The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein
As a bibliophile, a massive nerd, and a college student, The Dumbest Generation initially felt like a direct challenge–aided, no doubt, by the fact that Mark Bauerlein is a professor at Emory University, a stone’s throw from my personal stomping grounds. (There was something delightful about thinking aloud, “Sir, Lenox Mall is a beautiful establishment, I don’t know what you’re thinking.”) I opened it waiting for a tirade against video games and other digital media that I hold dear. I closed it a little illuminated.
The Dumbest Generation laments the willful ignorance of the Millennials (or whatever term you prefer for my generation) in a culture that increasingly talks down to their level and enables them to maintain their adolescent ways. Bauerlein drives the point home with reams and reams of discouraging data about how a majority of Millennials can’t read properly, don’t know history, can barely do mathematics–and, despite these failings, think they’re doing well.
Bauerlein, weirdly, doesn’t offer a concrete definition of what he considers knowledge, but it appears to be a mix of basic schooling, an ability to synthesize information, and a healthy intellectual curiosity. I was aghast to learn of the lack of intellectual curiosity among an apparent majority of my peers. Of course, I knew that few people read as much as I do, and that some people simply don’t like to read. But the idea that a lot of my peers simply aren’t curious absolutely floored me. If the story of Rasputin’s death doesn’t make you want to learn more about history, I don’t know what will, quite frankly.
I have to admit, I was prepared for an attack on video games, digital life, and, perhaps, fandom itself, but Bauerlein devotes as much ire to video games as he does to Facebook (which, hilariously, he italicizes at the end of a list at one point, making it sound insidious). Fandom floats under his radar entirely, happily. Bauerlein is most dismissive of the way teenagers use technology to avoid reading and continue the social games of the schoolyard at home and online, but he definitely frowns on some technology as well. I was startled to see him lament the inability of teenagers to synthesize information from different sources and then start in on Wikipedia–which is the pinnacle of synthesized, if a little soulless, information.
Despite the time he spends almost gleefully revealing data that reflects poorly on the Millennials and blaming modern pop culture, Bauerlein ultimately places the blame in the hands of the mentors who have failed to impress upon youth the importance of knowledge and who tend to indulge their activities. If a literature professor doesn’t impress upon his charges the importance of Shakespeare, he charges, they have failed not only the youth, but their entire field. Teenagers and their teenage habits should not be enabled, Bauerlein says, and these days they live in a world that does.
Bauerlein’s shocking statistics must be taken with a grain of salt, however, and Bauerlein is often alarmist and too harsh. The last chapter ends up envisioning a world where my generation manages to single-handedly destroy the American civic heritage, which, I feel, is a bit overblown. He laments the fact that teenagers apparently don’t even read the backs of cereal boxes or look at hip-hop lyrics while analyzing a survey that asks what they’ve read recently–never mind the fact that those two activities are hardly going to leap to mind while answering such a survey. He also accuses high school students of copy-pasting directly in order to construct essays, which would have gotten you in a world of hurt at my high school, even socially.
Bottom line: Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation makes very valid points about my generation and their intellectual habits (or lack thereof), but his harshness and alarmist tendencies tend to undermine his argument. Still, it’s an eye-opener, and a useful read for, yep, those under 30.
I rented this book from the public library.