The Dumbest Generation
The Dumbest Generation
Mark Bauerlein (Tarcher/Penguin, 264 pages, $24.95)
It would seem that technology and culture both make the present a good time to be young. The digital tools that are reshaping our economy make more sense to young "digital natives" than to members of older generation, an imbalance of abilities that tips the economic and political scales in favor of young people. Meanwhile, aging boomer parents, rather than pass down a fixed, canonical culture to their kids, encourage a modern-day version of their own rebellion, inviting younger voices to disrupt stodgy cultural continuities.To Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, the present is a good time to be young only if you don't mind a tendency toward empty-headedness. In "The Dumbest Generation," he argues that cultural and technological forces, far from opening up an exciting new world of learning and thinking, have conspired to create a level of public ignorance so high as to threaten our democracy.Adults are so busy imagining the ways that technology can improve classroom learning or improve the public debate that they've blinded themselves to the collective dumbing down that is actually taking place. The kids are using their technological advantage to immerse themselves in a trivial, solipsistic, distracting online world at the expense of more enriching activities -- like opening a book or writing complete sentences.Mr. Bauerlein presents a wealth of data to show that young people, with the aid of digital media, are intensely focusing on themselves, their peers and the present moment. YouTube and MySpace, he says, are revealingly named: These and other top Web destinations are "peer to peer" environments in the sense that their juvenile users have populated them with predictably juvenile content. The sites where students spend most of their time "harden adolescent styles and thoughts, amplifying the discourse of the lunchroom and keg party, not spreading the works of the Old Masters."If the new hours in front of the computer were subtracting from television time, there might be something encouraging to say about the increasingly interactive quality of youthful diversions. The facts, at least as Mr. Bauerlein marshals them, show otherwise: TV viewing is constant. The printed word has paid a price -- from 1981 to 2003, the leisure reading of 15- to 17-year-olds fell to seven minutes a day from 18. But the real action has been in multitasking. By 2003, children were cramming an average of 8 1/2 hours of media consumption a day into just 6 1/2 hours -- watching TV while surfing the Web, reading while listening to music, composing text messages while watching a movie.This daily media binge isn't making students smarter. The National Assessment of Educational Progress has pegged 46% of 12th-graders below the "basic" level of proficiency in science, while only 2% are qualified as "advanced." Likewise in the political arena: Participatory Web sites may give young people a "voice," but their command of the facts is shaky. Forty-six percent of high-school seniors say it's "'very important' to be an active and informed citizen," but only 26% are rated as proficient in civics. Between 1992 and 2005, the NAEP reported, 12th-grade reading skills dropped dramatically. (As for writing, Naomi Baron, in her recent book, "Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World," cites the NAEP to note that "only 24% of twelfth-graders are 'capable of composing organized, coherent prose in clear language with correct spelling and grammar.'")
Conversation is affected, too. Mr. Bauerlein sums up part of the problem: "The verbal values of adulthood and adolescence clash, and to enter adult conditions, individuals must leave the verbal mores of high school behind. The screen blocks the ascent."What frustrates Mr. Bauerlein is not these deficits themselves -- it's the way a blind celebration of youth, and an ill-informed optimism about technology, have led the public to ignore them. "Over and over," he writes, "commentators stress the mental advance, the learning side over the fun and fantasy side." Steven Johnson, in his best-selling "Everything Bad Is Good for You," describes videogames as "a kind of cognitive workout." Jonathan Fanton of the MacArthur Foundation writes that children have created "communities the size of nations" where they explore "new techniques for personal expression." Such assessments, Mr. Bauerlein argues, are far too charitable.Mr. Bauerlein contrasts such "evidence-lite enthusiasm" for digital technologies with a weightier learning tradition. He eulogizes New York's City College in the mid-20th century, a book-centered, debate-fostering place where a generation of intellectuals rejected the "sovereignty of youth" in favor of the concerted study of canonical texts and big ideas.Is there any way of recovering this lost world? Probably not. But the future may be brighter than Mr. Bauerlein allows. No matter how frivolously young people may use digital technology now, a schoolchild's taste for play tells us little about what the next generation of intellectual leaders will do with technology's tools. There are glimmers: The new Amazon book reader may bring the best of predigital life forward into the present, and any number of institutions are (gradually) exploring ways to harness the new communications environment for scholarship, innovation and profit rather than idle enjoyment. In short, the children of future years will learn from their elders how to make the most of digital life just as soon as there are elders in place to offer instruction. The "elders" now don't seem to have a clue.