Sunday, December 6, 2009

you heard it there first: the best reviews of Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation

If you've read even a post or two from this blog, you know that I'm going to fiercely oppose the main theories guiding Bauerlein's 2008 book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.

In a precise exercise in ridiculousness, Bauerlein's book is loaded up with sweeping claims like the following:
[M]ost young Americans possess little of the knowledge that makes for an informed citizen, and too few of them master the skills needed to negotiate an information-heavyt, communication-based society and economy. Furthermore, they avoid the resources and media that might enlighten them and boost their talents....
[Y]oung people do not understand the ideals of citizenship, they are disengaged from the political process, they lack the knowledge necessary for effective self-government, and their appreciation and support of American democracy is limited.

If that's what Bauerlein's selling, I don't want any.

I am, thanks be to god, not alone in my disgust at Bauerlein's dance of intellectual superiority. Many others have attacked his book and its tenets with grace, aplomb, and gusto. I give you a list of Reviews That Have Me Nodding My Head In Vigorous Agreement.

I begin with a smart and sassy Newsweek review by Sharon Begley and Jeneen Interlandi, who accuse Bauerlein of coming late to the party:
Really, don't we all know by now that finding examples of teens' and twentysomethings' ignorance is like shooting fish in a barrel?... From evidence such as a decline in adult literacy (40 percent of high-school grads had it in 1992; only 31 percent did in 2003) and a rise in geographic cluelessness (47 percent of the grads in 1950 could name the largest lake in North America, compared with 38 percent in 2002), for instance, Bauerlein concludes that "no cohort in human history has opened such a fissure between its material conditions and its intellectual attainments."

He is a little late to this party, of course. The old have been wringing their hands about the young's cultural wastelands and ignorance of history at least since admirers of Sophocles and Aeschylus bemoaned the popularity of Aristophanes ("The Frogs," for Zeussakes?!) as leading to the end of (Greek) civilization as they knew it. The Civil War generation was aghast at the lurid dime novels of the late 1800s. Victorian scholars considered Dickens, that plot-loving, sentimental ("A Christmas Carol") favorite, a lightweight compared with other authors of the time. Civilization, and culture high and low, survived it all. Can it survive a generation's ignorance of history? For those born from 1980 to 1997, Bauerlein lamented to us, "there is no memory of the past, just like when the Khmer Rouge said 'this is day zero.' Historical memory is essential to a free people. If you don't know which rights are protected in the First Amendment, how can you think critically about rights in the U.S.?" Fair enough, but we suspect that if young people don't know the Bill of Rights or the import of old COLORED ENTRANCE signs—and they absolutely should—it reflects not stupidity but a failure of the school system and of society (which is run by grown-ups) to require them to know it. Drawing on our own historical memory also compels us to note that philosopher George Santayana, too, despaired of a generation's historical ignorance, warning that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." That was in 1905.
Liz Losh, in a review titled Dumbest and Dumber, agrees with the above assertion that though Bauerlein would have us believe otherwise, the complaints of an emerging unprecedented era of ignorance are not new or particularly well founded; and besides, she adds,
how can you hate people under thirty with this much dripping bile and still work as a competent and professional faculty member? How would it be possible to teach your classes with this much misanthropy aimed at people of your students' ages? With this much contempt taking place in inner monologues that are so well-rehearsed, how can you not communicate it to the student seeking help on the other side of your desk? Well, based on his ratemyprofessor standings, it looks like he's an easier instructor than I am, ironically. So much for defending high standards of achievement for students.
Over at BlogCritics, Kevin Eagan acknowledges that some of the trends identified by Bauerlein are "disturbing" but wonders about the extent to which The Dumbest Generation offers only the evidence that fits the thesis. "Bauerlein seems to think things are different because the Internet has only given teens one more way to escape adult life," Eagen writes.
And to a certain extent, he's right; the Internet is not used by teens to further their intellectual pursuits, at least, not in the way educators would like. But as with all new technologies, the Internet is currently going through a teething stage, and it's too early to say if our new digital lives will mean the next generation will forever ignore civil discourse and become apathetic toward art and history as adults.... Bauerlein's approach reveals a one-sided argument, one that forgets that art is created on the fringes of society and that young people rarely get involved in these pursuits since, after all, they're too busy trying to impress their friends.

This last point, by the way, is also a lynchphin of Losh's position with respect to Bauerlein's argument. She finishes her post with this video, which she identifies as a "dizzying spectacle of racial and sexual stereotypes, romantic melodrama, consumerism, instant gratification, and commodity fetishism emptied of its destructive social directives and turned into a clever musical soup that is danceable and evocative of guilty nostalgias and heterogeneous pleasures that Bauerlein would have us condemn."

