The Dumbest Generation?

“Students, even of college age, have had very little conscious experience of life or books and it is no wonder their minds are bone dry.” Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America, 1945.


I’ve been meaning to write about The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future [Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30] for weeks, mainly because it has such a pithy title, but also because I mentioned it in a post a few weeks ago but hadn’t read it yet. Time passes, though. I got back from a week’s vacation to find a ton of work from both the jobs I work in the Fall plus a dead hard drive on my office computer, then classes are starting and along with them the many presentations and whatnot. Life seemed very busy all of a sudden. And then there’s the problem that I just couldn’t make it through the book, and not because I was too depressed by how the digital age has corrupted us all.

Now I’m even more belated, because yesterday’s A & L Daily linked to a two-part column by my favorite CHE columnist on stupidity in these kids today which mentions Bauerlein’s book among others. I haven’t had time to read those, either, and definitely feel that I’m falling down in my obligation to stay informed. Nevertheless, I want to forge ahead and just mention some things that struck me about The Dumbest Generation.

I wanted to like this book. I’ve written before that I’m a sucker for any hypothesis about the world going to hell in a handcart since whatever bad thing happened: Eve eating the apple, Caesar destroying the Republic, Luther destroying Christendom, European settlers killing indigenous Americans, Yankees defeating the Confederacy, Hitler killing everyone in sight, or the latest tragedy–the advent of the “digital age.” I always have a suspicion that the historical period I’m living in is the worst one except for all the historical periods that have preceded it.

And with the sole exception of movies, I’m definitely something of a cultural and intellectual snob, so I’m happy to look down at the hapless masses and say with the cultural critics, “oh yes, you can’t possibly have a worthwhile life if you haven’t read X author or aren’t familiar with Y artist or can’t hum the introductory movement of Z symphony.” Everyone seems to have different standards of snobbery, but for argument’s sake I’ll suggest the complete works of Shakespeare (check!), Albrecht Durer (check!), and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (check!). There, ain’t I cultured. But it could be Joyce’s Ulysses (check!), Picasso (check!), and Bruckner’s seventh symphony (check!). I have this pathological desire to know everything about history, literature, philosophy, politics, religion, music, and art, but I’m willing to admit that not everyone shares my passions and that doesn’t mean they’re dumb. They’re just hard to hold conversations with.

As I said, I wanted to like the book, and there are many good things about the book, but I couldn’t accept the argument.

First of all, as I wrote in the previous post, I’m skeptical of the whole enterprise of evaluating 18-year-olds by the standards of middle-aged college professors. Partly, that’s because I remember what I was like at 18, and partly because I haven’t noticed any drastic difference in students, though admittedly I see a limited number of them. However, I started teaching freshmen at the University of Illinois in 1992, and out of the few hundred students I taught there, I recall only a couple who had the sort of intellectual curiosity that one might find in graduate students or faculty. They were very ordinary 18-year-olds, and most of them were intellectually mediocre. And this was in the days before iPods and laptops, when professors were still suggesting their students “word process” their papers, when I assumed anyone with a cell phone was a doctor or a drug dealer.

Let’s also consider just ordinary people out in the world when we start thinking about the kind of intellectual curiosity and engagement with ideas and culture–or lack thereof–that some people complain about. Is it that college students are getting dumber? Or that most people are already dumb, and that more of them are going to college as standards lower? I don’t have an answer, but it’s a legitimate question. If we take a look at the most popular television shows, movies, games, magazines, websites, etc. for every age category, are we intellectual snobs going to find much to impress us? I live a pretty sheltered life these days. Just about every adult I know has at least a master’s degree, and often two or more or a PhD. I just don’t meet many uneducated people. What are they like? Most people don’t even go to college, so I have no idea what the ordinary person is like. Have we always been in decline because most people have never heard of Shostakovitch or can’t explain the Monroe Doctrine?

