The Dewey Decimal Theory

Oh, the trouble with kids today!

Is that the lament of an old curmudgeon, or what?

There has been a ton of controversy about so-called millennials’ and baby boomers’ antagonisms and their disrespect for each other’s generations. (Note: I think it’s sort of odd, though, because typically a younger generation butts heads with its parents’ generation; in this case that would be the Gen X-ers, born from 1964 to 1985. They’re the parents of the millennials, after all. Why are they not catching more flak from their kids?)

I’m puzzled by this, and was in a conversation with a Gen X client of mine about that “trouble with kids today.”

His theory is of issues with the younger generation problems is rooted in something he calls the Dewey Decimal problem. Of course, I needed an explanation.

I would imagine that anyone born pre-1985 knows what this is: a system of organizing library books, i.,e., access to knowledge. In the “olden days” (30 years ago, maybe), we all had to go to libraries to get information we needed, and libraries use the Dewey Decimal system. The definition is this, according to the almighty Wikipedia:

The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), or Dewey Decimal System, is a proprietary library classification system first published in the United States by Melvil Dewey in 1876.  It has been revised and expanded through 23 major editions, the latest issued in 2011, and has grown from a four-page pamphlet in 1876…The Decimal Classification introduced the concepts of relative location and relative index which allow new books to be added to a library in their appropriate location based on subject. Libraries previously had given books permanent shelf locations that were related to the order of acquisition rather than topic. The classification’s notation makes use of three-digit Arabic numerals for main classes, with fractional decimals allowing expansion for further detail. Using Arabic numerals for symbols, it is flexible to the degree that numbers can be expanded in linear fashion to cover special aspects of general subjects.[2] A library assigns a classification number that unambiguously locates a particular volume in a position relative to other books in the library, on the basis of its subject. The number makes it possible to find any book and to return it to its proper place on the library shelves. The classification system is used in 200,000 libraries in at least 135 countries.

So my friend says, let’s say you’re in school and you’re asked by your teacher to write a paper on Ben Franklin. Pre-1985 (basically pre-internet), you’d have to go to a library, try to understand where to find some source material on Ben Franklin and then probably hit up a librarian in a real conversation to explain DCC, then show you where to find the library’s card catalog. Once you find the card catalog, you have to locate and look up the books you need to write the paper. Then you have to go to the library shelves to find the books. Then you have to sift through them to find which ones have the information that you need, then check them out of the library, or at least write down notes from various books to gather up the pieces of information to learn something about Ben Franklin.

So let’s say that takes several hours. And then you still have to write the paper.

Today, the teacher would give you the assignment, and the student would go right to the internet and search for Ben Franklin. Without doing anything, the information magically appears, and you may even have your paper written for you.

My friend’s point is that nowadays people don’t understand that it takes work, and a step-by-step process that requires time and close attention to achieve a goal. They—and all of us, for that matter—have been conditioned now to get what we need right now, right away, without putting the time and effort into actually learning about the subject matter and how to even find the subject matter. It’s easy now. We just google it. No thought or evaluation goes into this process at all. The “step” work it takes to achieve the goal has been removed, made obsolete.

I thought about what he said and I can certainly understand his point.

It takes time and experience to learn about anything: Ben Franklin, learning a job, understanding how to manage your time, dealing with actual people (not via an email or a text), having enough experience to know how much you really need to learn before you’re ready to make your mark. It’s a very rare individual who can make their mark in the world without some experience under their belt. It’s like being a musician and thinking you’re going to be a rock star in you gig for a year or so. Or like having a job for a year and thinking you ought to be running the company. This happens to a very, very few, maybe .00001 percent. It takes an exceptional intellect and talent, and even more, a lot of luck. Most people aren’t that lucky (or driven, or smart, for that matter).

Success takes time: making mistakes, learning strategies, acquiring people skills, going through several necessary work steps and acquiring knowledge and experience before goals can be achieved.

We all need more of that.

Thanks, JR!

  • old_frt

    You aren’t old enough to be a curmudgeon, but you are spot-on about the youngsters who have no clue regarding the literary research which gave libraries an structure apart from their high-backed chairs.
    Thanks for your essay.