Looking Up after Looking Down?

On Wednesday’s post, Louraine P. observed that people will always wonder about “what’s out there,” and will get curious. I’m . . . of two minds on this. First, I agree that yes, someone will always push to learn more, even if they can’t see something. In some cases, especially if they can’t see something. But second, I am observing less and less curiosity among younger people, meaning thirty and below.

I don’t know if it is because younger people have gotten used to “I’ll ask the internet” if they have a question, so they don’t ask questions. Or perhaps because they have been overloaded with “this is the Truth” only to be told a while later “No, no, this is the Truth and that never was true,” or because they are carefully protected from “out there” and they are sincerely worried that the unknown is all danger and hazard. Or a bit of yes. I’ve met a few teenagers who were so sheltered that I almost boggled. One or two of those became curious about “what’s out there?” The others rejected intellectual discomfort.

Many of the younger people (35 and below, give or take) seem to walk with their heads down literally or metaphorically, intent on a device in hand or in pocket, eyes on the ground. Now, older people can be inattentive, and I’m always surprised by the people who never see the hawks, or who are startled when I come huffing and puffing beside them as I walk. The screen has captured their attention, be it selecting music or reading and answering texts or browsing social media or watching a video. Granted, many on-line things are designed to keep people locked onto the screen. That’s a problem for others to sort out. My concern is that “what’s out there” turns into “look online and then move on” more more and more people.

One thing that impressed me when the great conjunction happened in the winter of 2020 was how many people were out in their yards, looking up at the sky, and talking to other people about the stars. It helped that two of our regional weather forecasters are astronomers, and they’d been happily geeking out about the conjunction for a week, so everyone knew it was coming, where to look, and why it was a Big Deal*. But it wasn’t teenagers out looking. It was 30+ for the most part, and younger kids.

I’m pretty sure that LP is right, that some people are always going to be curious about “What’s out there?” even if they never get to see stars before they are older teens. But what’s the effect of so many younger people living head-down for so long? I suspect that older people fussed when printing presses made books inexpensive. And I know that older people fussed that really cheap “penny dreadful” mass-market thrillers hit the newsstands in the late 1800s, because they were morally unsound and were rotting the brains of young people, and encouraged violence, and so on. Some things never change. That the same “corrupting trash” also pulled kids into wanting to learn more about the American West, and encouraged travel and exploration, well, no one could see that in the 1890s.

Are smart-phones and screens the same, and just a temporary blip that we will chuckle about later? Or is there something different that will keep people from wondering about the world and what lies beyond us? I have no idea.

*I know. They happen fairly often but they are not as visible as that one was. I remember several professional astronomers and so on mildly scolding people for getting so excited. Which strikes me as exactly the opposite of what you do if you want to encourage a Sense-o-Wonder!


11 thoughts on “Looking Up after Looking Down?

  1. The few times I go into town what I usually see is people hunched over their cell phone or wearing headphones or wireless earbuds. That has become the norm. I can’t understand why people want to ignore the environment they live in. Heck, just for the sake of safety when traveling in a crowd with cars going past people need to ditch the headphones. I don’t see it as a temporary thing though, it seems like it is a permanent shift in behavior.

  2. Agree with Ed, and the other thing cell phones have spawned is the ‘sound bite’ generation, with limited ability to actually concentrate, in addition to being oblivious to their surroundings and with zero situational awareness until it is too late.

    • I work with younger millenials now, and the lack of SA and inability to build a FALT tree for consequences to action … sometimes, you shudder. Many would be unable to think their way out of a reusable bag.

    • …seen that in action, too. The person stepped off a kerb almost under the front wheels of an oncoming delivery van, and my only reward for grabbing the back of his jacket and yanking him to safety was to be sworn at for interrupting his “conversation”. Karma in action, perhaps…

      • There are times when the temptation to smile sweetly and say something along the lines of, “Oh, shall I let you die next time, then?” (or whatever is appropriate to the situation) is nigh unto overwhelming.

        It was fascinating to watch traffic awareness increase at my graduate school’s university after two undergrads (separate incidents, same week) were hit by parcel-delivery vehicles. Now, the alertness centered only on that particular company, since the students had been tapped in cross-walks (where they had the right of way), but there was some general overlap.

  3. When my son was in public school, curiosity and initiative were discouraged. Only learn what we tell you, and forget it after the test is over. We were not amused, and ended up putting him in a different school that encouraged actual learning. This was back in the 2000s

    • That comes from centralized lesson plans–you must cover X topics in Y days. One reason I never taught in a large school district.
      In my small school I could abandon my lesson plans if I felt the need. (There’s a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, an earthquake on the East Coast. will hand sanitizer burn? Let’s find out! And the Internet is a wonderful place to find resources on the fly!)

    • I’m fortunate that I have a lot of flexibility. I can spend more time on something, or trim back time if everyone already has and remembers that. I ask students what they are interested in, and try to add that in if possible. Sometimes what they want requires a graduate-level class and a lot more background than I can do. In that case, I send a private communication explaining the problem and offering resources. That gets a very positive response.

  4. I had a student who touched a piece of cold metal that he thought should be warm. He looked at me and said, I know it feels cold but it isn’t. (Yes, it was!) Mind boggling.

    I remember discussing how people talk about the fall of the Roman Empire as a measure of bad things, with a friend. She said, that people always compared bad events to Rome’s fall. I commented that Rome did fall so we can as well. She did not like that idea.

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