In a Doonesbury cartoon of recent vintage, Zipper, nephew to the 1960s slacker Zonker Harris, sits in a college class, his laptop open before him, giving every impression of industrious note-taking: Tap tap tappity tap tap. “Dude,” a classmate instant-messages him. “The professor’s calling on you.”
While Zipper, stalling for time, asks to hear the question again, the classmate googles the answer and zaps it to him. To the professor’s obvious surprise, he rattles off, correctly, the names of the four greenhouse gases. “Dude,” the classmate messages him, “you owe me.” But Zipper’s thoughts are elsewhere: “I’ll never get through my email at this rate.” Tap tap tappity tap tap.
The project of Emory professor Mark Bauerlein’s new book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30, is to confront and dismantle the claim that digital technology is producing a higher-powered, better-informed, all-around smarter new generation than, say, the .01 percent of the Facebook population born in the 1960s.
Bauerlein recognizes that we live in a world where anyone with online access can read the Bill of Rights, dissect a virtual frog, take an online math quiz, tour the Metropolitan Museum of Art, watch a 1959 film of the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Franz Schubert’s Erlking, and read Plato’s Crito, any time of the day or night, for free.
But he also asks why, with all these advantages, so many young Americans sound like the high-school student who called a talk-radio show to complain about “all the boring stuff the teachers assign,” like “that book about the guy. [Pause] You know, that guy who was great.” “You mean The Great Gatsby?” asked the host. “Yeah,” said the caller. “Who wants to read about him?” The cultural candy shop is open as it’s never been open before, but evidence suggests that the kids aren’t buying.
Bauerlein offers exhaustive statistics that point to steep drop-offs in reading habits and general knowledge over the last twenty-five years. In the eighteen to twenty-four-year-old demographic, for example, literary reader rates have declined by 17 percentage points since 1982. This, says Bauerlein, “isn’t just a youth trend. It’s an upheaval. The slide equals a 28 percent rate of decline, which cannot be interpreted as a temporary shift or as a typical drift in the ebb and flow of the leisure habits of youth. If all adults in the United States followed the same pattern, literary culture would collapse.”
It would be easier to dismiss Bauerlein’s claims as mere reactionary hysteria if the collapse were not already so evident. He quotes interviewees, from the “Jaywalking” segment of The Tonight Show, who don’t know where the pope lives (“England?”) or the tenure of a Supreme Court justice (“I’m guessing four years?”), or the title of any classic work of literature.
Their ignorance would seem outrageous if it didn’t sound just like the kind of thing my college-professor husband has been reading in student papers, hearing in conversations with students, and seeing in course evaluations for years. This is a 100-level course, and we shouldn’t be expected to do such complex reading, griped an entire chorus of students from a world-religions 101 course, for which the core text was a trade paperback that my husband’s father, a college dropout, had once been assigned in a Sunday School class. In another religion class, a student paper referred repeatedly to something called the momentous island, a phrase that mystified my husband until he realized that what the writer meant was that infamous school-prayer compromise, the moment of silence.
At the prep school I attended, “where girls prepare to be tomorrow’s leaders today” and where every middle-school student now receives a school-issue laptop computer, ninth-graders no longer read The Once and Future King, because it’s “too long.” My eighth-grade English teacher, a patrician Southern lady of pronounced opinions, used to say, “My dears, you are not stupid. You are merely ignorant. And do you know why you are ignorant?” No, we really didn’t, but we were going to hear it anyway: “You are ignorant because you watch the idiot machine.”
This was thirty years ago, when there was only one idiot machine. Television, vehicle of Masterpiece Theatre and Match Game ‘74, has now been joined by a whole Information Superhighway, with a seemingly infinite number of exits to places that might be, but too often are not, Project Gutenberg’s collection of electronic texts. Rather than connecting the new generation with the thought and achievements of previous generations, the Web, says Bauerlein, “encourages more horizontal modeling, more raillery and mimicry of people the same age . . . . It provides new and enhanced ways for adolescents to do what they’ve always done in a prosperous time: talk to, act like, think like, compete against, and play with one another,” nowadays in a hermetically sealed, youth-culture cyber-bubble.
To get an account on Facebook—as, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that both my teenage daughter and I have done—is to enter a world in which people spend hours not only chatting but pretending to be werewolves who deliver bowls of pain to each other, or pretending to be pioneers on the Oregon trail who eat each other, or pretending to be superheroes who make each other levitate.
In such pursuits can an entire afternoon evaporate while the sentences sit undiagrammed, the history chapter unread, the magazine article unwritten. The Crito is out there, too, among the werewolves and the cannibals, but Socrates sits in his prison in vain: The youth of Athens are busy finding out what breakfast food is preferred by boy bands such as the Jonas Brothers.
