A Philosopher's Blog

Dating III: Age is Not Just a Number

Posted in Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on August 19, 2016

Being a philosopher and single again, I have been overthinking the whole dating thing. I suspect that those who give it little or no thought do much better; but I am what I am and therefore I must overthink. An interesting adventure in interaction provided me with something new, or rather old, to think about: age and dating. In this scenario I was talking with a woman and actually had no intention of making any overtures or moves (smooth or otherwise). With some storytelling license in play, we join the story in progress.


Her: Flirt. Flirt. Flirt.

Her: “So, what do you do for work?” Flirt.

Me: “I’m a philosophy professor.”

Her: “At FSU?” Flirt.

Me: “No, literally across the tracks at FAMU.”

Her: “When did you start?” Flirt.

Me: “1993.”

Her: “1993…how old are you?”

Me: “Fifty.”

At this point, she dropped out of flirt mode so hard that it damaged the space-time continuum. Windows cracked. Tiny fires broke out in her hair. Car alarms went off. Pokémon died. Squirrels were driven mad and fled in terror, crying out to their dark rodent gods for salvation. As my friend Julie commented, I had “instantly gone from sexable to invisible.”  Here is how the conversation ended:

Her: “Um, I bet my mother would like you. Oh, look at the time…I have to go now.”

Me: “Bye.”


While some might have found such an experience ego-damaging, my friends know I have an adamantine ego. Also, I am always glad to get a good story that provides an opportunity for some philosophical analysis. What struck me most about this episode is that the radical change in her behavior was due entirely to her learning my age—I can only infer that she had incorrectly estimated I was younger than fifty. Perhaps she had forgotten to put in her contacts. So, on to the matter of age and dating.

While some might claim that age is just a number, that is not true. Age is rather more than that. At the very least, it is clearly a major factor in how people select or reject potential dates. On the face of it, the use of age as a judging factor should be seen as perfectly fine and is no doubt grounded in evolution. The reason is, of course, that dating is largely a matter of attraction and this is strongly influenced by preferences. One person might desire the feeble hug of a needy nerd, while another might crave the crushing embrace of a jock dumb as a rock. Some might swoon for eyes so blue, while others might have nothing to do with a man unless he rows crew. Likewise, people have clear preferences about age. In general, people prefer those close to them in age, unless there are other factors in play. Men, so the stereotype goes, have a marked preference for younger and younger women the older and older they get. Women, so the stereotype goes, will tolerate a wrinkly old coot provided that he has sufficient stacks of the fattest loot.

Preferences in dating are, I would say, analogous to preferences about food. One cannot be wrong about these and there are no grounds for condemning or praising such preferences. If Sally likes steak and tall guys, she just does. If Sam likes veggie burgers and winsome blondes, he just does. As such, if a person prefers a specific age range, that is completely and obviously their right. As with food preferences, there is little point in trying to argue—people like what they like and dislike what they dislike. That said, there are some things that might seem to go beyond mere preferences. To illustrate, I will offer some examples.

There are white people who would never date a black person. There are black people who would never date anyone but another black person. There are people who would never date a Jew. There are others for whom only a Jew will do. Depending on the cause of these preferences, they might be better categorized as biases or even prejudices. But, it is worth considering that these might be benign preferences. That, for example, a white person has no racial bias, they just prefer light skins to dark skins for the same sort of reason one might prefer brunettes to blondes. Then again, they might not be so benign.

People are chock full of biases and prejudices and it should come as no surprise that they influence dating behavior. On the one hand, it is tempting to simply accept these prejudices in this context on the grounds that dating is entirely a matter of personal choice. On the other hand, it could be argued that such prejudices are problematic even in the context of dating. This is not to claim that people should be subject to some sort of compelled diversity dating, just that perhaps they should be criticized.

