David Gelernter on Millennials and the State of Higher Education

From Isegoria America-Lite:

I’m a teacher of college students. I’m lucky to be at one of the best colleges in the world, at Yale. Our students are as smart as any in the world. They work very hard to get here. They are eager, they’re likable. My generation is getting a chip on its shoulder, we always thought we knew everything about every topic, our professors were morons, and we were the ones who were building the world.

My students today are much less obnoxious. Much more likable than I and my friends used to be, but they are so ignorant that it’s hard to accept how ignorant they are. You tell yourself stories; it’s very hard to grasp that the person you’re talking to, who is bright, articulate, advisable, interested, and doesn’t know who Beethoven is. Had no view looking back at the history of the 20th century — just sees a fog. A blank. Has the vaguest idea of who Winston Churchill was or why he mattered. And maybe has no image of Teddy Roosevelt, let’s say, at all. I mean, these are people who — We have failed.


They know nothing about art. They know nothing about history. They know nothing about philosophy. And because they have been raised as not even atheists, they don’t rise to the level of atheists, insofar as they’ve never thought about the existence or nonexistence of God. It has never occurred to them. They know nothing about the Bible. They’ve never opened it. They’ve been taught it’s some sort of weird toxic thing, especially the Hebrew Bible, full of all sorts of terrible, murderous, prejudiced, bigoted. They’ve never read it. They have no concept.

partial transcript

I agree with his assessment of the richness of post-WW2 America, as measured economically and technologically (except the social justice aspect). The middle class of today has a much higher standard of living than the middle class equivalent of 100 years ago. He’s right about the post-WW2 cultural revolution in college, the decline of Judaeo-Christian values, and how students are being brainwashed to hate Western civilization. He is right about computer science being a force for good, and how mainstream society is wrong to reject nerds and nerd culture. I disagree with his enmity towards transhumanists and singularitarians. He also exhibits the typical leftist paranoia that is to be expected about genetic engineering, demonstrating the slippery slope fallacy. His criticism of online education may be due to a conflict of interest, being that his his job may be at risk if parents stop writing those 5-figure checks. He seemed bemused by the possibility that his job may be rendered obsolete by technology.

But David Gelernter’s assessment of millennials as being ignorant may be wrong, because knowledge tends to be segmented. People have strengths and weaknesses, concentrating on the former and tending to neglect the latter. Omnibus geniuses like David Gelernter, who is both very well-versed in STEM and the humanities, are rare. To use myself as an example, when I entered college, I too was ignorant about art, history, philosophy, and theology (I still am), but knew all sorts of stuff about math. I was asking my professors difficult questions, with research I had compiled on my own time, about math that one normally doesn’t encounter until graduate school.

Maybe some millennials are experts at computer and video games; others at coding; others at sports statistics; and so on…

Also, Gelernter may be falling for the confirmation bias and cherry picking fallacy, in choosing only a few anecdotal examples that agree with his original thesis. Maybe only a handful of students don’t know who Churchill or Beethoven are, using those examples for his video instead of polling every student in his class or the entire university. That’s how those ‘man on the street’ videos work; the TV host will ask 100 random strangers an easy question and maybe only five won’t know the answer, and then in the editing room those five incorrect answers are merged to create the illusion that everyone is ignorant.

According to the Pew Research Center News IQ Quiz, millennials score only slightly lower than older demographics:

In this cutthroat economy where many college graduates are saddled with debt and have poor job prospects, it helps to have a hobby where you can make money as an entrepreneur. Millennials are smart to follow the money (STEM, video games) even at the cost of being slightly ignorant about the liberal arts. For example, John Bain, a video game reviewer on Youtube, has over a million subscribers and probably makes tens of thousands of dollars a month from endorsements and reviews. If you’re spending over a $100,000 on a piece of paper that is supposed to certify your competence, why major in something that can be outsourced to Wikipedia? If you want to learn about a certain philosophy or history concept, you go to Google, enter a relevant query, and you get hundreds of results for free. Yes, a philosophy degree does signal above-average critical thinking skills, but so does STEM – and it pays more.

America still creates – apps, Netflix, Tesla, Uber, Amazon delivery drones, iPhones, theoretical physics, artificial intelligence, 3-d printing, fuel cells…the list goes on. Maybe we’re seeing a greater focus on STEM, as more and more people realize that the liberal arts don’t pay much.

But people still care about the arts and books. The 2015 David Foster Wallace biopic, The End of the Tour, got over 7,000 reviews on IMBD. Wallace’s writing is notoriously difficult, so the fact that so many people reviewed the movie is evidence there is a large market for even the most highfalutin of art. It grossed over $2 million, which is good for an indie film.