Washington -- Many tests have documented a glut of ignorance among today's students, with large segments of examinees helplessly blank across the spectrum of knowledge, from the names of recent presidents to the addition of simple fractions.
The schools deserve some of the blame that's regularly dumped on them. But substantial credit also belongs to a factor neglected in the hand-wringing over academic decline: modern technology reduces or even eliminates the brain content of many tasks. It thus reduces intellectual exertion in the same way labor-saving machinery reduces physical exertion.
In both cases, the outcome is flab, unless compensatory exercise is taken.
Consider, for example, photography, a complex interplay of chemistry and optics that once required a fair amount of understanding to achieve respectable results. With the addition of electronics to the aforementioned sciences, the brainwork has been removed as an essential element for achieving perfect exposures.
The so-called Ph.D. cameras (Push Here, Dummy), still or video, really deliver on the promise of point and shoot, eliminating the need for understanding focus, shutter speed, aperture, film type or any of the other relics of prehistoric, low-tech photography.
Anyone can take good pictures now, without thinking. Composition of the picture is the sole remaining challenge, but there's no reason to doubt that a simple fix is on the way for that one, too.
Food preparation has also been rendered brainless through easy options that eliminate the succession of tasks that used to be necessary for putting a meal on the table. From assemblage of ingredients to attention to cooking time, the old-fashioned way required some foresight and thought, even for a simple outcome. But the microwave meal now shortcuts everything except choosing the package and setting the timer.
The package-into-microwave system is so simple and ubiquitous that many of today's young folks look upon traditional cooking as a quaint artifact of a bygone age. In recent years, frozen meals and snacks have been big winners in the competition for supermarket space. Cookbooks remain big sellers, suggesting that a lot of kitchen craft is still being practiced. But share of shelf space tells the real story of America's mealtime practices.
And then there's the modern automobile. It's a marvel of comfort and reliability, but it also comes with reduced requirements for brainwork. With automatic transmissions almost universal, few of today's young drivers have any grasp of something that every clutch-and-shift driver could not avoid understanding -- the tradeoffs between power and speed.
Does that understanding make any difference if all that's wanted is transportation from one point to another? Perhaps not, but in tandem with the many other exemptions from understanding provided by technology, the automatic shift makes it easier to get by while understanding less and less.
No single instance of this process is menacing, but when they all come together in the age of mass stupefaction by television, the cumulative effect is an awesome product -- zombies who can satisfy many of their basic needs without expending much, if any, brainpower. Food, transportation, entertainment -- they're all to be had without physical or mental exertion.
Defenders of TV blithely insist that today's critics grew up on comic books or radio dramas and that television is merely an extension of those techniques of communication.
But, in fact, comic book reading required some overt activity on the part of the reader, starting with the acquisition of the comic book, by purchase or trading, and then proceeding to the act of reading. Radio dramas, whatever their deficiencies, required some exercise of imagination on the part of the listener.
Something worse may be in the offing, but for the time being, television viewing ranks as the ultimate in time-passing passivity. Add in microwaved and home-delivered meals, and it's possible to retire from reality and intellectual exertion on a modest income.
The horror of it all is that we're just on the threshold of the era of electronic wonders substituting for brainpower. In another few years it could be possible to get along quite nicely without thinking hard about anything.
Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.