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Book Review: The Dumbest Generation – How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future by Mark Bauerlein

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It is an inevitability that with every generational change, the older generation will complain about the new generation and reminisce on the past – the “good ol’ days,” if you will. It’s not a surprise when the new fashions and trends of youth culture get misunderstood by the adults who say they know better, and as those fashions and trends become the accepted norms, those youth turn into the wise adults, criticize their children’s youthful ways, and continue the vicious cycle into the next generation.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, for many reasons. When cultural norms change, art, literature, and other creative outlets become more fluid, and people respond to the spirit of the age with an intelligent and relevant civic discourse. Only the old school traditionalists – those curmudgeons who see change as the end of the world as we know it – lambast and discourage this healthy pattern, a pattern that has made our great democracy run efficiently enough throughout the 20th Century.

That’s why Mark Bauerlein tries to distinguish himself from these old fogey stereotypes early in his book The Dumbest Generation, and states that his book is not an attempt to insult or undermine the youth of today, but to show “with empirical evidence” that those in Generation Y (or The Millennials, Generation Next, DotNetters, what have you) are truly stupid.

Despite being surrounded with more information than ever before, the generation that grew up on the Internet has become intellectually lazy, and that’s not just one man’s opinion, it’s supported by statistical fact, Bauerlein says. He won’t look at their attitudes, behaviors, or values, he states in his introduction, just their capacities for intelligence. And then he spends the rest of his book looking at their attitudes, behaviors, and values (in between his hefty doses of statistics and data), judging them unsound and lamenting the end of intellectualism in America.

It’s not the fairest assessment, especially since his metrics of evaluation don’t fit with his original premise. After all, can you really measure the intelligence of an entire generation based on samples of surveys and testing data without looking at their changing attitudes? Bauerlein’s opinion seems to be that the statistics reveal a surprising move toward stupidity, and that this stupidity manifests itself in Generation Y’s anti-intellectual attitudes.

Within Bauerlein’s collected research, several disturbing trends among young people do emerge. The fact-based, multiple-choice approach to education has hampered our ability to “think historically,” meaning young Americans have difficulties placing current events in relation to their historical contexts. Only 22 percent of those involved in one survey could identify key phrases from the Gettysburg Address. Yet in the same survey, 99 percent could identify Beavis and Butt-Head.

Equally, our ability to do basic math and our reading proficiency continues to drop. In a 2005 survey cited in the book, respondents aged 15-to-24 only read anything for eight minutes on a weekday and nine minutes on the weekend, while clocking hours and hours watching TV or surfing the Internet. These are just a few shockers that Bauerlein reveals, but not all of his statistical evidence points toward depressing trends.

At the same time, technology is making our IQ’s go up, and Bauerlein reveals how IQ tests have become more complex to meet our growing intelligence. In theory, having higher IQ’s would go against Bauerlein’s original assertion that we are all getting dumber, but Bauerlein quickly dismisses this idea, saying that today’s youth aren’t reading enough and aren’t interested in the arts in the ways previous generations were.

Despite contradictory evidence in other peer reviewed articles – after all, an author’s evidence is only what he or she is willing to offer the reader – that shows young Americans are more involved in civil discourse than ever before, Bauerlein sticks to his assertion that intelligence will continue to drop until it eventually threatens democracy as we know it. Of course, Bauerlein ignores the fact that the generation before was just as disinterested in high art (and the traditionalists blamed MTV), and the generation before them also seemed more interested in teen escapism than classical music or Victorian literature (and the traditionalists blamed rock and roll).

Is this really all that shocking? Not really. Bauerlein seems to think things are different because the Internet has only given teens one more way to escape adult life. 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.

Although the digital age has created one of the largest generational rifts in modern history, it is not the only time America has gone through major cultural changes as a result of youth rebellion. As postwar American youths tried to make sense of a difficult time in American history, Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On The Road became a bestselling novel and rock and roll replaced jazz as the rebellious music of the day. Changes in American culture spiraled out of control in the 1960s, and as this young generation was shipped off to Vietnam after enduring the Cold War fears of nuclear war, a resentment toward authority grew. Despite what the powers-that-be said at the time, this age of American uncertainty created a new surge of art and cultural veracity that not only brought about new labels (Postmodernism, Deconstructivism, et cetera) but a new wave of tolerance and accessibility that continues today.

Bauerlein, of course, doesn’t have a problem with what happened during this period of American history; after all, Kerouac and the beats actually had something to say, unlike teens today, who aren’t reading, and are therefore clearly not writing. Yet, Bauerlein fails to find out exactly what is going on among The Millennials in terms of art and literature, and just like the beats and the pop art afficionados of the ’60s, art is flourishing among the fringes of our young generation. With independent artists and musicians trying new things on the internet to poets exploiting their spam folders for artistic inspiration, a thriving art community has used the Internet to push new boundaries. If Bauerlein had merely interviewed a couple of his English students (he is a professor at Emory University) or spoken with some art students, he would realize that there is some hope for the future, and that some Gen-Y’ers are bucking the trends.

Although some of the statistics cited by Bauerlein point to disturbing changes in how Millennials process information, he seems to overlook many of the positive changes – and the potential for a new approach to civil discourse – that will inevitably occur as the youth of today come of age. The Dumbest Generation is certainly a necessary part of this new discourse (after all, we do want to improve), but it drowns in its heavy reliance on statistics that range from mildly convincing to flat out contradictory.