Some quibbles aren’t with the premise, but with some of the arguments in the book itself, though. For example: “Even if we grant the point that on some measures today’s teenagers and 20-year-olds perform no worse than yesterday’s, the implication critics make seems like a concession to inferiority. Just because sophomores 50 years ago couldn’t explain the Monroe Doctrine or identify a play by Sophocles any more than today’s sophomores doesn’t mean that today’s shouldn’t do better, far better” (30). So, in some ways the kids aren’t getting any dumber at all, but because we’re so much more advanced now and they spend so much time in school and have computers and such, the kids should somehow care about the Monroe Doctrine more than their predecessors. Why is that exactly? Because they more access to cultural information, they thus have a reason to take advantage of that access? I just don’t see the connection. Teenage culture is what it is. I think my previous question still stands. When you’re a teenager, if you can play the blues on a Strat, what difference does it make to you who’s on the Supreme Court?

Or consider the interpretation of the results of the National Survey of Student Engagement, which showed that from 2003 to 2005 (which seems like a small time frame to me) college freshmen and college seniors seemed to be reading slightly more books. This is a “disappointing improvement” because their college experience hasn’t turned them into scholarly people, like all those scholarly people running around everywhere in past generations (55-56). “Compare this attitude,” Bauerlein suggests, “with that of young Frederick Douglass.” “Or that of John Stuart Mill.” Comparing the intellectual engagement of the majority of college students or even American citizens with brilliant and eloquent men like Douglass or Mill hardly seems relevant. What do we learn by saying that most people don’t have the intellect of such men? We learn that the people who make those comparisons have spent a lot more time reading great books than they have paying attention to what most people are really like. I myself would feel most at home in a world of Douglasses or Mills, but that’s not how life is, and it’s even less like that when one leaves academia.

The book has a series of these irrelevant comparisons. “If cognitive talents rise correspondingly with the proliferation of screens and the sophistication of shows and games, why hasn’t a generation of historically informed, civically active, verbally able, and mathematically talented young adults come forth and proven the cultural pessimists and aged curmudgeons wrong?” (92). This is a typical move in the argument. Some foolish group claims that such and such technology is making everyone smarter. Obviously it isn’t. Thus the kids are somehow dumber. But this isn’t a problem with the kids or even the technology, but with the hype. The criticism shouldn’t be directed against kids and adults who do the same unintellectual things they always have–only now with shinier gadgets–but instead against anyone stupid enough to believe that a child is going to learn better or know more because their information comes from a computer rather than a book. Criticizing techno-hype isn’t as much fun, apparently, as claiming that we’ve just raised the “dumbest generation.” I don’t get the impression that Bauerlein believes the hype, though. It’s just a way to score points. However, just saying the kids aren’t as smart as some people claimed they would be doesn’t make them dumb, or even dumbest.

He asks his students to sit down with their friends at dinner and and as an experiment use some big words to see what happens. They balk at this, thinking their friends will avoid them, or more likely think them pretentious jerks. This “demonstrates that the social settings of adolescence actually conspire against verbal maturity” (155). That comes as a shocking revelation to anyone who has never been an adolescent, but should it for the rest of us? Isn’t there something to be said for discourse communities? Adolescent boys don’t talk like college professors. Neither do grown men sitting around drinking beer and cheering a football game. Neither does anyone else for that matter. Most people don’t have very large vocabularies. That’s just a fact. Most communication takes place with a minimum of words. Unless one wants to be able to articulate sophisticated thoughts or critical insights, or is in love with language, or perhaps just wants to impress other academics, an extensive vocabulary just isn’t required. Blaming teenagers because they don’t sound like educated college professors just seems like another irrelevant comparison. I can feel his pain (I once cringed when someone teaching at Princeton pronounced the “ch” in “inchoate” as the “ch” in “church”), but it doesn’t mean most people have or ever have had large vocabularies.

Finally, I couldn’t finish the book. It’s a quick read. Bauerlein is a fine writer with, I believe, good and serious intentions. There were more statistics and studies quoted, but I just couldn’t get past what seemed a flawed premise: that because teenagers today aren’t as intellectual as college professors, despite their increased access to culture through digital means, they’re somehow dumber than teenagers in the past or most adults today. The book is a great exercise in how to create an imagined crisis and boost sales, but I’m not sure it tells us about any significance between today’s college students and the allegedly smarter generations that have come before.