Writing in the LA Times, Lee Drutman agrees that Bauerlein is an alarmist whose call to arms against the rising tide of ignorant youth "seems at once overblown...and also yesterday's news"; but Drutman also offers that "amid the sometimes annoyingly frantic warning bells that ding throughout 'The Dumbest Generation,' there are also some keen insights into how the new digital world really is changing the way young people engage with information and the obstacles they face in integrating any of it meaningfully. These are insights that educators, parents and other adults ignore at their peril."

Is Drutman right to find some kernel of useful information in the collection of histrionics that Bauerlein calls a "book"? Well, sure. It's probably not exactly good that young people don't like to read books. At the same time, however, we would do well to approach the gathering data from a somewhat more nuanced approach. Young people aren't spending their free time reading books; so what are they doing? They're not spending their free time learning about historical events; so what kind of history piques their interest? They don't know a whole lot about Constitutional law, the Supreme Court, or local politics; so how do you explain youth turnout in the 2008 Presidential election?

While I disagree with just about every argument Bauerlein makes,  I do agree--in principle, anyway--with Bauerlein's assertion that awareness of history and involvement in traditional political models are down, way way down. But unlike Bauerlein, I see no reason to cry into my imported beer over this. I believe that a new model of civic engagement is emerging, one that our current tests, surveys, and evaluative measures cannot yet identify or account for. The new civics is an everyday civics, one that may or may not include involvement in local, or state, or national politics; it's a kind of just-in-time civic engagement that emerges out of an immediate need. In the just-in-time model, knowing what (names, dates, definitions) is far less important than knowing how (how to access names, dates, definitions, when that type of information becomes relevant and necessary). Who cares if you can name every sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice if you're able to locate and verify a list of current Justices in ten seconds flat?

If you want to justify a conviction that young people are stupid, boring, and lazy, then you look to tests that measure knowing what. If you believe, as I do, that today's young people are as smart, fascinating, and engaged as any previous generation, then you start figuring out ways to measure knowing how.


The Untwitterable said...

Yes, Bauerlein does seem to have a skewed construct of intelligence (skewed towards facts and answers rather than say problem solving skills, conceptual clarity, artistic expression, resourcefulness, and other indicators of intelligence. It is perhaps because he relies on survey measures that are based on decades old assessments (because they still use the same assessments and instruments they used decades ago)that are skewed towards recollected facts and answers.

Also as a terrible side-note, before i can post my comment, this application makes me verify a word, which in of itself is a bit insulting - the assumption being that i am a robot, and a dumb robot at that - but worse the word that it has chosen for me is 'humper' and its in big blug wavy letters as if exclaiming at me: YOU HUMPER. TYPE THIS WORD YOU HUMPER. and the box in which i'm suppose to verify that i'm human enough to type this word, there's a handicap icon adjacent to it, and through this odd mix of word verification, humper, and handicap something just isn't right or politically correct for that matter.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Though I understand and sympathize with your point, just try to explain it to the Russians who keep trying to sell their pharmaceuticals on my blog.

Ironicus Maximus said...

"In the just-in-time model, knowing what (names, dates, definitions) is far less important than knowing how (how to access names, dates, definitions, when that type of information becomes relevant and necessary). Who cares if you can name every sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice if you're able to locate and verify a list of current Justices in ten seconds flat?"

Yeah, but...

We get it, but we can't help thinking that these are two versions of the same thing. Whether you carry the information around with you in your head, or have the skills to access it when you want to, the real question is then what?

Having a sense of how ideas move from the fringe to the mainstream and how they change the shape of the society they move through--for good or ill--requires a broader grasp. It's knowledge that is a verb, not a noun. It requires that you balance text and context and we're just not certain that technology that enables one instant access to the pieces is just a detail generator that can't glimpse the whole canvas, and may lead to the blind men and the elephant syndrome.

Of course that's just our opinion, we could be wrong.

PS: Our verification word is "exactor." We like the implications of that.

PPS: One of the reasons kids can't do this is because adults don't teach them how, in fact adults teach them it's an unimportant skill.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Well, yes...but... well, I can take my experience in learning basic html as an example. I learned two commands early on--how to link to outside url's and how to insert blockquotes. I couldn't remember the commands, so I pasted them to a sticky note on my desktop. Eventually and accidentally, I ended up memorizing some basic formatting commands and internalized the basic html structure, such that when a talk I recently saw had points labeled < 1 > first point< /1>, < 2>second point< /2>, & < 3>third point< /3>, I understood the reference.

