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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Reading List: The Dumbest Generation

Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2008. ISBN 978-1-58542-639-3.
The generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000, sometimes dubbed “Generation Y” or the “Millennial Generation”, now entering the workforce, the public arena, and exerting an ever-increasing influence in electoral politics, is the first generation in human history to mature in an era of ubiquitous computing, mobile communications, boundless choice in entertainment delivered by cable and satellite, virtual environments in video games, and the global connectivity and instant access to the human patrimony of knowledge afforded by the Internet. In the United States, it is the largest generational cohort ever, outnumbering the Baby Boomers who are now beginning to scroll off the screen. Generation Y is the richest (in terms of disposable income), most ethnically diverse, best educated (measured by years of schooling), and the most comfortable with new technologies and the innovative forms of social interactions they facilitate. Books like Millennials Rising sing the praises of this emerging, plugged-in, globally wired generation, and Millennial Makeover (May 2008) eagerly anticipates the influence they will have on politics and the culture.

To those of us who interact with members of this generation regularly through E-mail, Web logs, comments on Web sites, and personal Web pages, there seems to be a dissonant chord in this symphony of technophilic optimism. To be blunt, the kids are clueless. They may be able to multi-task, juggling mobile phones, SMS text messages, instant Internet messages (E-mail is so Mom and Dad!), social networking sites, Twitter, search engines, peer-to-peer downloads, surfing six hundred cable channels with nothing on while listening to an iPod and playing a video game, but when you scratch beneath the monomolecular layer of frantic media consumption and social interaction with their peers, there's, as we say on the Web, no content—they appear to be almost entirely ignorant of history, culture, the fine arts, civics, politics, science, economics, mathematics, and all of the other difficult yet rewarding aspects of life which distinguish a productive and intellectually engaged adult from a superannuated child. But then one worries that one's just muttering the perennial complaints of curmudgeonly old fogies and that, after all, the kids are all right. There are, indeed, those who argue that Everything Bad Is Good for You: that video games and pop culture are refining the cognitive, decision-making, and moral skills of youth immersed in them to never before attained levels.

But why are they so clueless, then? Well, maybe they aren't really, and Burgess Shale relics like me have simply forgotten how little we knew about the real world at that age. Errr…actually, no—this book, written by a professor of English at Emory University and former director of research and analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts, who experiences first-hand the cognitive capacities and intellectual endowment of those Millennials who arrive in his classroom every year, draws upon a wealth of recent research (the bibliography is 18 pages long) by government agencies, foundations, and market research organisations, all without any apparent agenda to promote, which documents the abysmal levels of knowledge and the ability to apply it among present-day teenagers and young adults in the U.S. If there is good news, it is that the new media technologies have not caused a precipitous collapse in objective measures of outcomes overall (although there are disturbing statistics in some regards, including book reading and attendance at performing arts events). But, on the other hand, the unprecedented explosion in technology and the maturing generation's affinity for it and facility in using it have produced absolutely no objective improvement in their intellectual performance on a wide spectrum of metrics. Further, absorption in these new technologies has further squeezed out time which youth of earlier generations spent in activities which furthered intellectual development such as reading for enjoyment, visiting museums and historical sites, attending and participating in the performing arts, and tinkering in the garage or basement. This was compounded by the dumbing down and evisceration of traditional content in the secondary school curriculum.

The sixties generation's leaders didn't anticipate how their claim of exceptionalism would affect the next generation, and the next, but the sequence was entirely logical. Informed rejection of the past became uninformed rejection of the past, and then complete and unworried ignorance of it. (p. 228)
And it is the latter which is particularly disturbing: as documented extensively, Generation Y knows they're clueless and they're cool with it! In fact, their expectations for success in their careers are entirely discordant with the qualifications they're packing as they venture out to slide down the razor blade of life (pp. 193–198). Or not: on pp. 169–173 we meet the “Twixters”, urban and suburban middle class college graduates between 22 and 30 years old who are still living with their parents and engaging in an essentially adolescent lifestyle: bouncing between service jobs with no career advancement path and settling into no long-term relationship. These sad specimens who refuse to grow up even have their own term of derision: “KIPPERS” Kids In Parents' Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings.

In evaluating the objective data and arguments presented here, it's important to keep in mind that correlation does not imply causation. One cannot run controlled experiments on broad-based social trends: only try to infer from the evidence available what might be the cause of the objective outcomes one measures. Many of the characteristics of Generation Y described here might be explained in large part simply by the immersion and isolation of young people in the pernicious peer culture described by Robert Epstein in The Case Against Adolescence (July 2007), with digital technologies simply reinforcing a dynamic in effect well before their emergence, and visible to some extent in the Boomer and Generation X cohorts who matured earlier, without being plugged in 24/7. For another insightful view of Generation Y (by another professor at Emory!), see I'm the Teacher, You're the Student (January 2005).

If Millennial Makeover is correct, the culture and politics of the United States is soon to be redefined by the generation now coming of age. This book presents a disturbing picture of what that may entail: a generation with little or no knowledge of history or of the culture of the society they've inherited, and unconcerned with their ignorance, making decisions not in the context of tradition and their intellectual heritage, but of peer popular culture. Living in Europe, it is clear that things have not reached such a dire circumstance here, and in Asia the intergenerational intellectual continuity appears to remain strong. But then, the U.S. was the first adopter of the wired society, and hence may simply be the first to arrive at the scene of the accident. Observing what happens there in the near future may give the rest of the world a chance to change course before their own dumbest generations mature. Paraphrasing Ronald Reagan, the author notes that “Knowledge is never more than one generation away from oblivion.” (p. 186) In an age where a large fraction of all human knowledge is freely accessible to anybody in a fraction of a second, what a tragedy it would be if the “digital natives” ended up, like the pejoratively denigrated “natives” of the colonial era, surrounded by a wealth of culture but ignorant of and uninterested in it.

The final chapter is a delightful and stirring defence of culture wars and culture warriors, which argues that only those grounded in knowledge of their culture and equipped with the intellectual tools to challenge accepted norms and conventional wisdom can (for better or worse) change society. Those who lack the knowledge and reasoning skills to be engaged culture warriors are putty in the hands of marketeers and manipulative politicians, which is perhaps why so many of them are salivating over the impending Millennial majority.

Posted at June 1, 2008 23:59