To Read or Not to Read

I seem to be reading a lot lately about how people don’t read anymore, especially these young people. On my recent flights, there sure seemed to be a lot of people reading books, but maybe airline travel is restricted to the especially literate, though that wouldn’t explain the four hours I once had to spend listening to the woman next to me extol the virtues of Boyd’s Bears as she traveled to a Boyd’s Bears convention. And you thought library conventions were bad.

It’s a good thing I’m not worried about the kids not reading today, because I’m putting together my syllabus for my writing seminar, which begins all too soon. The reading list isn’t especially heavy in terms of page count. I always considered such courses torture because I’m such a slow reader. In a Victorian novel course I took in graduate school, I’m not sure I finished any of the novels except The Mill on the Floss, and that’s because I had to present on it. It seemed I’d get a third of the way through one of Dickens’ interminable tomes and we’d start on yet another one. Even The Mill on the Floss I had to read so quickly I remember almost nothing about it. I think someone dies.

So the pages are relatively small in number, but dense, especially the Rawls. If you’ve ever read any Rawls (John, not Lou), then you know what a tedious writer he can be. It’s a pity someone so brilliant couldn’t write more gracefully. Still, if the prevailing views of students are correct, whatever are we to do with them? Just now I was trying to decide between a Philip Pettit or a Quentin Skinner essay to represent the republican position. I decided on both, but if these kids today don’t read, perhaps I should just teach neither. Perhaps we should abandon research and writing altogether. Why bother if the kids are so incorrigibly dumb?

From a professor at Illinois who’d obviously been around a while even then I heard about some of the protesting hippie teaching assistants teaching rhetoric in the late sixties. Instead of essays, they’d have the students make collages and such. Maybe we could abandon reading and writing completely and just do that in class. Collages have the advantage not only of looking prettier than essays, they’re also much easier to grade while stoned.

The touchstone of the new aliteracy for some seems to be that the kids today aren’t reading literature anymore. Capital L Literature apparently used to be important to the culture, and everyone who was anyone ran around discussing T.S. Eliot or Allen Ginsberg while drinking cocktails or smoking pot (respectively), or ruminating on the supposed complexities of Beckett or Sartre. The kids just don’t do this anymore, and it bothers some people.

Let’s hope the students get a smattering of great literature during their college years, but otherwise, is it so bad if they don’t read novels for fun? Some of them no doubt will go on to be the educated intellectual types who will lament for the future because the next generation will be so ill read. But if most of them grow up reading nothing more substantial than news or blogs or the occasional magazine, will they be that much different from how most people have always been? Did we ever really live through some literary golden age when masses of people read more not because it was what they wanted to do but because there wasn’t much else to do.

The nineteenth century in England and America seemed to be a relatively literate time, but was there not perhaps a large difference between those who for enjoyment read the John Stuart Mill or Matthew Arnold and those who read the serial installments of The Old Curiosity Shop and flocked to Dickens’ celebrity tours of America? When literature was entertainment, were we any better off as a society? Now that literature is less popular, doesn’t there still seem to be a lot of reading going on? And is the person who daily consumes another genre novel somehow more critical and analytical than the rest of us, more fit to be a citizen than those who skim headlines on Google News or read political blogs?

Perhaps, though, the curmudgeons and naysayers are correct, and somehow this year the students will be worse than they were last year. The dumbest generation goes to college. Apparently I’m not even protected here in my ivy league ivory tower, since if William Deresiewicz is to be believed, one of the disadvantages of an elite education is that it is “profoundly anti-intellectual,” and it also offers too many temptations to mediocrity.

I hope I don’t end up with all the mediocre, profoundly anti-intellectual students in my class. No use fretting I suppose, because there’s not much I can do about it anyway.

Before I Get Old

Gloom, like sex, sells, though it’s odd anyone would want to buy it considering that, also like sex, there’s so much of it freely available on the Internet. There’s certainly enough to be gloomy about: a pointless war, mortgage foreclosures, job losses, rich people in New York selling their spare diamonds to make ends meet. Times are hard.

