Serving it up to the hyperconnected generation
I read The Dumbest Generation over Christmas, though it came out in 2008. It’s a very satisfying polemic, as well as thoroughly researched — to the extent that I’m competent to judge — and its author Mark Bauerlein is a cut above the average as a stylist.
The title refers to American teenagers and young adults up to about 30, and the book is as provocative as it suggests. Bauerlein presents four theses:
1. The generation in question is indeed dumb, in the sense that they know very little about history, politics, current affairs and literature. This conclusion is based not on anecdotal evidence, but on a mass of academic research that Bauerlein painstakingly surveys. Furthermore, the youth of today are unabashedly ignorant, scornful of books, and bemused that previous generations endured the tedium of reading and absorbing such patently boring and irrelevant material.
2. The source of the trouble is, of course, the amount of time youth devote to electronic interaction, or engrossed in cyberspace amusements. It isn’t just that these activities absorb time that would be better spent on reading books; they foster a focus on ephemeral peer preoccupations, an impatient preference for instant gratification, and a narcissistic fascination with adolescent culture. All this serves to stunt vocabulary, conceptual growth and intellectual stamina, while shutting out adult influences and other sources of enduring wisdom. There is no shortage of sage social commentators ready to respond with ‘Ah, but our youth are developing new and wonderful kinds of intelligence and literacy — creative, empowered, dynamic [etc., etc.]’. However, contrary to the impression given by Michael Duffy, who doesn’t seem to have penetrated very far into the book, Bauerlein is perfectly aware of these arguments, and takes on a phalanx of apologists, harpooning their inflated claims one after the other.
Instead of opening adolescents and young adults to worldly realities, acquainting them with the course of civilisation, or at least the Knowledge Economy, digital communications have opened them to one another — which is to say, have enclosed them in a parochial cosmos of youth matters and concerns.
3. This dismal process is not the outcome of technological innovation alone. It has been allowed to go so far because the older generation of parents, teachers and public intellectuals has abnegated its intellectual mentoring responsibility. Far from discouraging the behaviours and attitudes that caused the dumbing down, the mentors have indulged them, and indeed romanticised them as liberated, independent, and even revolutionary. Bauerlein blames the 1960s counter-culture, not for adopting a questioning attitude, but for instilling a spirit of reckless sacrilege instead of engaging in erudite dialogue with the canon (as exemplified by the New York Intellectuals).
4. The likely consequences of the dumbing down are alarming. Bauerlein opens his last chapter with a detailed retelling of the story of Rip Van Winkle. By sleeping through the whole generation of the Revolution, Rip became completely disengaged, and was unable thereafter to participate in politics or influence events. Likewise the current generation, doped out on triviality, disconnected from history, and ignorant of the pantheon of great thinkers, will be incapable of defending our institutions and developing our culture. No less than democracy itself is at stake:
The youth of America occupy a point in history like every other generation did and will, and their time will end. But the effects of their habits will outlast them, and if things do not change they will be remembered as the fortunate ones who were unworthy of the privileges they inherited. They may even be recalled as the generation that lost that great American heritage, forever.
With the exception of this reflex dismissal in Newsweek, The book’s message was welcomed in reviews, presumably written by over-thirtys, in the broadsheet newspapers. The under-thirtys obviously didn’t read it — including those invited to defend themselves, if the inept performance of Bauerlein’s opponent in this debate on CNN, is anything to go by (his claim that the cyber-smart youth are relatively adept at discrminating between authoratative sources and junk is particularly risible). If readers know any young persons, you could direct them to this interview with Bauerlein, outlining the essential thesis — though it turns out he’s more articulate in print than viva.
Obviously in Australia as in the US there will be a literate minority of young people to whom Bauerlein’s conclusions don’t apply. However, the general thrust of his argument accords with my experience of tertiary students. In a class of thirty last year, only one knew who Robinson Crusoe was. And I’ve long since discovered that it’s pointless telling my History of Economic Thought class that the Bullionist Controversies took place during the Napoleonic Wars — I need to start by asking if they’ve heard of Napoleon. But of course, that’s just a couple of anecdotes. If anyone knows of Australian surveys on trends in youth reading habits and general knowledge, I’d be interested.