Friday, November 13, 2009

The Dumbest Generation

(news-Herald, November 12) I recently finished Mark Bauerlein’s best-seller The Dumbest Generation. It’s one more interesting entry in the genre of cranky “kids these days” screeds, but a couple of his ideas struck me as interesting. These types of books are as regular as dandelions. It seems you are not a certified grown-up until you have complained about Those Darn Young Folks.
In the 1970’s there were regular complaints about the bunch of scary young “hippies” who would gather in Franklin’s parks for all manner of nefarious purposes. In the 1930’s, the Franklin Band threatened to stop giving concerts unless parents got their children under control. [Insert tired old quote by Socrates about disrespectful younger generation here.]
There is one different factor in current complaints—the rise of the digital age. Media changes always add challenges. Find a culture that is adopting the use of writing and you will find a bunch of old-timers complaining. “Kids these days. They don’t learn the old stories and songs. They can’t remember stuff at all. They just sit around squinting at those funny marks on papyrus.”
Digital media is changing us in ways that aren’t entirely clear yet. I like to physically own my music and books; younger folks seem comfortable having these things in intangible and impermanent forms. And the internet allows my children to stay close and in touch in ways I would never have imagined.
This is my digital age story: I stopped at Sheetz and bought gas, then pulled out onto the street. My cell phone rang. It was my daughter calling from across the country to tell me that my gas cap was off. One of her friends had seen me pull out, called her on the cell phone, and then she called me.
Bauerlein’s point is that the digital age is making young Americans stupid. Some of what he says is not new. One generation’s historic essential gold is another generation’s trivial garbage. Boomers remember where they were when JFK was shot; they are lucky if their descendants even remember who JFK was.
But two of Bauerlein’s points struck a chord.
First is a simple observation. We’ve been hearing for a while now the prediction that access to the internet and computers and an infinite library of digitized information would put young brains into overdrive. The internet computer revolution was going to drop our next generation of mental saplings into a deep sea of brain-expanding fertilizer.
Well, the saplings have been soaking for well over a decade now, and there are no signs that the computer-weaned young are any brighter than their forebears, and at least a little evidence that they are actually dumber. It may be that computers don’t make folks smarter any more than the invention of the automobile made people better runners.
Bauerlein’s other interesting point is more subtle. Digital connection has made it possible to stay insulated from other people.
This is true for everybody. Folks who want to believe that Obama was not born in America can stay on the internet fully insulated from anything like facts or sense. Belief that the earth is flat also thrives on line.
But Bauerlein suggests that this effect is more insidious for young folks.
Back in the day, teens would spend just a portion of the day in Teenworld, a world of drama and angst, where cool mattered and smart did not. But at the end of the day they had to go back home, a place often (but not always) ruled by adults and subject to rules different from Teenworld. They needed permission to leave, or even to call out on the single landline in the house.
Experiences in home, church, work and other settings outside of Teenworld prepared young people for life in the adult world, a world where you have to pull up your pants, work for rewards, and listen to people who aren’t like you. When it was time to leave Teenworld, they knew how to acclimate to the Real World.
But digital media have ended that, suggests Bauerlein. With a cell phone and good texting thumbs, teens can stay immersed in Teenworld 24/7, living by nobody’s rules but their own. They stay dumb and immature and therefore often fail to learn how to take a place in the world of Grown Ups.
I don’t think Bauerlein’s book is the last word. In fact, I think he gets some things just plain wrong. But it’s an interesting place for a discussion to start.


Bethann said...
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Bethann said...

I recently saw an episode of the Amazing Race and the "clue" was a picture of Jackie Kennedy. People my age (30something), could not even identify her. Someone thought it was the Queen of England, and another thought she was a Princess for Thailand (or some such nonsense). Really??? I was shocked.

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