They could get worse, too, if the current generation of students is as bad as some claim. I haven’t read Mark Bauerlein’s new book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, though I remember reading this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education a couple of years ago that’s obviously building up to the book. From the reviews, it sounds like a depressing read, and I gather from the title the problem is with the digital age. Perhaps it’s not just a problem with these kids today, though. Maybe the digital age is making us all stupid, as Nicholas Carr opines in the Atlantic. Maybe we’re turning (have turned?) into a culture of distracted skimmers without the attention necessary to read a book anymore. Perhaps channel-(or web) surfing is an accurate metaphor for our mental lives these days. Is it just our students who come to college as ignorant mouthbreathers panting for the next Facebook status update, or are we all like this now? It seems every week I read yet another article on how stupid we’re all becoming because we revel in distraction. Some naysayers go so far as to point a critical finger at blogs. (Disclaimer: you are now reading a blog. Blogs may be hazardous to your mind. Read at you’re own peril!)

Things may really be as bad as they seem, but somehow I can’t share in the gloom about the kids today, no matter how few of them can identify the Speaker of the House or how many of them know more about American Idol than Nathaniel Hawthorne. I might be more gloomy if I couldn’t remember the state of my own self when I was eighteen. It pains me now to think how woefully ignorant I was, how few books I’d read, how little I knew about all the subjects that I now love knowing about. Wait, no it doesn’t. This occurs to me because I have a birthday this week (don’t bother with presents, just send cash). If turning eighteen is the beginning of adulthood, I have been an adult for almost twenty-one years now.

How ignorant that eighteen-year-old was about all the subjects we claim are important! Perhaps most critics of the younger generation were always brilliant, erudite high achievers, even when young, like some of the wunderkind I see coming to Princeton. Not me. “Underachieving” was a label frequently applied to my meager efforts in school. Though now I have two college degrees in English literature, I’m not sure I ever managed to finish a book I was assigned to read in high school, and I vaguely remember sleeping through a number of my English classes. (My high school English teacher recently befriended me on Facebook, and I’m sure she’d be able to verify my scholastic inadequacies.) I was a lackadaisical student with little interest in learning what all my no doubt well intentioned teachers thought I should be learning. I wasn’t letting my schooling get in the way of my education.

My teachers seemed to like me for the most part, though, so I guess they didn’t take it personally. Well, except for that geography teacher I used to openly mock because of her incompetence. She didn’t like me very much and even had the nerve to call my parents and complain that I wasn’t taking her class seriously, as evidenced by the fact that I’d filled in deliberately fake answers on a quiz. (Trees that lose their leaves are not deciduous, for example, they are merely careless.) Also, I just remembered, the principal considered me a discipline problem because I frequently ignored the school dress code and kept my shirt untucked. Ahh, the simpler pre-Columbine days.

Certainly I learned things, and I read a lot. Though there weren’t many books in my house, I spent hours at the public library. I consumed books and articles on architecture, photography, and blues music, for example, because after a couple of years of photography and journalism classes in high school, I wanted to be a photojournalist. No, wait, after a couple of years of drafting class I wanted to be an architect. I’m sorry, I meant that I really wanted to be Eric Clapton, and I even have a black and white Strat just like he had back in the day. I probably couldn’t have told you who the Speaker of the House was in 1987. Tip O’Neill, perhaps? I could Google it to make sure. And politics? Why would anyone be interested in politics when there was so much architecture and photography around? And if you can play the blues, does it really matter if you can’t name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?

Oh, and television. I watched a ton of it. I’ve watched almost no commercial television since I turned eighteen, but that’s because I’d consumed a lifetime’s supply by then. I planned my life around Thursday nights on NBC. I wanted to go drinking at Cheers and then end up in Night Court, because I had crushes on both Shelley Long and Markie Post. I remember endless childhood Sunday afternoons watching old westerns on KXTX. We got cable TV when I was about six, and it was my friend and boon companion until I graduated from high school and gave up the habit.

And when I wasn’t blowing off my schoolwork, playing guitar, taking photos, or watching television, I was out with friends: going to parties, drinking, hanging out at the mall. It’s hard to believe that there were times when I and my friends had whole weekends with nothing “better” to do than sit around at someone’s house chatting and watching videos. Why wasn’t I reading the politics section of the newspaper? Why wasn’t I informing myself about the world? Why wasn’t I being a good, concerned citizen and steeping myself in my culture? Huh! I ask you that!