When it comes to apparent prejudices, it is worth considering that the apparent prejudice might be a matter of innocent ignorance. That is, the person merely lacks correct information. Assuming the person is not willfully and actively ignorant, this is not to be condemned as a moral flaw since it can be easily fixed by the truth. To go back to the food analogy, imagine that Jane prefers Big Macs because she thinks they are healthy and refuses to eat avocadoes because she thinks they are unhealthy. Given what she thinks, it is reasonable for her to eat Big Macs and avoid avocadoes. If she knew the truth, she would change her eating habits since she wants to eat healthy—she is merely ignorant. Likewise, if Jane believed that black men are all uneducated thugs, then it would seem reasonable for her to not to want to date a black man given what she thinks she knows. If she knew the truth, her view would change. As such, she is not prejudiced—just ignorant.

It is also worth considering that an apparent prejudice is a real prejudice—that the person would either refuse to accept facts or would still maintain the same behavior in the face of the facts. As an example, suppose that Sam thinks that white people are all complete racists and thus refuses to even consider dating a white person on this basis. While it is often claimed that everyone is racist, it is clear that not all white people are complete racists. As such, if Sam persisted in his belief or behavior in the face of the facts, then it would be reasonable to condemn him for his prejudices.

Finally, it might even be the case that the alleged prejudice is actually rational and well founded. To use a food analogy, a person who will not eat raw steak because she knows the health risks is not prejudiced but quite reasonable. Likewise, a person who will not date a person who is a known cheater is not prejudiced but quite rational.

The question at this point is where does age fit in regard to the above considerations. The easy and obvious answer is that it can fall into all three. If a person’s dating decisions are based on incorrect information about age, then they have made an error of ignorance. If a person’s decisions are based on mere prejudice, then they have made a moral error. But, if the decision regarding age and dating is rational and well founded, then the person would have made a good decision. As should be suspected, the specifics of the situation are what matter. That said, there are some general categories relating to age that are worth considering.

Being fifty, I am considering these matters from the perspective of someone old. Honesty compels me to admit that I am influenced by my own biases here and, as my friend Julie has pointed out, older men are full of delusions about age. However, I will endeavor to be objective and will lay out my reasoning for your assessment.

The first is the matter of health. In general, as people get older, their health declines. For example, older people are more likely to have colon cancer—hence people who are not at risk do not get colonoscopies until fifty. Because of this, it is quite reasonable for a younger person to be concerned about dating someone older—that person is more likely to get ill. That said, an older person can be far healthier than a younger person. As such, it might come down to whether or not a person looks at dating option broadly in terms of categories of people (such as age or ethnicity) or is more willing to consider individuals who might differ from the stereotypes of said categories. Using categories does help speed up decisions, although doing so might result in missed opportunities. But, there are billions of humans—so categories could be just fine if one wants to narrow their focus.

While an older person might not be sick, age does weaken the body. For example, I remember being bitterly disappointed by a shameful 16:28 5K in my youth. Now I have to struggle to maintain that pace for a half mile. Back then I could easily do 90-100 miles a week; now I do 50-60. Time is cruel. For those who are concerned about a person’s activity levels, age is clearly a relevant factor and provides a reasonable basis for not dating an older (or younger) person that is neither an error nor a prejudice. However, an older person can be far more fit and active than a younger person—so that is worth considering before rejecting an entire category of people.

Life expectancy is also part of the health concerns. A younger person interested in a long term relationship would need to consider how long that long term might be and this would be quite rational. To use an obvious analogy, when buying a car, one should consider the miles on it. Women also live longer than men, so that is a consideration as well. Since I am fifty-year-old American living in Florida, the statistics say I have about 26 years left. Death sets a clear limit to how long term a relationship can be. But, life expectancy and quality of life are influenced by many factors and they might be worth considering. Or not. Because, you know, death.

The second broad category is that of interests and culture. Each person is born into a specific temporal culture and that shapes her interests. For example, musical taste is typically set in this way and older folks famously differ in their music from younger folks. What was once rebellious rock becomes a golden oldie. Fashion is also very much a matter of time, although styles have a weird way of cycling back into vogue, like those damn bell bottoms. Thus people who differ in age are people from different cultures and that presents a real challenge. An old person who tries to act young typically only succeeds in appearing absurd. One who does not try will presumably not fit in with a younger person. So, either way is a path to failure. Epic failure.

