand, the Bush administration, the Democrats, and all the world's intelligence services were poorly informed about Iraqi WMDs. (Although every few months, the rumor pops up that they were all relocated to Syria. Is it true? We don't have that information.) Most people who visit Iraq nowadays remark when they get home that Americans are poorly informed about the situation on the ground. And leading Democrats presuppose a second layer of misinformation: When they accuse the administration of misleading the nation about WMDs, they assume that the public is badly informed about the extent to which the Democrats (along with everyone else) were badly informed. It's true that Iraq was and is an Information Age war. The coalition war effort would have been radically different without networks and digital electronics. But many people have not been so informed.

Returning to young people (the cultural climate affects young people most)-either the Information Age is real, and they would be even less well--informed without it (which is hard to picture); or it's a fraud and has failed to help or actually made things worse. The more carefully we ponder the facts, the more unsettling they become. And this issue is important. We can't abolish the Cybersphere, and few people would choose to. But that doesn't mean we have to take it as it is and like it and keep quiet. There is remarkably little commentary on the Cybersphere beyond consumer--level recommendations. You'd have thought Cybersphere criticism would be nearly as well developed as literary criticism by now. It isn't.

So what's the truth about the Information Age?

We can all agree that American public schools are a joke, and are more responsible than anything else for rising levels of public ignorance. Endless illustrations are available, but take just one for concreteness. Consider the contrast between mathematics and history. History teaching has been raked by heavy fire from ed--school ideologues for several decades. College--preparatory math classes have been relatively undamaged. In consequence, serious math teaching has made no progress but has (at least) held its own. History teaching has fallen to pieces.

College--preparatory math had been making steady progress. Before World War II, most incoming college freshmen weren't prepared for calculus. By the 1960s, good colleges had cut out teaching any math course below calculus. In the late '60s, math--teaching moved a step higher: High schools started teaching calculus, and smart college freshmen routinely enrolled in second--year calculus courses. Since then, progress has stopped. Today most public high schools offer essentially the same math sequences they did a generation ago.

History has (predictably) been much harder hit. In the early 1970s, many good students took a year--long college--level ("Advanced Placement") survey course in modern European history, and another in American history. Since then, modern educational techniques have worked an outright miracle. Today most incoming college students don't seem to know any history at all. (Except what they've learned by themselves, or their parents have taught them.) The high school history textbooks favored by public schools here in southern Connecticut are pathetic. Their left--wing bias is blatant; the authors don't even try to hide it. Maybe they don't even see it. Recently, a graduate student at a major research university told me that she knew doctoral candidates in humanities departments who had never heard of (for example) Devil's Island and the Dreyfus Affair. They will soon be turned loose on the world as aspiring young scholars.

It's unfair to expect computers and the web to fix what the schools have broken. It is fair to ask whether the digital jungle has made things better or worse.