Despite all this, I seem to have come out okay, or at least I think so. The child is not always father of the man, it seems. I made it through college and two graduate programs with excellent grades. I’ve got a pretty good job, a loving family, a decent house. Despite almost completely ignoring my studies until college, I’m what most people would probably consider well read. I keep up on current events. I have a smartphone, an iPod, a laptop, and a blog, I email and IM and text message, but somehow I still manage to read a book or two a week on average. I’m now more than twice the age of our incoming college students, yet I don’t feel particularly old. I know almost nothing about contemporary youth culture and I certainly wouldn’t celebrate it, but I can’t bring myself to fault teenagers for doing the things kids do.

Perhaps all of us really are getting stupider, and this blog post is longer than most of us can read. Somehow, I just can’t get that concerned about it. I suppose I should be concerned as a citizen in a democracy, but I’m not convinced our politics are particularly democratic now, so a higher percentage of ignoramuses in a generation probably won’t have much of an effect. It might be that culture is always carried on by a remnant, and there are always bright and passionate people in every generation who manage to carry on and contribute to our knowledge of the world despite the odds.

A friend of mine mentioned he’d seen a recent clip of Roger Daltrey (now in his mid-sixties) singing “My Generation.” We saw him sing it live during The Who’s twenty-fifth reunion tour in 1989, and it seemed to me that he was old then, though he was just a few years older than I am now. It might seem ironic, his singing “I hope I die before I get old,” but maybe it depends on what it means to be old. Are we old when we can no longer understand these kids today? When we think it’s like they’re from another planet, as I recently heard a librarian say? Are we old when we judge the inadequacies of college students by our matured standards? When we no longer remember what unformed youths most of us were? When we actually believe that it’s more important for a teenager to know who the Speaker of the House is than to know the latest television shows? If that’s the case, I don’t want to get old.

The Language of the Millennials

I now declare to the world that I don’t want to hear any more librarians try to tell me that college students today are so vastly different from normal human beings that no one can communicate with them. Since when did adults become such anxious ninnies about college students? I hate to make generational generalizations, but is it a boomer thing? Were they obsessed with their self-proclaimed specialness as youths and are now obsessed with their children? Or is it librarians who themselves feel out of touch who then tell the rest of us that we’re the ones out of touch?

Recently I heard from a librarian that it was as if college students today were from another planet and that they knew much more about all this techie stuff than anyone in the room. Um, sure. Speak for yourself, buddy.

The straw that broke this camel’s back was at ALA. Normally I’m in so many committee meetings or discussion groups that I don’t get to many programs, but I had an unexpectedly free slot and went to a program on “speaking the language of the millennials.” I went, thinking I might learn something and might also get at least a blog post out of it. Besides, I knew one of the speakers.

It started with one of the organizers reading from the Beloit College Mindset List. Though this list might raise a chuckle, it’s hardly a piece of keen sociological analysis. We were told that these kids today don’t remember the Berlin Wall and that Michael Moore has always been around and apparently the Beloit College people think he’s funny. I just took a quick look through the list, and, in the letters of my generation, BFD.

Were college professors and librarians such anxious ninnies when I started college? Did they have lists like the following: The class of 1991 doesn’t remember where it was at when Kennedy was shot. Either one! It doesn’t remember the Civil Rights Act, the moon landing, the Watts riots, the Stonewall riots, the Summer of Love, Woodstock, or the Vietnam War. There have always been The Pill and calculators. For them, cut and paste is a metaphor, and they write their essays on computers! Steve Martin has always been a wild and crazy guy. By the time they graduate, more time will have passed between then and Happy Days than between Happy Days and the era it depicted. How are we ever to communicate with these kids? I don’t remember anything like that.

It was with the first speaker that I knew I was in the wrong demographic for this talk. He started with a list of eight questions. I can’t remember them all (mind slipping in my old age, I guess), but I think they were: How many of you have a cell phone? Use IM and/or text messaging? Have a digital camera? Post photos to Flickr or something similar? Watch Youtube? Post videos to Youtube? Have a Facebook/Myspace profile? And something else I don’t remember. Almost everyone raised a hand at almost every question. Even me. An entire audience of tuned in, plugged in, socially networking, socially softwaring librarians coming apparently just to make sure they weren’t missing anything, anxious to learn how to speak like these millennial people. The speaker seemed taken aback. He paused for a moment, then said “Oh. Then you’re a lot like the college students I see coming in every year.” So much for difference. The first slide, and first statement after the questions, was something like, “the Internet is an important tool for modern communication.” At that point I walked out. I just couldn’t take it anymore.

