Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dumbest Generation

I recently read Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30). Although the title might be just a bit overstated (there's no way to tell whether today's generation really is dumber than all previous generations), he did hit on quite a few disturbing trends.

Chief among them, in my view, is the way in which digital technology magnifies and makes ever-present what is often a harmful force: teenage peer pressure. Here's Bauerlein on that point, from his new introduction:
Youths undergo an intense awareness of one another, a high-pressure social feeling. The stakes are high — is anything worse than exclusion? — and so they have to tune in, to manage that omnipresence. They don’t really enjoy it, for when they leave my class and flip open the cell they register concern, not glee. But if they don’t check in, they don’t know whether something big might have happened. Peer pressure long preceded the microchip, of course, but e-mail, cell phone, and the rest have cranked it up to critical levels, fostering an all-peers-all-the-time network. Communication is horizontal, centered on a narrow age-bracket, while parents and teachers hover outside the loop baffled by the immersion.

If parents and teachers don’t contain it, if they don’t find occasional substitutions for it, it will only get worse. The natural inclinations of the young flow toward one another, and each new tool speeds them faster on their way. Late-teens and early-twenty-somethings stand at a delicate threshold that marks the most important intellectual growth of their life. They have passed the basic skills of elementary and middle school, and now they acquire the higher knowledge and understanding requisite to good citizenship and tasteful consumption. These are the years in which they read good books, discuss great ideas, judge past events, and form moral scruples. If it doesn’t happen in high school, in college, and in the home at this time, it probably never will. Once out in the workplace, raising kids, paying bills, and doing laundry, people don’t have time, energy, or guidance to ponder the Federalist Papers or read The Divine Comedy. Every hour on MySpace, then, means an hour not practicing a musical instrument or learning a foreign language or watching C-SPAN. Every cell-phone call interrupts a chapter of Harry Potter or a look at the local paper. These are mind-maturing activities, and they don’t have to involve Great Books and Big Ideas. They only have to cultivate habits of analysis and reflection, and implant knowledge of the world beyond.

They mark the opportunity costs of digital diversions, and as they accumulate over the months, the costs rise higher than they seem at any one moment. The Dumbest Generation counts them up and sounds an alert. It doesn’t invoke an ideal past of multitudes of studious kids preferring Shakespeare to cartoons and activist kids debating the size of government. That never existed and never will. What did exist, however, was a climate in which the voices of elders and the value of history and civics, books and ideas, exercised more pressure on the young. Teen social life had a limit, and in those other hours the forces of adulthood were felt, if resented. When I was 16, I went to school and hung out with friends, and after school I played some basketball, hung out some more, and headed home. When I crossed the threshold and sat down to dinner, social life was over. I listened to parents converse about money, work, the household, travel plans, while Walter Cronkite reported on Vietnam and Watergate. I didn’t like them and didn’t want to talk to them, but I couldn’t reach under the table with my handheld and connect with buddies. I couldn’t go up to my room, flip open the laptop, and blog about the new biology teacher. Leisure options were fewer, and without ready access to friends, books, libraries, museums, and homework enjoyed a larger presence.
Young people mature in large part by being acclimated to grown-up society. But if they are more and more able to opt out of grown-up conversations and activities by shuttling off to communicate with their equally ignorant and immature friends, when does maturation -- in any sense but the purely biological -- occur?


Blogger Michael Drake said...

Has there ever been a generation that extolled the younger generation as superior?

It seems to me that the computer and phone don't offer any greater means of escaping parental pressures than did televisions or comic books or Victrolas. Meanwhile, they offer unsurpassed opportunities for acquiring greater knowledge, and for engaging (albeit virtually) with a far wider swath of genuinely interesting people.

The appeal of the "this generation is going to hell in a handbasket" narrative is one we old fuddy duddies gravitate to, and it's probably fine as a coping mechanism for our own incipient alienation and disorientation. But the fact that every generation of "older generation"s makes the same kind of complaint strongly suggests that it's just plain false. (I have a post on the related complaint about the perennially "decadent state of the arts today.")

9:25 AM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

I have to disagree about the second paragraph. Television and victrolas were one way of taking in information outside of what the parents provided, but in previous decades, those technologies were usually not present in everyone's bedrooms, nor were they handheld devices that could be used everywhere and at all times (in the car, at the dinner table, etc.).

I'd also point out that while the Internet does offer unsurpassed opportunities for gaining knowledge, do you really think that the average young person spends a thousandth as much time on websites dedicated to historical archives, science, famous paintings, etc., as they do on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc.?

As for your third paragraph, I'll have to refer you to my well-regarded (by me) post on "Declinism."

11:23 AM  
Blogger Michael Drake said...

The post on declinism is well-regarded by me too, though I think it ignores (1) the reason such strictly discrete variables are typically adverted to is that they serve as synecdoche for global decadence (Exhibit A being a book that characterizes this as the Dumbest Generation), and (2) the vitality of the countervailing, optimistic meta-induction drawn on the basis of a thousand generations' pointlessly bitching and complaining about "kids today."

Anyway, as I get older, I too feel the pull of declinist narratives (though of course I felt it even when I was in high school -- I was so much more mature then those others), but history suggests that all things considered, I'd probably be wrong to succumb.

9:04 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Note, though, that he does back off from the strong claim that this generation is literally the "dumbest." Instead, the point he makes is that this generation is (on the whole) squandering oodles of time on Facebook (read: sites that waste time) rather than taking full advantage of the widest access to knowledge that the world has ever seen.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...

Has there ever been a generation that extolled the younger generation as superior?As a senior in high school in 1966, I read that I was part of Time magazine's Man of the Year: "America Under 30." A lot of the story was how great we were.

9:12 PM  

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