I just finished reading The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) by Mark Bauerlein. Just for the sake of full disclosure, I will say that I only read this book with the intent of eviscerating it for this column. Surprisingly, I’m not as incensed as I expected to be.
Of course, I’m not convinced either—which, given that Bauerlein makes his entire argument about people my age, is a problem.
And why should I be? Bauerlein’s entire thesis—that the under-30 generation has been intellectually stymied by the emerging dominance of new media, especially the internet—is antagonistic to me as a young adult. Teens and young adults are spending more of their recreational time on the internet and less of it reading actual books. And while there is certainly textually-based information on the internet (e.g. Wikipedia), users tend to scan this material, looking for only the information they want and skipping the rest. When the text is too dense or unappealing, they can—and will—quickly browse away. Furthermore, young people aren’t spending most of their internet time tapping into the vast reserves of information that have now been digitalized; instead, they spend most of it on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. That today’s teens and young adults are very interconnected to their peers is clear. However, Bauerlein argues, the added time they spend interacting with their peer group and youth culture—as opposed to the adult world and “high” culture—creates a scenario where young people are entering adulthood without the basic skills and knowledge necessary to be informed citizens. Furthermore, the self-oriented, here-and-now culture of the internet has created a younger generation that is inherently more narcissistic and present-oriented than its elders.
Bauerlein’s got some interesting statistics to back up his theory, showing that teenagers who spend more time watching TV and on the internet—and less time reading books—do not do as well in school. Teenagers and young adults are also spending less time reading books than they did just a decade ago. He also gives statistics to show how teens and young adults are scoring higher on tests for narcissistic personality traits than they did in the 1980s.
But, as I’m sure Bauerlein—an English professor at Emory University—knows, causation and correlation are not the same thing, and Bauerlein fails to prove that the prevalence of digital media is causing these shifts in the youth culture.
Bauerlein himself seems to contradict this near the end of the book, when he starts to talk about how society’s “mentors”—the teachers, professors, and parents who have traditionally stood as young people’s connections to the larger world—have failed. By indulging youth culture rather than opposing it, the mentors have neglected their responsibility to expose kids to more important things: history, literature, great works of art and music, and so forth. So what is really responsible for the declining intellectual rigor of youth? Is it the mentors for neglecting to aid young people in their studious pursuits, or the emerging digital technologies for providing youth with a more alluring alternative?
There’s another c-word that Bauerlein fails to account for: coincidence. If a woman is walking her dog in Seattle at the same time a man is mowing his lawn in Philadelphia, one thing doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the other. Likewise, the growing dominance of the internet and the declining intellectual rigor of young people do not necessarily have anything to do with one another. Couldn’t grade inflation and declining classroom expectations also be the culprits?
That is, if you even accept Bauerlein’s assumption that decline in intellectual rigor is a youth problem rather than a societal one. Bauerlein cites statistics saying that only 28 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds can name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but that 64 percent could name the latest American Idol. My guess is that, if you asked a group of 40- to 59-year-olds the same questions, that significantly more people could come up with Phillip Phillips than John Roberts. (And as a side note, I actually did know that John Roberts is the Chief Justice. On the other hand, I had to look up who won American Idol last season.)
Furthermore, how many people in the elder age group actually spent last weekend going to a theater performance or visiting an art museum or a historical site—things that Bauerlein mentions several times as ways that people can do to incorporate high culture into their recreational hours? My guess: not many. In fact, if my college experience is any indication, there’s probably a greater percentage of college-aged youth—still unencumbered by family life or demanding work schedules, and with easy access to these types of activities on campus—who do these types of things during their free time than older adults.
Bauerlein seems to have this vision of an America where everyone leads well-informed, culturally-literate lives; where education is looked at in terms of intellectual rewards rather than monetary ones; where all citizens are knowledgeable about the important political issues of the day; where an average teenager might start reading Proust or Foucault just for the hell of it. Bauerlein talks about how his own cultural enrichment started, watching silent films on PBS one summer during college because, as he puts it, “the Unknown Comic and Chuck Barris got old very quickly.” He talks about students at City College in New York City in the 1930s and 40s, debating the merits of Stalinism over sandwiches in the cafeteria, floating ideas from Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky to support their ideas.
Sounds great, right? But in all honesty, I don’t think this intellectual utopia Bauerlein envisions ever really existed. Oh, I have no doubt that Bauerlein was mesmerized by The Great Train Robbery one summer in the late 70s, or that some students at City College rigorously debated the merits of Communism in the pre-World War II era. But isn’t it more likely that these leftist intellectuals at City College were the outliers, even then? Isn’t it possible that most bored college students would have stuck to talk shows and soap operas rather than tuning into silent films on PBS?
Bauerlein has some interesting points here, but his argument is built on a shaky foundation. And he overlooks one major, irrefutable point: the technology he decries is here to stay. By lamenting about the problem but failing to offer a solution, Bauerlein has essentially written a modern-day version of the scene in Bye Bye Birdie where put-upon father Harry McAfee bemoans that those “kids today” are “disobedient, disrespectful oafs,” and “laughing, singing, dancing, grinning morons.” “What’s the matter with kids today?” Harry McAfee asks. And that was the late 1950s.
There was nothing the matter with kids then, and there’s nothing the matter with kids now. And unless Bauerlein and others like him can come up with something better than the typical hand-wringing of the elder generation, society will not—and should not—change. The kids today will grow up, get married, and have kids of their own, and in about thirty years or so they’ll be griping about how much better things were in their day. And so it goes, on and on into perpetuity.