I work with new college students every year. I teach them in class, I see them in instruction sessions, I meet with them in my office. Somehow I never seem to have any problem communicating with them or speaking a language they can understand. Where I work the language of the millennials is English (for the most part). Is that not the case elsewhere in the country? Yet we librarians are bombarded with claims that these students are so vastly different from “us” that we need to learn some special language to reach them, or that they’re so much more tech-savvy than we benighted librarians. It’s come to the point where I’m not sure whether to believe them or my lying eyes.

Digital Natives and Me

Inside Higher Education reported on a program at the ALA Annual Conference about video-gaming and how we should do more of it in libraries to learn to speak to the “digital natives,” sometimes known as the millennials. I can’t imagine this going on in my library, but I’d be happy to sit around and play video games in the library. I play a lot of games, video and otherwise, with my 7-year-old daughter, so it would just be an extension of my home life.

I was struck my a couple of things in this article. The first was a quote from George Needham of OCLC. From the article:

“The librarian as information priest is as dead as Elvis,” Needham said. The whole “gestalt” of the academic library has been set up like a church, he said, with various parts of a reading room acting like “the stations of the cross,” all leading up to the “altar of the reference desk,” where “you make supplication and if you are found worthy, you will be helped.”

Perhaps this is related to Robert Pirsig calling the university the “church of reason.” I wonder, though, who has ever thought of librarians as information priests. I managed to make it through college and two graduate programs without ever talking to a librarian, so obviously not me. In fact, though I’ve answered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of reference questions, I’m not sure I’ve ever asked one. Maybe that’s why I ended up a librarian. (Well, that and having better job prospects than an itinerant rhetoric teacher.) I don’t think most students see librarians in this way. On the other hand, maybe Needham was criticizing some librarians who think of themselves as information priests, in which case, it’s a sound criticism.

But I was most struck by the label “digital natives,” which I’ve been seeing a lot lately, and its contrast with “digital immigrants.” The “digital natives” appear to be the current generation of high school and college students (i.e., the Millennials) who have grown up with the Internet, cell phones, and digital technology, while the “digital immigrants” are those oldsters who came to all this later in life.

The IHE piece links out to an article from 2001 on the “digital natives” and how they’re so much different than everyone else. If we assume 2001 wasn’t back in the dark ages, then the article might still have some relevance.

Here’s an interesting quote from the “digital natives” article:

“The importance of the distinction is this: As Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their ‘accent,’ that is, their foot in the past. The ‘digital immigrant accent’ can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it. Today’s older folk were ‘socialized’ differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.

There are hundreds of examples of the digital immigrant accent. They include printing out your email (or having your secretary print it out for you – an even ‘thicker’ accent); needing to print out a document written on the computer in order to edit it (rather than just editing on the screen); and bringing people physically into your office to see an interesting web site (rather than just sending them the URL). I’m sure you can think of one or two examples of your own without much effort. My own favorite example is the ‘Did you get my email?’ phone call. Those of us who are Digital Immigrants can, and should, laugh at ourselves and our ‘accent.’”

I must admit, I found this sketch humorous, especially having the secretary printing out the email, but I wonder how accurately this describes librarians in general, or me in particular.

I have many older colleagues, who, while they might not be as comfortable with digital technology or constant adaptation as I am, aren’t all reactionary luddites either.

However, it may depend on what counts as an accent. I was looking at a list of minimum tech competencies on the Library Revolution Blog, which includes very basic skills like creating word documents or using spell checking. One of the commenters left a rather depressing note:

“I have so, so many colleagues who think sending an e-mail is a huge task. Who don’t know how to scan and save a picture. Who can type a letter in Word, but looks blank if asked to write something on a blog. Just today I had a fellow-librarian under 40 not getting that she’d created two documents with the same name in the same place, let alone being able to figure out what to do with them.”

That doesn’t sound like a huge number of my colleagues whose work I’m familiar with, but maybe I just don’t get out much.