There is also the fact that interests change as a person gets older. To use some stereotypes, older folks are supposed to love shuffleboard and bingo while the youth are now into extreme things that would presumably kill or baffle old people, like virtual reality and Snapchat. Party behavior also differs. Young folks go to parties to drink, talk about their jobs and get laid. Older folks go to parties to drink, talk about their jobs and get laid. These are radical differences that cannot be overcome. It could be countered that there can be shared interests between people of different ages and that a lack of shared interests is obviously not limited to those who differ in age. The response is that perhaps the age difference would generally result in too much of a difference in interests, thus making avoiding dating people who differ enough in age rational and reasonable.

The third broad category is concerns about disparities in power. An older adult will typically have a power advantage over a younger adult and this raises moral concerns regarding exploitation (there is also a reverse concern: that a younger person will exploit an older person). Because of this, a younger adult should be rightly concerned about being at a disadvantage relative to an older person. Of course, this concern is not just limited to age. If the concern about power disparity is important, then it would also apply to disparities in education, income, abilities and intelligence between people in the same age group. That said, the disparities would tend to be increased with an age difference. As such, it is reasonable to be concerned about this factor.

The fourth broad category is what could be called the “ick factor.” While there is considerable social tolerance for rich old men having hot young partners, people dating or attempting to date outside of their socially defined age categories are often condemned because it is seen as “icky” or “gross.” When I was in graduate school, I remember people commenting on how gross it was for old faculty to hook up with young graduate students. Laying aside the exploitation and unprofessionalism, it did seem rather gross. As such, the ick argument has considerable appeal. But, there is the question of whether the perceived grossness is founded or not. On the one hand, it can be argued that grossness is in the eye of the beholder or that grossness is set by social norms and these serve as proper foundations. On the other hand, it could be contended that the perception of grossness is a mere unfounded prejudice. On the third hand, the grossness could be cashed out in terms of the above categories. For example, it is icky for an unhealthy and weak rich man to date a hot, healthy young woman with whom he has no real common interests (beyond money, of course).

Fortunately, this is a problem with a clear solution: if you do not die early, you get old. Then you die. Problem solved.


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Age of Awkwardness

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2015

Some ages get cool names, such as the Iron Age or the Gilded Age. Others are dubbed with word mantles less awesome. An excellent example of the latter is the designation of our time as the Awkward Age. Since philosophers are often willing to cash in on trends, it is not surprising that there is now a philosophy of awkwardness.

Various arguments have been advanced in support of the claim that this is the Awkward Age. Not surprisingly, a key argument is built on the existence of so many TV shows and movies that center on awkwardness. There is a certain appeal to this sort of argument and the idea that art expresses the temper, spirit, and social conditions of its age is an old one. I recall, from an art history class I took as an undergraduate, this standard approach to art. For example, the massive works of the ancient Egyptians is supposed to reveal their views of the afterlife as the harmony of the Greek works is supposed to reveal the soul of ancient Greece.

Wilde, in his dialogue “The New Aesthetics” considers this very point. Wilde takes the view that “Art never expresses anything but itself.” Naturally enough, Wilde provides an account of why people think art is about the ages. His explanation is best put by Carly Simon: “You’re so vain, I’ll bet you think this song is about you.” Less lyrically, the idea is that vanity causes people to think that the art of their time is about them. Since the people of today were not around in the way back times of old, they cannot say that past art was about them—so they assert that the art of the past was about the people of the past. This does have the virtue of consistency.

While Wilde does not offer a decisive argument in favor of his view, it does have a certain appeal. It also is worth considering that it is problematic to draw an inference about the character of an age from what TV shows or movies happen to be in vogue with a certain circle (there are, after all, many shows and movies that are not focused on awkwardness). While it is reasonable to draw some conclusions about that specific circle, leaping beyond to the general population and the entire age would be quite a leap—after all, there are many non-awkward shows and movies that could be presented as contenders to defining the age. It seems sensible to conclude that it is vanity on the part of the members of such a circle to regard what they like as defining the age. It could also be seen as a hasty generalization—people infer that what they regard as defining must also apply to the general population.

