“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.