David Lee King expanded Library Revolution’s list to a list of “Basic Competencies of a 2.0 Librarian.” If lacking knowledge of social networks or RSS means one is a digital immigrant, then most of the librarians I know probably are. On the other hand, I usually ask my students if they’re familiar with RSS, and they generally aren’t, so who knows.

I’m still not sure whether I’m a digital native or immigrant, though. For the record, I’m 38 (or will be in a couple of weeks), which puts me a generation behind the “digital natives,” but I certainly don’t feel like a digital immigrant. I may not have been on the Internet as a child, but I did have an Atari. I couldn’t do much with it, but I did have an Apple IIc, which according to the now standard reference source Wikipedia debuted in 1984, and hadn’t been out long when I got one. So maybe I was 16 instead of 6, but remember that Joseph Conrad spoke little English until he was about 20, and he wrote some pretty good stories. I may be a digital immigrant, but I’ve been one longer than I was an analog native.

I adapt quickly to change. i solve my own problems. I learn new technologies easily and by doing. I seldom “RTFM” unless I hit a snag.

I spend a lot of time with my various computers, and interact with them quickly and seamlessly. I always turn to the Internet first for information. Except for books, of which I read aplenty, almost all of my reading is done online, and I also do a lot of reading with the ebook reader on my pocket PC. I can’t remember the last time I touched an actual newspaper. I read, I write, I edit, I IM, I play games, I play around with social software, I surf the web, I study subjects, all on my computer. I have a feed reader, a Facebook account, a Del.icio.us page, and a Second Life avatar. I’ve been giving talks lately on what could loosely be termed “Google 2.0.” I can do all the stuff on the tech and 2.0 competencies list. My use of gadgets is mainly limited by my bank account, and if my library would foot the bill for all my technology desires, I wouldn’t have to suffer from knowing someone else has a sleeker, lighter, more powerful laptop than me.

On the other hand, I’m not an addict. Really, I could quit anytime I want. For example, when I teach writing, I rarely allow laptops in my classroom. For the Princeton Writing Program, I teach a writing seminar on political philosophy and political rhetoric. (Current title: “Liberalism and its Critics.”) I teach essays by John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Michael Oakeshott, Susan Okin, etc., and I insist the students print out the essays and bring them to class. Probably the only time I print out essays anymore is when I teach them.

Is that a “digital immigrant” accent? I don’t think so. I think it’s a way to slow down the rapid thoughts of both myself and my students so that we concentrate on the details of difficult philosophical essays and discuss the fine points of the articles. I don’t lecture, I lead discussions, and there’s no room for multitasking when engaged in a serious philosophical discussion about the applicability of Rawls’s “difference principle” or whether liberal egalitarianism should be more “ambition sensitive.”

Even if the students process some things differently, they are still human, and one goal of humanistic education is to teach students to read, write, and think deeply and carefully, to abjure the easy path, and not to think they’ve mastered a subject by reading the Wikipedia and Sparknotes (both of which I like, by the way). Hegel thought philosophy was superior to other forms of writing because it is the most abstract and can do away with images entirely. While one may be able to use a videogame to help teach philosophy, I doubt one could reproduce the Phenomenology of Spirit as a music video. Difficult thought requires concentration, writing requires concentration, and if the digital natives deny that I can only think they’re dissembling or that they avoid difficult thought.

Even with this example of a digital immigrant “accent,” I definitely don’t feel like an immigrant, and apparently in many ways I have a lot more in common with people twenty years younger than me than I do with people twenty years older than me. Or at least a lot more in common than I would have thought.

I’m very comfortable with technology and am happy to pick up and use any digital tools I need. But I do wonder whether rhetoric about “digital natives” and how vastly different they are obscures the overwhelming similarities we all share as humans. Do 2.0 tools make us different, or just better able to do things we’ve always done in a more efficient fashion? I see the value in new modes of communication and social interaction, but I also see the value in older methods of social and especially educational interaction: Slowing down. Reading closely. Thinking carefully. Discussing thoroughly. Writing precisely. If we don’t teach these skills, then we will have lost something important and valuable in our society.

So I wonder how much of this stuff is real, and how much hype. Perhaps that’s because I’m a Gen Xer, and we’re cynical and don’t like hype.

