The Dumbest Generation Grows Up:
From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults
by mark bauerlein
regnery gateway, 256 pages, $29.99
Not long before the pandemic, I met a senior foreign-policy scholar at a major conservative think tank. She was visiting the New York Post opinion pages, where I worked at the time, to promote a white paper she’d just written. The title was something modest, like After Terror: Defeating Jihadism for Good. The document was printed on deliciously glossy paper; the biography in the back identified the author as the bearer of a degree from a very prestigious university.
For too long, she argued, America had pegged its Mideast policy to national governments, prioritizing counterterrorism and stability over relationships with local communities and nonstate actors. Going forward, we should reverse these priorities, even at the risk of greater instability. This was, of course, frightfully bonkers: After the Iraq debacle and the Arab Spring, it is plain that our policy class should if anything have been more protective of the Arab state system.
What level of expertise, I wondered, had informed her brainstorm? I flipped to the sources section and, to my horror, found it populated exclusively by English-language citations of popular outlets such as Foreign Policy. There wasn’t a single source in Arabic, Hebrew, or Persian. Yet here she was, propounding her thesis with the self-assurance of a twenty-first-century Bernard Lewis—and taking umbrage at critical queries.
No prizes for guessing to which age group my think-tank guest belonged: Yes, she was a fellow millennial. Her combination of grandiosity, ignorance, and fragility made her a poster case for the crisis detailed in Mark Bauerlein’s searing new book—less an anti-millennial polemic than a condemnation of parents and teachers, for having failed to transmit anything resembling a cultural inheritance to their sons and daughters.
The Dumbest Generation Grows Up is a follow-up to the author’s 2008 blockbuster, The Dumbest Generation. The earlier work warned that, far from shaping a confident, public-minded, and multi-tasking generation, the distractions and anti-cultural ideology barraging millennials would form a cohort that was narrowly skilled but lacking historical memory and depth of soul, floating aimlessly on digital ephemera.
Millennial boosters greeted this critique with jeers. Demographer Neil Howe wrote an op-ed countering that “generational putdowns, Bauerlein’s included, are typically long on attitude and short on facts.” Here was the latest old fogey to lament “kids these days,” a phenomenon as old as biblical complaints about “this evil generation.” Well, few cultural critics deserve their I-told-you-so victory laps as richly as Bauerlein does. The sequel details just how right he was.
In an early chapter, and throughout the rest of the book, the author marshals heaps of evidence that the “masters-of-the-universe” hype about millennials’ computer-aided intellects was just that. Over the last two decades, SAT reading and writing scores have continually declined and, with them, millennials’ general literacy. Socially, they’re lonely and miserable (one in five doesn’t have any friends). Economically, many are in a precarious state. The (boomer-hatched) scheme of dispatching ever more young Americans to college led schools to “jack up tuition, dangle loans, and leave [millennials] in the state of early-twentieth-century sharecroppers.”
Yet it is with millennials’ spiritual lives that Bauerlein is most concerned. As the data also show, millennials are far less likely to enjoy literature, drama, and poetry than are prior generational cohorts. This doesn’t just occasion embarrassment when millennials are called to do intellectual work (witness my think-tank visitor, or the millennial culture site that listed Evelyn Waugh among the greatest female novelists of all time). Their profound illiteracy also means that millennials lack the interior solidity needed to understand others’ motivations, to keep steady amid the topsy-turvy of the market society around them—or even to rebel meaningfully against that society. Contra the typical boomer fears of “radical millennials,” the author suggests, millennials don’t even make good radicals.
It is in making that last argument that Bauerlein lands one of his strongest blows—against the boomers as parents and educators. He retells the story of Herbert Marcuse’s visit, in 1969, to the SUNY campus at Old Westbury. To the utter dismay of the student radicals who gathered at his feet, Marcuse dressed down those who urged him to abandon his authority as a teacher and, with it, the traditional canon the Old World–born, New Left guru still cherished.
“I don’t believe in black studies or white studies,” declared Marcuse. “There’s a certain amount of material that every intelligent person should learn. . . . I am talking about the basics of history, economics, psychology, philosophy, and so on.” In a striking anticipation of today’s censorious student mutterings, one of the radicals shot back: “Are these really relevant to the black student in a revolutionary situation?” Marcuse’s unapologetic answer: Yes—precisely because the literary canon could force the would-be ghetto rebel in market society to “break with the familiar, the routine ways of seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding things.”
Bauerlein draws out the implications: “Without the guidance of tradition, the black student wouldn’t comprehend his own situation, he wouldn’t understand how radical the change had to be to transform it, and hence his revolution would never go beyond fruitless gestures of resistance.”
In the event, the boomer radicals wrought little more than “fruitless gestures.” As the Italian thinker Augusto Del Noce noted in the heat of the moment, the ’68ers had risen up with good cause against the technocratic conformism of the postwar era, but they identified precisely the wrong culprit: traditional authorities—the Church, the family, the moral law—the last bulwarks standing in the way of the market. Nineteen-sixty-eight and its aftermath thus accelerated preexisting trends, and as they grew older, the boomer rebels comfortably occupied the commanding heights of the very order they had set out to topple; the street-fighters became law partners, university administrators, and liberal interventionists.
Bauerlein’s deepest and grimmest contention is that badly (or barely) educated millennials are reproducing this cycle—only, they lack even the vestigial traditions and material prosperity their boomer parents and teachers could take for granted. Naturally, the boomers framed this failure to form their kids as “liberation”: freeing kids from the “burden” of Shakespeare and Tolstoy, so they could critically examine anime and The Terminator as “texts.”
The author’s fury at these developments in his own field—he is a retired English professor and a contributing editor at First Things—radiates off the page. How could scholars of English have so little respect for the tradition they were ostensibly called to hand on? “A chemistry professor wouldn’t downgrade the marvel of electron orbits and ionic bonding.” And yet too many English professors, and the wider university, tell students that there is no place in the republic of letters so marvelous that they absolutely must visit it before graduating. Bauerlein rages at his colleagues: “Say something! Defend [the canon]! They couldn’t, though. Any prescriptions were understood as a throwback to an authoritarian past.”
The results are familiar enough. Bauerlein draws amply from his own encounters to illustrate the impoverishment of the millennial soul and mind. One student explained to Bauerlein that her fellow students believe conservatives shouldn’t be permitted to speak on campus because “everyone deserves to be happy”—a perspective mocked to delicious effect by the author. More chillingly, Bauerlein recounts watching a millennial camp counselor leading five-year-olds in a cultish song-and-dance routine about accepting all sorts of “love.”
Why does our society form youth in this way? The answer, I suspect, is that our political economy demands people who thrive on “tools and toys, games and gossip, photos and memes, self-promotion,” as Bauerlein says. This stuff is the engine of our material order. And so, in a sense, professors are supplying precisely the kind of “human resources” that our order demands. But if the foreign policy expert I met is any indication, while millennials may be well formed to serve the modern economy, they will prove unable to sustain the conditions on which it depends.
Sohrab Ahmari is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and a visiting fellow at Franciscan University’s Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life.