That's the broader grasp to which you refer, right? The ability to make wider cultural connections between concepts and to see how and why things gain cultural currency?

P.S. How do you "knowledge" something? Or perhaps it's an intransitive verb: "To knowledge."

Ironicus Maximus said...

Wellll....learning a static skill like programming isn't quite the same as tracking and predicting the effects of socio/historical/cultural movements across the timescape. After all, once you learn blockquote it stays blockquote forever, but learning to be literate today isn't anywhere close to what it meant to learn it twenty years ago and probably will have shifted again in the next twenty.

But let's not quibble. Perhaps our grammar metaphor was not the most elucidative. Elucidating? OK, clear.

Let's try quantum mechanics instead. An electron can be measured for its position, or its speed, but not both at the same time.

Our worry is that technology particularizes knowledge, lending value (perhaps inadvertently) to the illusion of stasis and may offset the capacity to track and measure (and predict) its movement through time, a skill we feel far more necessary to the continuation of the species than knowing who the fifth president of the United States was.

To be clear, we agree with you that Bauerlein is a doof, but we're just not convinced he's a doof for the reasons you think.

OK, we're going to drink now.

PS: Now our verification word is urials which is pretty close to urinals. We find that most upsetting.

PPS: BTW the fifth president of the US was Monroe. We can particularize when we want to.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Around these parts, the "Mad Max scenario" is hitting near-meme intensity. It's the stance that if everything collapsed tomorrow and all we had was our own best selves, those who crammed all potentially useful information in their heads would outlast those who trusted in the distribution of knowledge and expertise across a (physical or virtual) community. To steal flagrantly from a very very smart person I know: Bauerlein wants us to treat our brains as backup computers in case of system failure.

But let's face it: if we really get to the stage where we have to drink our own urine (there it is again! urial!), most of the information even the most intense and well read citizens have stored in their heads will be useless anyway. Besides, the "decline of civilization" argument may not be dead, but it's old enough that it's starting to smell funny. Socrates worried about writing as a technology; he thought it would ruin our memories. Then the fountain pen replaced the quill and people wrung their hands. Then the ball point pen replaced the fountain pen and people wrung their hands. Then we got typewriters and, you guessed it: more hand wringing. Calculators, computers, cellphones, GPS: all are tools that hold on to information we previously had to keep in our heads if we wanted to access it.

But for the love of pete, difference does not equal decline. Change does not equal dissolution. And if we end up having to drink our own urine, I'm not going to need to know who the fifth president of the former United States was. I'm going to need to know how to accomplish essential tasks efficiently and effectively--something I've learned a good deal about through my use of new media technologies.

Ironicus Maximus said...

Whoa. Hang on their girl. Don't go all James Kuntsler on us.

Certainly we agree that your new fangled media could teach you how to fricassee the neighbor's dog when the time comes (so could have your grandpa too probably), but our point isn't immediacy, it's perspective.

For example, would Fox News have been able to do as much damage to the democratic process as it has if people had understood right away that it's just the 21st century equivalent of The Aurora and Glenn Beck is a direct descendant of James Callender?

Well, guess we can't answer that except to say we hope not. Anyway, when it comes to immediacy the new media has that down cold.

Every benefit has a cost though, and that's what has us wondering if all this speed and ease of information transfer isn't short circuiting the process by which information is turned into knowledge, or maybe making people come to believe that the two terms are equivalent.

That scares us even more.

Mark Deuze said...

nice addition of Zappa here: "the "decline of civilization" argument may not be dead, but it's old enough that it's starting to smell funny."

Michael Schudson discussed the dilemma as the distinction between being "informed" and "informational", where the first (if i remember correctly) refers not just to knowing information, but also having the ability to do something meaningful with information.

its what our friend Henry Jenkins and others would refer to as the crucial difference between the digital divide and the participation gap: having access to media/technologies is not the same as being able to participate in today's digital culture.

for me, its important to not see these things as dichotomies (that's when they become false). education, as Rorty claimed, is all about balancing the needs for socialization (largely involving information transfer) and individualization (generally requiring information assimilation).

that suggests that not knowing facts and not doing what parents/older people/The Man expects you to be doing (with facts) is filtered through the conditions of today's individualized society, sprinkled with the anti-hierarchical bent of youth, and so on.

and regarding the mad max thing: if survival its all about making meaningful connections, i don't think todays young folks will have a lot of trouble - as connections are all they know.

(ps my word was stompat. go figure)


All content on this blog has been relocated to my new website, making edible playdough is hegemonic. Please visit and update your bookmarks!