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. The Dumbest Generation is a great book for those who already agree with Bauerlein’s main thesis, but won’t change the opinions of those who disagree and see a lot of potential in young people today.

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About Kevin Eagan

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Pretty damn scholarly Mr. Eagan. Damn those traditionalists anyway, right?

    -Glen

  • http://www.theretherekid.com Kevin Eagan

    Amen, Glen.

    And all of these prescriptive vs. descriptive arguments are starting to do my head in! :)

  • Ruvy

    Kevin, I had to supervise, hire (and often fire) teenage kids who worked at the Burger King where I managed in the 1990’s.

    Were these kids dumber? No, not by any stretch of the imagination. Intelligence is not necessarily measured by academic ability. But, getting these high schoolers to do basic math, like figuring change (which is only really calculating 100-x) was a major problem. When a high school kid has to use a calculator to figure 9*3, that is a major problem. And I saw that all the time when buying gas and presenting little coupons that shaved three cents off the price of every gallon of gas.

    I would suggest that computerization and the internet has changed what is important in terms of academic achievement. Why learn how to calculate change when a pocket calculator (or the store cash register) can do it just as well? Why learn how to do a square root when all you have to do is press a button? Why learn how to use a slipstick when a “scientific calculator” will do all the skull work?

    Then, of course, are all those American kids who have no clue where Madagascar is, or all those Israeli kids who have no clue who Golda Meir or David ben-Gurion was….

    That’s on one side of the equation.

    On the other side of the equation are the kids who can hack into any computer system in the world, build a computer as though it were an Erector Set or bunch of Legos, who can do videos and radio podcasts, and who have revolutionized news gathering by getting up in buses and making videos with cell-phones when they see what looks like news.

    All this is a double edged sword. On the one side, computerization has cut into much classical academics, but on the other, it has added a dimension that paper and pencil guys like me can barely imagine.

    Nevertheless, Kevin, for all of this, writing is still a craft, and it would do all young would-be writers to learn how to spell; to learn what verbs and adverbs are, and to remember that all crafts require practice, practice, and more practice.

    There is no computer program that can turn a bad writer into a master wordsmith.

    I’ll pass on the book. I don’t need to pay someone to try to tell me what I know already.

  • Mark Bauerlein

    We disagree, Kevin, but that’s an altogether fair and intelligent review.

  • sour saul

    Hey. Two months after your review but, assuming others like myself might stumble upon it …

    What art, sir? I live in Chicago, the new art capital of the country –as opposed to that pigpen of hillbilly poseurs, Brooklyn– and I am continually shocked by the absolute lack of originality in much of what shamelessly passes for art in your generation, especially at the “fringes” — everything is pathetically derivative, from music to physical art … at the moment, e.g. the found/trash/recycled art movement and its cheesy taggin/grafitti compadre go on as if this is something new and revolutionary … brutally ignorant of how its emptiness was booed off stage twenty years ago on “Family Ties”, when then Mallory’s frighteningly illiterate “found” artist boyfriend Nick was ushered in to usher that shit out. From Ladytron to the Long Blondes, from the shameless mimicry of those idiots Interpol to the recent crap by the likes of Hot Chip (“ready for the floor?” … wanna see pathetic lifting, youtube the band Seccession circa 1985). The real sad part, however, is the overall increasing illiteracy many millenials seem to squueze into, with both pain and joy, as they do when squeezin into their skinny pants (why, why in god’s name did this trend have to reappear right when we be gettin’ obese at alarming rates?). I know this may be a hard concept for many of you, so I’ll take it slow … the situation with your generation regarding art but more importantly reading is profoundly disanalogous (take your time, google it, come back, we cool?) to that of previous generations. There is something painfully wrong when contests to see who can text the most in the shortest time span are publicly applauded. There is less and less language, vocabulary and concepts to flourish with the more brutally illiterate one gets. When Heidegger famously stated that language is the house of being, he could be construed to have kindled many fires beyond the metaphysical ones he was targeting. Language is the house of being but also the tool we express ourselves with. Not just cheezily or narcissistically, but when we are in pain, abused, misunderstood, feel our freedoms frustrated, wish to promote what we value, getting to know what we value, and why we do, etc. In to “Kill a Mockingbird”, if one kindda reads it, you know, not as given by Wikipedia or on film, one will notice that a subtle but profound message Harper Lee wishes to impart is that the humanistic armour and motor running Atticus Finch is largely, if not exclusively the product of … READING (BOO!), and lots of it. It is reading and the EXTENDED concentration (boo, AGAIN) required to read say, a novel, that helps one imaginatively travel and place oneself (whether socially, sexually, tearfully, or philosophically) in a diffirent place, different shoes. The less we read, the more deeply solipsistic we get. But then again, one would have to be dumb as hell to expect that members of this generation would care about themselves enough to establish habits that can help them both appreciate and confront the moral complexity of their daily lives and decision making. Thousands of years ago (ok two, but it’s all the same to you guys anyway) Socrates (as recorded or portrayed … what a fukin’ fascinating question … by Plato) stated that the unexamined life is not worth living. But what happens when even the issues and question generating and generated by this issue are not only unimportant, but unrecognized in the first place? What happens if igrorance-fed defensiveness and a grand ballroom celebration of blidiocy is yanking us further into Plato’s cave? Where are you? I can’t see you. Shit … I can’t even hear you. Hello?