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The Dumbest Generation

Elizabeth Nolan Brown's Review of 'The Dumbest Generation.'

Last summer, The Atlantic magazine asked its readers, "Is Google making us stupid?"

It's an intriguing question—and a terrifying one. And if you are Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, the answer is a resounding "Yes!"

Bauerlein's sensationally titled book,The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30), challenges the conventional wisdom about "e-literacy" and the (supposedly) beneficial effects of digital culture. Along the way, Bauerlein tosses off worthy aperçus about the role of technology in classrooms, adolescent development (and comportment), American leisure time, and modern intellectual life.

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Regrettably, Bauerlein's better points are blunted by his reluctance to apply his observations to anyone over 30. He also romanticizes the intellectualism of previous eras and takes a histrionic, sky-is-falling approach to much of the material—democracy itself is at stake!

Full disclosure: I belong to Bauerlein's much-maligned "Millennial" generation—which he defines as those born from 1980 to 2000—but I am hardly what he terms a "digital native." I did not grow up with a cell phone or the Internet, nor did my family own a computer until I was in eighth grade. I am therefore sympathetic to certain of Bauerlein's concerns:

  • That the round-the-clock invasion of a teen's day by social-media devices—cell phones, personal computers, and their ilk—has all but obliterated the sanctuary once enshrined in the family dinner hour.
  • That certain technology hyped in schools (a laptop for every student, for instance) may not be as beneficial as more traditional educational investments.
  • That the nature and speed of reading and writing on the Web may discourage long-form reading and critical-thinking skills.

If the Millennial generation is indeed dumber than any before it, writes Bauerlein, many people and institutions must share the blame. Let's start with the pop-media image of the overworked yet overachieving American high-school student—largely a myth, in Bauerlein's view. To hear him tell it, the kids are most decidedly not alright. Instead, they score abysmally low on knowledge tests, shun reading for pleasure in higher numbers than ever before, devote little time to homework, and enter college ill-prepared in such basic arenas as writing and math.

But the book never quite delivers on Bauerlein's promise of explaining how or why the digital age endangers our future. Bauerlein lays much of the liability for the robust leisure habits and intellectual torpor of the Millennials squarely at the feet of the U.S. educational system, where parents and educators have emphasized "self-esteem" at the expense of discipline. True, perhaps—but that dynamic is hardly a manifestation of "digital culture."

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In other instances Bauerlein finds signs of decline that can, in fact, be attributed to technology, yet they apply to the adult population in its entirety, not just to teens and 20-somethings. The author laments the rise in television viewing and other media consumption at the expense of book reading, pointing out that the literary reading rate for 18- to 24-year-olds fell from 60 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2002. But as Bauerlein's own charts reveal, the reading rate sagged in every age group: from 60 percent to 47 percent for 35- to 44-year-olds, and from 47 to 45 percent for the 65-to-74 set. Bauerlein cites Pew Research Center statistics showing that the emergence of 24-hour cable news shows and the growth of the Internet have "had little impact on how much Americans know about national and international affairs." But again, this knowledge deficit holds true among all age groups. (And by the same token, media-selection bias—the tendency of consumers to seek out only those cable programs, websites, and other news sources that reinforce their existing prejudices—is a problem that afflicts each generation in turn.)

The Dumbest Generation misinterprets shifting cultural tastes as evidence of irreparable decay. Bauerlein bemoans the lack of youth attendance at ballets and classical-music concerts, but neglects to say why these art forms should be any more conducive to artistic development or appreciation than indie rock or step-dancing. Besides, how many prior generations actually favored ballet and classical music as forms of youth entertainment?

Today's teens and 20-somethings will invariably fall short of Bauerlein's opera-loving, book-devouring, TV-phobic archetype of young persons past. But what if we look at generational measures that can be compared using cold, hard data—standardized test scores, for instance? "On some measures," Bauerlein concedes, "today's teenagers and 20-year-olds perform no worse than yesterday's." But he quickly brushes this aside, insisting that it "doesn't mean that today's shouldn't do better…with such drastic changes in U.S. culture and education in the last half-century." Maybe it doesn't—but neither does it support the contention that today's young folks are dumber than ever before. The simple truth is that on assessments from IQ scores to the SAT, Millennials score just as well as, or better than, previous generations.

"Digital enthusiasm and reporters looking for a neat story can always spotlight a bright young sophomore here and there doing dazzling, ingenious acts online," snipes Bauerlein, "but they rarely ask whether this clever intellect would do equally inventive things with pencil and paper, paint and canvas, or needle-nose pliers and soldering iron if the Web weren't routinely on hand."

True enough—yet would today's teens be pursuing truth, beauty, and justice if only they had grown up in a pre-digital age? Or would they have merely found a way to fill their time with some other time-hallowed (if intellectually hollow) teen diversions—gabbing on the phone, playing sports, reading comic books?

These shortcomings aside, Bauerlein's techno-skepticism does have a certain bracing aspect. He challenges the notion that "e-literacy" (the alleged ability of the Internet and video games to foster learning and skills in nonstandard ways) should be lumped in the same category as more traditional forms of knowledge—reading comprehension or civic awareness, for starters. He also chastises today's teachers, parents, and mentors for being so enamored of digital culture that they have forgotten to instill proper respect for history, tradition, and the life of the mind.

Few people would contest the fact that today's young are disarmingly proficient in the use of digital technology and multimedia communications. But is a six-year-old's facility at burning CDs truly a harbinger of doom? Though The Dumbest Generation would have us believe otherwise, technology use per se does not the decline of western civilization make.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown is a Web content manager and assistant editor for AARP Bulletin Today.

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