Steven Pinker wants you to cut them some slack:
Every generation thinks that the younger generation is dissolute, lazy, ignorant, and illiterate. There is a paper trail of professors complaining about the declining quality of their students that goes back at least 100 years. … I know a lot more now than I did when I was a student, and thanks to the curse of knowledge, I may not realize that I have acquired most of it during the decades that have elapsed since I was a student. So it’s tempting to look at students and think, “What a bunch of inarticulate ignoramuses! It was better when I was at that age, a time when I and other teenagers spoke in fluent paragraphs, and we effortlessly held forth on the foundations of Western civilization.” Yeah, right.
Here is a famous experiment.
A three-year-old comes into the lab. You give him a box of M&Ms. He opens up the box and instead of finding candy he finds a tangle of ribbons. He is surprised, and now you say to him, “OK, now your friend Jason is going to come into the room. What will Jason think is in the box?” The child says, “ribbons,” even though Jason could have no way of knowing that. And, if you ask the child, “Before you opened the box, what did you think was in it?” They say, “ribbons.” That is, they backdate their own knowledge. Now we laugh at the three-year-old, but we do the same thing. We backdate our own knowledge and sophistication, so we always think that the kids today are more slovenly than we were at that age.
Update from a reader who disagrees with Pinker:
No, three year olds do not “backdate” their knowledge. They answer incorrectly because they have not developed what is known as “Theory of Mind” – they are unable to understand fully that others see the world through their own perspective. They do not yet understand that others do not know, necessarily, what they know. Therefore they assume everyone knows it is full of ribbons – they do, so why wouldn’t another kid? Same for understanding that their knowledge has changed (or perhaps even fully understanding what a question like “What did you think was in the box bvefore you opened it?” actually means. He’s three. This question is complicated and asks him to fully understand what thought is, how it changes over time, what “before” means relative to now, etc. This same kid may easily think everything not right now is tomorrow or yesterday).
A clever and elegant-looking argument. But it’s not really true. And cannot be applied to an adult’s memory of what he/she was like at 16.
Kids These Days have been sliding inexorably toward delinquency, indolence, and immodesty for at least 1000 years. From the autobiography of the Benedictine monk Guibert of Nogent (c. 1055-1124):
O God, Thou knowest how hard, how almost impossible it would be for women of the present time to keep such chastity as [my mother’s example]; whereas there was in those days such modesty, that hardly ever was the good name of a married woman smirched by ill report Ah! how wretchedly have modesty and honour in the state of maidenhood declined from those times to these, and both the reality and the show of a mother’s guardianship shrunk to naught! Therefore coarse mirth is all that may be noted in their manners and naught but jesting heard, with sly winks and ceaseless chatter. Wantonness shews in their gait, only silliness in their behaviour. So much does the extravagance of their dress depart from the old simplicity that in the enlargement of their sleeves, the straitness of their skirts, the distortion of their shoes of Cordovan leather with their curling toes, they seem to proclaim that everywhere shame is a castaway A lack of lovers to admire her is a woman’s crown of woe. On her crowds of thronging suitors rests her claim to nobility and courtly pride. There was of old time, I call God to witness, greater modesty in married men, who would have blushed to be seen in the company of such women, than there is now in married women; and men by such shameful conduct are emboldened in their amours abroad and driven to haunt the marketplace and the public street.
Another points to another old passage:
When I read threads like this (Pinker etc.) I’m always reminded of Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529). His Book of the Courtier (Part II) pretty much nails it:
I have often considered not without wonder whence arises a fault, which, as it is universally found among old people, may be believed to be proper and natural to them. And this is, that they nearly all praise bygone times and censure the present, inveighing against our acts and ways and everything which they in their youth did not do; affirming too that every good custom and good manner of living, every virtue, in short every thing, is always going from bad to worse.
And verily it seems quite contrary to reason and worthy to be wondered at, that ripe age, which in other matters is wont to make men’s judgment more perfect with long experience, should in this matter so corrupt it that they do not perceive that if the world were always growing worse, and if fathers were generally better than children, we should long since have reached that last grade of badness beyond which it is impossible to grow worse.