A second, somewhat stronger, sort of argument for this being the Awkward Age is based on claims about extensive social changes. To use an oversimplified example, consider the case of gender in the United States. The old social norms had two fairly clearly defined genders and sets of rules regarding interaction. Such rules included those that made it clear that the man asked the woman out on the date and that the man paid for everything. Now, or so the argument goes, the norms are in disarray or have been dissolved. Sticking with gender, Facebook now recognizes over 50 genders which rather complicates matters relative to the “standard” two of the past. Going with the dating rules once again, it is no longer clear who is supposed to do the asking and the paying.

In terms of how this connects to awkwardness, the idea is that when people do not have established social norms and rules to follow, ignorance and error can easily lead to awkward moments. For example, there could be an awkward moment on a date when the check arrives as the two people try to sort out who pays: Dick might be worried that he will offend Jane if he pays and Jane might be expecting Dick to pick up the tab—or she might think that each should pay their own tab.

To use an analogy, consider playing a new and challenging video game. When a person first plays, she will be trying to figure out how the game works and this will typically involve numerous failures. By analogy, when society changes, it is like being in a new game—one does not know the rules. Just as a person can look for guides to a new game online (like YouTube videos on how to beat tough battles), people can try to turn to guides to behavior. However, new social conditions mean that such guides are not yet available or, if they are, they might be unclear or conflict with each other. For example, a person who is new to contemporary dating might try to muddle through on her own or try to do some research—most likely finding contradictory guides to correct dating behavior.

Eventually, of course, the norms and rules will be worked out—as has happened in the past. This indicates a point well worth considering—today is obviously not the first time that society has undergone considerable change, thus creating opportunities for awkwardness. As Wilde noted, our vanity contributes to the erroneous belief that we are special in this regard. That said, it could be contended that people today are reacting to social change in a way that is different and awkward. That is, this is truly the Age of Awkwardness. My own view is that this is one of many times of awkwardness—what has changed is the ability and willingness to broadcast awkward events. Plus, of course, Judd Apatow.



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Athletes & Age

Posted in Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on July 16, 2009

Having crossed the 40 year mark a few years ago, I have been pleased to see various “older” athletes doing very well in sports. Naturally, Lance Armstrong and Dara Torres have been the ones to get the most attention, but there are many non-professional athletes who are doing quite well at “advanced” ages.

Of course, “advanced” age is a relative thing. In sports, people in their 30s are considered “old”, but in other aspects of life they are considered young. While the idea that 30 and 40 year old folks can still compete against the kids might be surprising, it is certainly surprising that some folks in their 50s and 60s can still give the kids quite a bit of competition. For example, some very good runners are in their 50s and up-and they still compete well against the 20 somethings. This is especially true in endurance events. While youth has speed and energy, old age has endurance and experience and these mean a great deal in endurance events such as biking and marathon running.

One reason why people are staying competitive longer is because of advances in medicine, training techniques, and other factors that have also had the general effect of enabling people to live longer.

One of the most important reasons why older folks are staying competitive longer is probably psychological. Back in the day, people would compete in high school, then college and a rare few would go pro. But even the pros would stop competing after a while. When people grew up, they mostly stopped being active athletes.  These days, people are more inclined to stick with sports as they age, thus extending their competitive life span. In short, the older folks are competing well in part because they have stayed in the competition rather than hanging up their shoes.

Although my quadriceps tendon injury has kept me out of the running competition since the end of March, my plan is to get back to racing this Fall or winter. Of course, at this point I am just walking (at about 75% my old speed). But, it is just a matter of time before I’ll be back in the race again-older, but still competing.

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Will Obama Win?

Posted in Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 18, 2008

Obama recently promised his donors that he will win. Obviously, no candidate is going to tell the people who have given him (or her) money that he (or she) is going down in political flames. No doubt his donors have faith in him (or are at least hedging their bets). What remains to be seen is whether he can keep his promise when election day rolls around.

