Do our students have radically different cognitive structures than ourselves?
The December 24th issue of the New Yorker contained a 'Critic at Large,' piece by Caleb Crain, 'Twilight of the Books." I've been haunted by it. The principal point is not that the newer generations are reading less, which we already knew. It is that they are reading differently. The truly frightening suggestion is that such differences make a difference at the cognitive level for developmental reasons. From a young age, people are encouraged to hone the skills required for, say, reading a technical manual, while the skills required for reading a novel or a piece of philosophy (e.g., imaginative capacities) are left undeveloped. We know that some cognitive functions - language use in particular - has a "window" beyond which the capacity for engaging and strengthening that capacity is lost. It's presumably a function of the plasticity of mind.
In my introduction to philosophy course I do some basic formal and informal logic for the first few weeks. I have been surprised to find that the one skill they truly struggle with is finding counterexamples to claims. So, for example, I will give them a claim such as "All art is beautiful," or "If something is alive and capable of motion, then it is an animal." They really struggle to find counterexamples to these sorts of claims. I'm not surprised when introductory students find philosophy or even basic formal logic alien. I am surprised when they find it difficult to do something which I thought would be relatively second nature. Evidence for the possibilities raised in "Twilight of the Books,"?
Perhaps. There is also the well known psychological bias that when a human recognizes some previously unnoticed phenomenon, she begins to see it everywhere. I hope that this more optimistic reading is the case.
But it highlights a further thought, for me: we are often asked to conform our teaching to the "learning styles" of our students and to their "learning differences." I should hope that there are some limits to this. I would not like to conform my teaching to accommodate this particular learning style. In addition, to take the not-so-optimistic view, the empirical evidence may show that an eighteen-year-old whose imaginative and analytical capacities have, so to speak ossified, may never be able to recover them so matter how skillful her teachers are.