Thoughts on the Millennials

There’s been a lot talk about the so-called Millennial generation the past few years.

Radical Millennialist librarians often make sound recommendations, for example that libraries should provide better and more various services and that OPACs can be made more customizable. I think those are great ideas. My disagreement with the most radical of the Millennialist camp, and the Millennial rhetoric in general, is not that libraries shouldn’t change or adapt, and even adapt quickly, but that the revolutionary rhetoric goes too far. Some librarians talk about “reinventing” everything these days, but reinventing the library might be as foolish as reinventing the wheel.

We have an obligation to integrate today’s students into a culture of research and learning. Adapting ourselves to current communication styles is fine as long as we remember that. We should know our ends so we can choose our means. We should always ask ourselves what we lose by scrapping the way we have done things. A healthy attitude to change doesn’t involve reinventing everything every generation, but always reevaluating what we have and deciding whether to keep it, keeping the best and discarding the rest.

Making the OPAC more user-friendly should of course be done. It’s not like there’s a great tradition behind OPACs. They’ve always been bad. But it would be different to abandon classification schemes or ignore the complexity of scholarly research just because one can’t do it on Google.

One of the most flawed analogies frequently made about college students these days is that they are customers or consumers. Millennials are customers who are used to getting things fast and now and they get impatient if they have to wait. Certainly college students or their parents are paying for something, but are they consumers in the ordinary sense?

So the Millennials want everything fast and now. Instead of reinventing ourselves completely to try to cater to their expectations of instant gratification, perhaps we should try instead to altar their unrealistic expectations. Scholarly research does not offer instant gratification. Instant gratification must always be shallow gratification. The gratification that comes from researching a topic, formulating a claim, and making an argument is never instant. On the other hand, neither is it fleeting, as instant gratifications often are. By including students in the culture of scholarship, we are instead offering them the lasting gratification of knowledge and skill that comes with mastering a topic, however small that topic may be.

Let us also consider whether we should think of college students as consumers. The implication is that the customer is always right. Consumers know what they want and they’re paying to get it and they don’t want any argument. But do we benefit anyone by thinking of college students this way? Is the customer always right? Does this not imply that the customers already know what they want?

I think it does, which is why I think the analogy breaks down. Students may indeed come to college thinking they know what they want. But can we really believe that 18-year-olds have enough knowledge of the world and its possibilities, especially its intellectual possibilities, to already know what they want? Is this very realistic? Or is it more likely that students come to college to learn, or that at least ideally that’s why they come to college. If college students are consumers, just what is it they’re consuming? Is it what they want when they want it? Or is it the knowledge and expertise of those who know more than they do and who guide them?

The claim that we should completely reinvent libraries for every generation is no more plausible on the surface than the counter-claim that we should seek to integrate each generation into the best traditions of our culture. The competing claims are: 1) Every new generation is superior to what has gone before and we have to adapt to them; and 2) What has gone before has been built up over generations, reformed, improved, and that the desire of youth to start over could be motivated by their lack of understanding of what exists and why.

Before we reinvent the research library, shouldn’t we at least ask what it does well, and why it does what it does? Shouldn’t we ask, if we are going to reinvent ourselves every generation, how can we possibly progress? The question isn’t necessarily whether we should attempt new ways to communicate with the Millennial students. Of course we should. The question is why. Why are we trying new ways to communicate with the current generation of college students? Is it just to deliver to them everything they think they want, or to integrate them into the tradition of research, scholarship, and thought.

Libraries should be stimulating environments, but do we stimulate students by creating an illusion of seamlessness, or by revealing the challenges of research and learning? Are we here just to solve problems for students, or to give them problems to solve? Are we here to hide complications, or to show how complicated the world can be?

Library research is complicated, and it likely will be for a long time, and it’s not because librarians want it to be that way. We can adapt and change all we want, but that doesn’t mean that vendors and publishers aren’t going to keep protecting their copyrighted content or that everything will be easily accessible from one interface. We can work hard to make research appear seamless, but it’s not and possibly never will be. As long as the information world is as complicated as it now is, librarians can only try to make things more accessible, not reinvent the world through an information revolution.