Predicting a candidate’s chances is a tricky thing. National politics is a complex subject and the relevant factors shift and change constantly. However, it is possible to provide a general assessment of his chances by considering his strengths and weaknesses. Interestingly enough, many of Obama’s strengths and weaknesses are the same.

First, Obama is young. While he is older than I am (so I rather like hearing people say how young he is), he is considered somewhat young for a Presidential candidate. This can help him or hurt him. On the positive side, youth is valued in our culture and many Americans look back favorably on another young Democrat (Kennedy, of course). Some Americans also seem to be looking for a President who has vitality and energy and Obama has both. This can give him an edge over the much older McCain especially among the younger voters On the negative side, many voters prefer an older leader. The stereotypical image of a President is often of an older man and this seems to indicate a bias towards older candidates. The fact that Obama is spoken of as being young shows that he is up against this perception. While it is close, I think that the country is leaning more towards youthful energy and I think this will help Obama.

Second, Obama is not a Washington insider. While he is a senator, he has not been one for long and is not perceived as part of the old system. On the positive side, this helps to separate him from the old system and the dismal approval ratings of both the President and Congress. Americans seem to be eager for a change from the old Washington and Obama clearly is in a position to deliver. On the negative side, as much as people claim to dislike Washington insiders, they seem very inclined to keep supporting them. After all, to become a Washington insider a politician has to be re-elected regularly. Thus, if Americans really loathed Washington insiders and it strongly impacted their voting behavior, then there would not be many (or any) Washington insiders. I think this outsider approach (which McCain is also trying to tap into) will help him, provided that the approval ratings for the insiders remains low.

Third, Obama does not have very much experience. He is young and his national political experience is limited to being a senator for a short while. On the plus side, this lack of experience separates him from the failures of the past. It also means that there is little political dirt that can be dug up on him and that he is far less beholden to those with whom he has become entrenched. These factors can help him in the polls. On the minus side, a lack of experience makes him an unknown quantity and people tend to be a bit wary of the unknown. Further, the Presidency is not generally regarded as an “entry level” position. Like employers, voters generally seem to prefer someone with experience. McCain has an edge in this regard, although it makes it harder for him to claim that he is not part of the Washington establishment. Somewhat ironically, when McCain attacks the Washington establishment he seems to help Obama. While McCain used to be regarded as an outsider and a maverick, that image seems to have worn down by the necessity of appealing to the party base. Overall, I think that this lack of experience will help Obama, provided that he can keep playing on the past failings of experienced politicians.

Fourth, Obama is liberal. On the positive side, many voters are liberal and much of his “liberal agenda” consists of causes that are currently very popular such as health care reform and ending the war in Iraq. Naturally enough, the catastrophic failures of the Bush administration are helping Obama out a great deal here. Neo-conservatism and conservatism are no longer as well regarded as they were in the past. McCain is stuck in the unenviable position of having to be conservative to appease the Republican base while distancing himself from the failures of the Bush administration. On the negative side, there are still many people who are conservatives and while they are not very happy with Bush, they have no desire to vote Obama into office. If McCain can convince voters that he is a true conservative while also making them believe that he will not be serving Bush’s third term, then Obama will have quite a fight on his hands. I think that some Democrats are making the mistake of thinking that unhappiness with Bush means support for Obama. This need not be the case.

Fifth, Obama is male and is not Hillary Clinton. On the positive side, all Presidents have been male and the stereotype for the President is also male. On the negative side, there are some female voters who will remain die hard Hillary supporters and might not support Obama. While there are rumors that some will turn to McCain out of spite, this seems unlikely. Even if it does happen, the impact will be minimal. The main worry is that such voters will stay at home or write in Hillary’s name on the ballot. While these will not be votes for McCain, they will be lost votes for Obama. I think that while a few hard core Hillary supporters will give into their spite, most will fall in behind Obama.

