If you’ve read even a post or two from this blog, you know that I’m going to fiercely oppose the main theories guiding Bauerlein’s 2008 book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.
In a precise exercise in ridiculousness, Bauerlein’s book is loaded up with sweeping claims like the following:
[M]ost young Americans possess little of the knowledge that makes for an informed citizen, and too few of them master the skills needed to negotiate an information-heavyt, communication-based society and economy. Furthermore, they avoid the resources and media that might enlighten them and boost their talents….
[Y]oung people do not understand the ideals of citizenship, they are disengaged from the political process, they lack the knowledge necessary for effective self-government, and their appreciation and support of American democracy is limited.
If that’s what Bauerlein’s selling, I don’t want any.
I am, thanks be to god, not alone in my disgust at Bauerlein’s dance of intellectual superiority. Many others have attacked his book and its tenets with grace, aplomb, and gusto. I give you a list of Reviews That Have Me Nodding My Head In Vigorous Agreement.
I begin with a smart and sassy Newsweek review by Sharon Begley and Jeneen Interlandi, who accuse Bauerlein of coming late to the party:
Really, don’t we all know by now that finding examples of teens’ and twentysomethings’ ignorance is like shooting fish in a barrel?… From evidence such as a decline in adult literacy (40 percent of high-school grads had it in 1992; only 31 percent did in 2003) and a rise in geographic cluelessness (47 percent of the grads in 1950 could name the largest lake in North America, compared with 38 percent in 2002), for instance, Bauerlein concludes that “no cohort in human history has opened such a fissure between its material conditions and its intellectual attainments.”
He is a little late to this party, of course. The old have been wringing their hands about the young’s cultural wastelands and ignorance of history at least since admirers of Sophocles and Aeschylus bemoaned the popularity of Aristophanes (“The Frogs,” for Zeussakes?!) as leading to the end of (Greek) civilization as they knew it. The Civil War generation was aghast at the lurid dime novels of the late 1800s. Victorian scholars considered Dickens, that plot-loving, sentimental (“A Christmas Carol”) favorite, a lightweight compared with other authors of the time. Civilization, and culture high and low, survived it all. Can it survive a generation’s ignorance of history? For those born from 1980 to 1997, Bauerlein lamented to us, “there is no memory of the past, just like when the Khmer Rouge said ‘this is day zero.’ Historical memory is essential to a free people. If you don’t know which rights are protected in the First Amendment, how can you think critically about rights in the U.S.?” Fair enough, but we suspect that if young people don’t know the Bill of Rights or the import of old COLORED ENTRANCE signs—and they absolutely should—it reflects not stupidity but a failure of the school system and of society (which is run by grown-ups) to require them to know it. Drawing on our own historical memory also compels us to note that philosopher George Santayana, too, despaired of a generation’s historical ignorance, warning that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That was in 1905.
Liz Losh, in a review titled Dumbest and Dumber, agrees with the above assertion that though Bauerlein would have us believe otherwise, the complaints of an emerging unprecedented era of ignorance are not new or particularly well founded; and besides, she adds,
how can you hate people under thirty with this much dripping bile and still work as a competent and professional faculty member? How would it be possible to teach your classes with this much misanthropy aimed at people of your students’ ages? With this much contempt taking place in inner monologues that are so well-rehearsed, how can you not communicate it to the student seeking help on the other side of your desk? Well, based on his ratemyprofessor standings, it looks like he’s an easier instructor than I am, ironically. So much for defending high standards of achievement for students.
Over at BlogCritics, Kevin Eagan acknowledges that some of the trends identified by Bauerlein are “disturbing” but wonders about the extent to which The Dumbest Generation offers only the evidence that fits the thesis. “Bauerlein seems to think things are different because the Internet has only given teens one more way to escape adult life,” Eagen writes.
And to a certain extent, he’s right; the Internet is not used by teens to further their intellectual pursuits, at least, not in the way educators would like. But as with all new technologies, the Internet is currently going through a teething stage, and it’s too early to say if our new digital lives will mean the next generation will forever ignore civil discourse and become apathetic toward art and history as adults…. Bauerlein’s approach reveals a one-sided argument, one that forgets that art is created on the fringes of society and that young people rarely get involved in these pursuits since, after all, they’re too busy trying to impress their friends.
This last point, by the way, is also a lynchphin of Losh’s position with respect to Bauerlein’s argument. She finishes her post with this video, which she identifies as a “dizzying spectacle of racial and sexual stereotypes, romantic melodrama, consumerism, instant gratification, and commodity fetishism emptied of its destructive social directives and turned into a clever musical soup that is danceable and evocative of guilty nostalgias and heterogeneous pleasures that Bauerlein would have us condemn.”
Writing in the LA Times, Lee Drutman agrees that Bauerlein is an alarmist whose call to arms against the rising tide of ignorant youth “seems at once overblown…and also yesterday’s news”; but Drutman also offers that “amid the sometimes annoyingly frantic warning bells that ding throughout ‘The Dumbest Generation,’ there are also some keen insights into how the new digital world really is changing the way young people engage with information and the obstacles they face in integrating any of it meaningfully. These are insights that educators, parents and other adults ignore at their peril.”
Is Drutman right to find some kernel of useful information in the collection of histrionics that Bauerlein calls a “book”? Well, sure. It’s probably not exactly good that young people don’t like to read books. At the same time, however, we would do well to approach the gathering data from a somewhat more nuanced approach. Young people aren’t spending their free time reading books; so what are they doing? They’re not spending their free time learning about historical events; so what kind of history piques their interest? They don’t know a whole lot about Constitutional law, the Supreme Court, or local politics; so how do you explain youth turnout in the 2008 Presidential election?
While I disagree with just about every argument Bauerlein makes, I do agree–in
principle, anyway–with Bauerlein’s assertion that awareness of history and involvement in traditional political models are down, way way down. But unlike Bauerlein, I see no reason to cry into my imported beer over this. I believe that a new model of civic engagement is emerging, one that our current tests, surveys, and evaluative measures cannot yet identify or account for. The new civics is an everyday civics, one that may or may not include involvement in local, or state, or national politics; it’s a kind of just-in-time civic engagement that emerges out of an immediate need. In the just-in-time model, knowing what (names, dates, definitions) is far less important than knowing how (how to access names, dates, definitions, when that type of information becomes relevant and necessary). Who cares if you can name every sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice if you’re able to locate and verify a list of current Justices in ten seconds flat?
If you want to justify a conviction that young people are stupid, boring, and lazy, then you look to tests that measure knowing what. If you believe, as I do, that today’s young people are as smart, fascinating, and engaged as any previous generation, then you start figuring out ways to measure knowing how.