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The Not So Greatest Generation

It's too late to verify -- don't trust anyone under 30.

By 1.15.09

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The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30)
By Mark Bauerlein
(Tarcher, 272 pages, $24.95)

With his soft voice and unassuming manner, Mark Bauerlein seems an unlikely prospect for penning an ostentatious book like The Dumbest Generation. The title immediately brings to mind the Greatest Generation, the idol of 20th century American history that weathered the Great Depression, beat the Nazis at Normandy, and brought us swing music. But the generation that Bauerlein writes of is very different. Ignorant of politics and government, art and music, prose and poetry, the Dumbest Generation is content to turn up its iPods and tune out the realities of the adult world. It is brash, pampered, young, and dumb -- and content to stay that way.

Or so argues Bauerlein, an Emory University English professor and baby boomer. It would be an easy accusation for my generation (I'm 23) to ignore. After all, the fogies have always railed against the ignorance and excesses of youth. What's the point of reading a book or going to a museum in the age of Wikipedia? Why bother knowing who the Speaker of the House is or voting for president when the only vote that matters is the hit count on my latest YouTube video? Being able to locate Mexico on a world map or name the Axis powers during World War II won't help me score a date on Friday night or get tapped for the high school football team.

But something is different this time. In past generations, the young had fewer opportunities to fritter away their lives. Two-parent households and a generally religious culture made sure of it. Today, half of teens grow up in single-parent households and secularism dominates society. Undergirding that is the digital culture, the 24/7 rush of information and entertainment that young adults thrive on. Bauerlein says it's a rush that's killing their intellectual development.

In mid-November, I attended a lecture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where Bauerlein made that argument. Dressed in a dark gray suit, white shirt, and loosened necktie, he looked the picture image of the disheveled academic. He paced back and forth, gesturing mildly as he spoke against the evils of iPods and "texting."

Out of 30,000 students enrolled UNC-Chapel Hill, about 30 bothered to show up for the talk. (I'm sure the rest were busy on Facebook.) During the question and answer, several students took umbrage at the book's premise. "Your title is offensive," said one. A moment later, the student admitted that he hadn't read the book. Far from delivering a coup de grâce, he showed that even when my generation sets out to slay the establishment giants, we often don't do our homework.

Speaking of homework, teens spend twice as much time in front of the boob tube as they do completing school assignments, according to a study Bauerlein refers to in the book. The citation is one of many he uses to build his case against the encroaching evils of the digital world. Given the evidence, it's not a hard case to make. When a higher percentage of students can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government, something is amiss.

Bauerlein points to reading apathy as a major contributing factor. One study found that 18- to 24-year-olds are the least active, least avid reading group in the country except for those 75 and older (who probably suffer from age-related ailments that make reading difficult to begin with). High school and college students have time to read -- another study found that they average five and a half hours of leisure time per day -- but they choose less intellectually stimulating avenues of entertainment. In fact, the average teen now dedicates the equivalent of a full-time job to media. "It isn't enough to say that these young people are uninterested in world realities. They are actively cut off from them," Bauerlein writes.

But are the gadgets themselves the culprit? That brings up the Achilles' heel of Bauerlein's argument. His diagnosis of the problem -- a generation drowned in a media tsunami -- could not be timelier. His explanation for its media obsession, however, is off base. He says technology "conspires against young people in their intellectual development," as if iPods, laptops, and cell phones had moral cognition. Yet these entertainment mediums are just that -- mediums that can be used for either good or evil. How an individual chooses to use the tool is the moral question, not the tool itself.

Also missing from Bauerlein's analysis of youthful stupidity is the bedrock of civilization, the family. That's a staggering omission considering the body of social science research linking the demise of the American family with academic decline and social ills. The closest Bauerlein gets to fingering lack of parental oversight is his chapter devoted to disappearing mentors. Even here, though, his focus is on the "custodians of culture…the teachers, professors, writers, journalists, intellectuals, editors, librarians, and curators who will not insist upon the value of knowledge and tradition." Mom and dad are not mentioned.

For all its shortcomings, The Dumbest Generation still makes a vital point about young peoples' reliance on media to do their thinking for them. The 2008 election cycle is the most recent example. Young voters went for Barack Obama by wide margins, yet many of them could not justify their vote beyond Obama's "cool" factor.

That's the most ominous implication of Bauerlein's findings. An uneducated citizenry is handy for ambitious politicians but disastrous for the welfare of a republic. At best, the Dumbest Generation might be remembered as useful idiots. At worst, as Bauerlein puts it, it could be remembered as the generation that lost the great American heritage, forever.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.