Sixth, Obama is Christian. On the positive side, many Americans claim to be Christian and many of them seem to have a positive view of having a Christian President. On the negative side, some people still think Obama is a Muslim and this could lead to them not voting for him. However, I think that the people who would be inclined to believe that he is Muslim probably would not be voting for him anyway. As such, this factor is not a critical one. Overall, his professed Christianity will help him a bit.

Seventh, Obama lived outside of the United States. On the positive side, this means that he has had exposure to non-American culture and this can help him. On the negative side, this has provided fuel for attacks against him that attempt to portray him as foreign or exotic. As with the Muslim attack, I think that these attacks work best with people who would not vote for him anyway. As such, the impact of this will be minimal, although it has and will generate a lot of noise.

Eighth, Obama is regarded as being black. On the positive side, this seems to be helping him with some key demographics. Obviously enough, many commentators attribute his success with African-Americans and other minorities to this factor. Also, some claim that liberal white also support him because of this factor (of course, they would support a white Democrat as well). Minority votes will obviously be important in the election and Obama seems to have an edge here. On the negative side, racism is still a factor in the United States and this will impact voting behavior. McCain is obviously no racist, but no doubt some people will vote for him because he is white and Obama is black. It is difficult to predict how much of an impact race will have in terms of people not voting for Obama. Obviously, black candidates can get elected in the United States (Obama is, after all, already a senator). But it remains to be seen whether a black person can win a Presidential election now. I suspect that the race factor might balance out. While some will not vote for him because he is black, some will vote for him because he is black. Others will vote for or against him based on other factors.

Much could change between now and November, but I suspect the election will be a fairly close one. I am inclined to think that Obama will win, but only a fool picks a winner before the starting gun has even been loaded.


Posted in Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on August 11, 2008

Most sports, such as running, divide the competitive field by age. This means that if you are, for example, competing in a road race, then you could place in your age group even if you did not place overall. This approach is based on the fact that a person’s abilities vary with age. Most age groups are just designated by number ranges (15-19, for example) some of them get actual names.

If you are a competitive athlete, when you turn 40 you get classified as a  master (at least in many sports). This is, on the whole, much nicer than being called “old.” A special name is granted for this age because, presumably, when a person hits forty their age is significantly impacting his/her performance. Some events add the Grand Master level and there are rumors of Supreme Grand Masters. Some speak of a rare category known as “damn, you’re not dead yet?” But these rumors have not been confirmed.

In the past, it was generally accepted that hitting 40 was the end of a person’s glory days in most sports. In some sports (such as gymnastics), the end is much earlier. However, there is some evidence that this is changing.

While I do not have the time or desire to do a proper research project, I have noticed that runners 40 and over have been doing quite well in running events.  At this moment, the most famous masters division athlete in the world is Dara Torres. As the media has been pointing out, she is competing with women (girls in some cases) twenty or more years younger. Even her swimming goggles are older than many of the women she is swimming against. She recently won a silver medal, thus setting a new record in terms of age.

Given that people are supposed to get slower and weaker with age, people might be wondering why she is doing so well in particular and why masters athletes are making good showings these days.

In Ms. Torres’ case, she has excellent physiology and body type.  She has kept up with her training and this serves to diminish the draining power of time. Further, she has professional trainers and support people. Also, she has that unquantifiable factor that athletes recognize: the will.

In terms of the general matter, one factor that contributes to the current good showings by older athletes is that they often have been in their sports a long time and have maintained themselves. Staying fit has numerous physiological benefits and one of these is that an active body does not age the same way as an inactive body. From a physiological standpoint, an active body is biologically younger than a non-active one. Hence, an athlete who stays active can stay competitive for quite some time because her/his body is effectively younger than the calendar age.

Another factor is that sports medicine in particular and health sciences in general have made advances. As such, people are better maintained and thus are able to stay in the sport longer (and be in better shape while doing so).

A third factor is that people seem to have different attitudes about sports now. When I was a kid, it was rare to see “older people” being really active. Kids did sports in high school and perhaps college. But, after that, people seemed to settle down to less active live styles. These days, people seem to be more inclined to stay active and remain competitive. This is especially true in running. There are people 70 and above who still race and people in their 50s are still able to compete effectively with many of the young folks. In my own case, I’m not as fast as I was twenty or even ten years ago (I’m 42). But I still place well in races and especially enjoy beating the twenty somethings who weren’t even born when I started running track.

