Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Dumbest Generation

The dumbing-down of America continues at an astounding pace and an Emory University English professor believes that he knows why it is happening. Mark Bauerlein has written a book that will likely irritate as many people as there will be people who will praise it for its insights, starting with the very title of the book: The Dumbest Generation – How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. Labeling any generation “the dumbest generation” is guaranteed to draw the wrath of most of those falling into that age group. Unfortunately for them, Bauerlein builds a strong case that the title of his book is entirely accurate.

But make no mistake. Bauerlein is not calling this generation stupid; he is saying that their ignorance is largely the result of the technology they have grown up with, technology that keeps them tied to their peers practically 24 hours a day, thus ensuring that they can completely insulate themselves from the rest of the world and whatever responsibilities and challenges they might be asked to face. Their worlds are so local and so superficial that they can completely cut off circumstances beyond their immediate circle of friends. If the subject does not involve “friends, work, clothes, cars, pop music, sitcoms (and) Facebook,” they are not much interested.

According to Bauerlein, and the numerous studies he cites throughout The Dumbest Generation, the main culprit in this sad story is the computer, the very tool that was supposed to give this generation an advantage over all that preceded it. But instead of using computers and the internet to their advantage, members of “the dumbest generation” have turned them into little more than combination telephone/television contraptions through which they can seamlessly socialize with their friends and peers.

A related problem is that these young people have grown up in a “disposable society,” one in which it is cheaper, easier, and much more fun to replace broken consumer items with new ones than it is to repair the old ones. It has become the norm for Americans to throw out old consumer electronics items and the like because, frankly, it is cheaper to buy new ones than to get the old ones repaired. Unfortunately, in the “cut and paste” society in which these young people live, knowledge has become just as disposable as any consumer electronic product. Students have convinced themselves that there is no point to retaining knowledge on any subject because that information can be found on the internet within seconds when, and if, they need it. So they “cut and paste” the information they need, often from dubious internet sources, and make almost no effort to retain any of it. Why bother, they think, when I know where to find it if I ever need it again?

Bauerlein builds a strong case that the failure of this generation to assimilate the history and culture of the society in which it lives is a dangerous thing, a breakdown that threatens the democratic system under which this country has thrived for more than two centuries. These young people, as a whole, do not read books; they do not study history, foreign affairs, civics, the arts or much else. If it happened before 1990, they are not interested. Bauerlein wonders where the next generation of “strong military leaders and wise political leaders, dedicated journalists and demanding teachers, judges and muckrakers, scholars and critics and artists” will come from and he hopes that his book will finally open the eyes of teachers, parents and reporters in time to save this generation – and our country’s future.

Of course there are exceptional members of “the dumbest generation,” young people who are as determined to learn and prosper as any who preceded. But they seem to be as much the exception as they are exceptional, and that is scary.

As Bauerlein puts it, “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.”

Agree with it or not, this book will make you think. It might irritate you or it might upset you, largely depending on which generation you are a member of, I suspect. Read it with an open mind and decide for yourself.

Rated at: 3.5


  1. haha...I like the dedication, Sam.

    I have to say as a former teacher I dealt with a lot of what is probably in this book - so I'm intrigued; I'll have to check it out. However, I do have to say that I think the parents of these young people are just as much to blame as the technology...I tried to be a demanding teacher, emulate the teachers that made me what I am today...but I was knocked down repeatedly by parents and administrators who did not want to see their children forced to take responsibility and be accountable. When I got tired of being the one at fault because students didn't do their homework or didn't attend class regularly or didn't come to class prepared, I decided I'd had enough and left public education. From what I hear from college professors and people in the work place, the students' attitudes aren't any different outside the high school - go figure.

    It is always nice to run into one of those high achievers, though. It renews my faith!

  2. Hi Sam:
    Good review. I thought you might be interested in an interview I recently did with Mark. He gives some intriguing perspective on his book:

  3. With the disclaimer that I speak from the Gen X/Gen Y cusp... While all those things are true to varying degrees, it seems to me that the technology developments of the past 10-15 years have only served to accelerate social trends already in motion. Indulgence, hedonism, narcissism, magnification of the generation gap resulting from peer cocooning - they're all plottable themes through the culture of the 60's, 70's, 80's (not incidentally the identity-forming years of the Millennials' parents).

    Judging from your synopsis, I suspect I'd agree with most of what Bauerlein has to say, but at the same time, I think there's a lot of truth in this assessment as well.

  4. Jen, the book does point out that parents and other "mentors" of this generation have failed them in the sense that they are allowing the young people to be overwhelmed by all this new technology. Bauerlein believes that is because these "mentors" are doing the politically correct thing and may be confused by what they see, believing that these technology savvy youngsters are getting much more from computers than they really are.

  5. Mella, I agree that the trend has been there since at least the sixties. The difference now is that all of these "screens" with which this generation can surround itself makes it easier than ever before for young people to insulate themselves from the real world.

    They come to believe that nothing is important unless it has something to do with their friends, their age group, or their social lives.

  6. GFS3, thanks for the link. I'll definitely check that out.

  7. That "spoiled" circle cracked me up, from Mella dp's comment. So true.

    Well, at some point, civilization has to fall, doesn't it? One of the generations will see it topple. It's odd how much the computer generation has in common with the original tribes of yore. No outside contact, insulated.

  8. It's the new Screens Tribe, Carrie. You're either in or out, I suppose.