Feral children are those children who grow up without human contact. And feral children are entirely lacking in even a modest command of any one of the languages that human beings speak. In this regard, human beings are very much unlike animals—say dogs, for instance. This is because a dog has and will exhibit the ability to bark although the dog has never been around another dog. The very ability to bark is a part of the biological programming of dogs.
The very fact that a measure of interaction with other human beings is necessary in order to acquire the capacity to speak reveals just how deep the truth is that human beings are quintessentially social creatures. It is only through a sustained amount of social interaction in which speaking is done that children learn to speak. As already noted, no dog needs exposure to other dogs in order to acquire the capacity to bark.
Given the above observation about children learning to speak, it then follows that a society that downplays social interaction on the part of children in the name of children playing with gadgets is in fact a society that is diminishing the mastery of language on the part of children. And that, in turn, will have absolutely devastating consequences for the future of any such society.
For in effect, there will be a kind of dysfunctionality on the part of human being precisely because their command of language is so very inadequate. With such an inadequate command of the language individuals will have difficulty evaluating themselves and they will have difficulty evaluating others. What is more, individuals will be flounder in their wherewithal to grasp the actual significance of what is being said to them. Indeed, their own self-reflections, and so self-knowledge, will become roundly inadequate.
With an inadequate command of the language, a new sense will be given to the word ineffable. Presently, the idea of ineffable speaks to something so extraordinary that words cannot do justice to it. But with a decreasing decline in the command of language, then a most disconcerting result will be that the ordinary will become ineffable, precisely because the command of language on the part of most individuals will be just that limited.
I can easily imagine someone saying that human beings will simply rely upon technology more in order to grasp ever more fully what is being said in their interactions with others. That is perhaps true. Most painfully, though, that truth only underscores the reality that, in terms of a sense of development, human beings will be mightily declining further in their speaking skills rather than becoming increasingly more sophisticated in that regard.
In comparing the emails of Syracuse University students in 2014 with the emails of Syracuse University students in 2004, I can already see a dramatic change for the worse in the command which students of language. And I am limiting myself here to native speakers of English. In 2014, it is often far from clear whether a student is merely expanding upon a point that was made in lecture or actually disagreeing with a point lecture or even raising a question. So nowadays I typically begin my response to an email with “Thank you for your email about such-and-such” which is then followed by either (a) “Thank you for your very interesting question about the lecture or with (b) “Thank you for your very interesting commentary upon the lecture”. And then I go on to elaborate upon what I think the student might have had in mind in her or his email. Of course, there is no incompatibility at all between asking question and offering a commentary. But in the last two years I can count on one hand and not move all 5 fingers the number of students who have written an email like the following: “I have a very interesting question that I would like to raise about the lecture but first let me motivate the concern I wish to raise with a few remarks”. Since I typically teach more than 400 students a semester, the observation here is informed by a serious measure of experience.
Well, I have identified a very straightforward sense in which the present college generation is not better off on account of technology. Technology has necessarily done more harm than good if the use of it diminishes our powers of intellectual reflection. And I am hardly impressed with a Kurzweil-like response, namely that computers will eventually be able to that sort of reasoning for human beings. Alas, what is most disconcerting is that implications of that very claim go entirely unnoticed. If indeed computers will eventually be able to do that sort of reasoning for human beings and human beings continue to decline in with respect to that kind of reasoning, then will it also follow that the moral standing of computers will become superior to the moral standing of human beings? And this will give an entirely new and different meaning to the idea of human slavery—a meaning that no one could have possibly have foreseen.
© 2014 Laurence Thomas