I think this is an excellent trend and I hope that Ms. Torres success will encourage people to remain (or become) active as they get older. Obviously, we all cannot take home an Olympic medal, but we can all be masters.

The Dumbest Generation?

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 3, 2008

Since I am a professor, people often ask me if students are becoming more stupid. My usual reply is that every generation thinks that the generation that follows is worse-mainly because they forget just how stupid they were. Most people don’t like that answer.

People do, however, like to write about how the current generation (current when they write) is worse than their own generation. The latest in this line of writing is  Mark Bauerlin’s book The Dumbest Generation. The book, like many others, presents evidence of the ignorance of the youth of today. Some examples include:

  • In 2006, 2/3 of high school seniors could not explain a sign saying “colored entrance” in a photo of a theater.
  • In 2001, 52% of high school seniors asked to name America’s allies in WWII named Germany, Italy or Japan rather than the Soviet Union.
  • In a 2004 survey, 25% of 18-24 year-olds could not identify Dick Cheney as the Vice President of the United States.

My own experiences tend to match the data. For example, if I am teaching on December 7th I will ask my students why this day is one of infamy. Most students have no idea what I mean.  Of course, I teach philosophy classes rather than history classes, so perhaps the students are simply not in the historical mindset when I ask them such questions.

I’ve also gotten anecdotal evidence from other faculty. Each year, many professors claim that the students they have now are worse than the previous year.  This claim is being made by professors are various universities-not just where I teach. Of course, this is anecdotal evidence and must be regarded with a degree of skepticism.

One way to explain this data is that the current generation is dumb. They don’t know many important facts and are regarded as poor students by educators.

There are, of course, other ways to explain this.

First, the current generation has a different mindset about facts. When I was a kid, there was a great deal of emphasis on memorization. While I never found rote memorization very appealing, it did make sense. If you needed some information and did not have the book on hand, you had to rely on your memory. Today, however, information is almost always available. Most people have web capable mobile phones and they can just look things up.  As such, memory is not as critical.

People from my generation might regard today’s youth as lacking because they do not memorize things as well as we claim we do. To put things in perspective, our generation can also be compared to past generations. Back before books were readily available and literacy was rare, people were forced to rely heavily on memory. According to some accounts, some of the ancients could perform amazing feats of memory. So, compared to them, my generation is dumb as well.

But, this is only if dumbness is a matter of memory (or rather a lack of memory). While memory is important, it is unreasonable to say that people are dumb because they do not remember as well as generations that had inferior technology and hence had to memorize more.

Of course, it could be replied that such technology is making people dumber. To use an analogy, just as the car has made many people physically weaker (because people drive rather than walk), information technology is making people mentally weaker. This does have some plausibility.

Second, it can also be explained in terms of prejudice. People tend to regard themselves as better than others and this tends to transfer to groups as well. For example, people who live in one state tend to think of themselves as better than people who live in another state. Likewise, people tend to see their own generation as better than the current one. If each generation was, in fact, more stupid than the previous generation, then kids today should be about as smart as squirrels.

Third, it can also be explained in terms of memory.  While kids today are supposed to have poor memories, the fact is that no one’s memory is very good. We have a tendency to distort what we think we are remembering.  For example, the older generation always tells the younger generation how hard they had it as kids (“we had to walk uphill both ways, through the snow, past wolves, to school). So, when people look at the current generation as being stupid, they are most likely judging them against memories that are gilded by time and pride.

Fourth, my experience has been that professor are like everyone else in that they enjoy complaining about things. For professors, one main area of complaint is obvious the students. Hence, it is not clear that the students are getting more stupid. Further, when people get better at something, they are often more critical of others. So, as a professor gets better and better over the years, her students seem worse by comparison. Hence, the students could be just about the same-they only seem worse.