The real outcome of Internet technology, argues Bauerlein, is not that it makes high culture readily available but that it usurps high culture’s place altogether. As one college student says, half-apologetically, “My dad is still into the whole book thing. He has not realized that the Internet kind of took the place of that.” An Apple Store window display features a row of gleaming laptop computers and a sign proclaiming, “The Only Books You’ll Ever Need.” Not, as Bauerlein points out, “The Only Computers.” Not “The Best Computers.” In the digital age, the Apples have trumped the oranges and rendered them obsolete, and already Johnny can’t remember what an orange tastes like.
While apologists for digital technology in the classroom trumpet computer smarts as an entirely new form of intelligence, an “e-literacy revolution,” Bauerlein offers page after page of studies that suggest e-literacy is merely newspeak for illiteracy. If students visiting interactive sites and playing video games develop, as the claim goes, “the kinds of higher-order thinking and decision-making skills employers seek today,” these skills come at the cost of time spent reading, digesting, and retaining hard knowledge. In fact, says Bauerlein, the average person’s “screen reading, surfing, and searching habits . . . mark an obdurate resistance to certain lower-order and higher-order thinking skills [including] the capacity to read carefully and to cogitate analytically.”
Contrary to claims that computer use enhances functional literacy, Bauerlein cites research suggesting that screen time actually inhibits language acquisition by limiting exposure to complex or unfamiliar words. Even “software god” Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, dismisses the world of blogs and gaming as “encapsulated entertainment”—adding, “If I was competing with the United States, I would love to have the students I’m competing with spending their time on this kind of crap.” So much for “digital intelligence,” says Bauerlein, if even technophiles recognize time spent at this generation’s idiot machines as largely wasted time.
But are the machines themselves the villains in this story? Could technology, on its own, spawn an entire mindless culture of flirting, gossiping, photo-uploading, and virtual navel-gazing—all in service of flipping off the phonies out there who don’t get that every passing emotion experienced by Tarquin D. Pebbleface and set down in textspeak is, like, “wry and hilarious,” dude? If, as Bauerlein claims, “the genuine significance of the Web to a seventeen-year-old mind” is “not the universe of knowledge brought to their fingertips, but an instrument of non-stop peer contact”—well, how did we get here?
The answer lies in the same dismal territory already traversed by Diana West in her recent book The Death of the Grownup: the wholesale abdication of adults, not only parents but teachers, in favor of adolescent self-government—a culture that nurtures its present at the expense of its past.
At its heart, Bauerlein’s book is not about machines at all but about what he calls “The Betrayal of the Mentors.” Simply put, the educational and cultural establishments have sold out tradition and authority in favor of “collaborative-learning” models and objectives like “working with every young person’s sense of self.” The average teenager, not surprisingly, views himself not as a student in need of enlightenment but as a kind of automatic savant.
“It is the nature of adolescents,” says Bauerlein, “to believe that authentic reality begins with themselves, and that what long preceded them is irrelevant.” But when the larger culture collaborates in this belief, the outcomes are, if not actually disastrous, at least depressing. Bauerlein notes that in a Time magazine cover story reporting on the “Twixter generation”—the demographic of twenty-two to thirty year-olds—“not one of the Twixter or youth observers mentions an idea that stirs them, a book that influenced them, a class that inspired them, or a mentor who guides them. Nobody ties maturity to formal or informal learning, reading or studying, novels or ideas or paintings or histories or syllogisms. For all the talk about life concerns and finding a calling, none of them regard history, literature, art, civics, philosophy, or politics a helpful undertaking.”
From the professor of Renaissance literature who declares, “Look, I don’t care if everybody stops reading literature,” to the urban teenage artist proclaiming that he’s not trying to be “Picasso or Rembrandt or whoever else, you know,” the leap is short and damningly direct. If even the grownups believe that what they know is not worth knowing, then the grownups”—teachers, professors, writers, journalists, intellectuals, editors, librarians, and curators—”are more than complicit in the creation of an exclusive teenage universe where the news is always “Me and How I Feel Now.” The technology, it would seem, merely facilitates the assumption that this is all the news that’s fit to print.
Ideas have consequences and, according to Bauerlein, the consequence of this particular idea will be the coming of age of successive generations who know less and less about the ideas that gave us Western civilization, and who therefore have less and less investment in its continuation. “Knowledge,” writes Bauerlein, “supplies a motivation that ordinary ambitions don’t.”
The kind of knowledge of which he speaks isn’t the sort that makes a person rich, beautiful, or popular. “It merely,” he writes, “provides a civic good.” In other words, learning a little, a person might come not only to regard himself as a member of society but to regard that society as something worth preserving.
Sally Thomas is a poet and homeschooling mother in North Carolina.
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