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Monday, January 19, 2009

Young Americans

Posted by Daniel Green on 01/19/09 at 10:32 PM

This, more or less, is the thesis of Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation:

Yes, young Americans are energetic, ambitious, enterprising, and good, but their talents and interests and money thrust them not into books and ideas and history and civics, but into a whole other realm and other consciousness. A different social life and a different mental life have formed among them. Technology has bred it, but the result doesn’t tally with the fulsome descriptions of digital empowerment, global awareness, and virtual communities. Instead of opening young American minds to the stores of civilization and science and politics, technology has contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them.

It is tempting to say that the condition Bauerlein describes, here and in the book as a whole, has always obtained, that the majority of American youths have always found their interest in “the social scene around them” rather than in “books and ideas and history and civics.” Indeed, to judge by the majority of adults who were themselves once “young Americans,” this would seem to be the case since they, too, as far as I can tell, have little interest in the “stores of civilization,” little knowledge of the wider world beyond their own “social scene” as it is to be found in their neighborhoods, their communities, or perhaps on network television. American democracy has produced many admirable things, but one of them is not a widely informed and curious populace motivated by a love of learning for its own sake--however much the image of the bookish youth of the tenement or farm, of the self-educated immigrant, might still linger.

But Bauerlein acknowledges that the intellectual life has never exactly beckoned to most Americans, and that the current wired generation is neither smarter not dumber than its predecessors in terms of native intelligence. The difference is precisely the one produced by that “digital empowerment” and its “virtual communities” created by Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc., and even by those websites ostensibly devoted to providing real information and knowledge. The bad habits and immature attitudes to which those in their teens and twenties are prone--the belief that the past has little to offer them, the preference for the swift and flashy over the slow and cumulative, the elevation of “social life” over the academic--have been exacerbated by widespread access to the internet, which encourages them to live in the hyper present and has coarsened their reading skills.

And Bauerlein has studies and statistics to back up his claims that the Internet encourages superficial learning and that its predicted capacity to enlarge students’ access to knowledge and sharpen their academic skills hasn’t manifested itself:

This is the paradox of the Dumbest Generation. For the young American, life has never been so yielding, goods so plentiful, schooling so accessible, diversion so easy, and liberties so copious. The material gains are clear, and each year the traits of worldliness and autonomy seem to trickle down into ever-younger age groups. But it’s a shallow advent. As the survey research shows, knowledge and skills haven’t kept pace, and the intellectual habits that complement them are slipping. The advantages of twenty-first century teen life keep expanding, the eighties and nineties economy and the digital revolution providing quick and effortless contact with information, wares, amusements, and friends. The mind should profit alongside the youthful ego, the thirst for knowledge satisfied as much as the craving for fun and status. But the enlightenment hasn’t happened.

The “survey research” Bauerlein cites actually does show--or Bauerlein makes it show--that the vaunted benefits of “computers in the classroom” appear to have been greatly exaggerated. One study concludes that most high school students have poor research skills online, are unable to use the Internet effectively to find relevant sources of information. Another concludes that federal subsidies for internet access in the schools produced “no immediate impact on measured student outcomes.” In general, the middle section of the book, a chapter called “Online Learning and Non-Learning” makes for sober reading and ultimately a compelling case for the view that, at the least, we should be skeptical of claims for the “revolutionary” potential of computers as a pedagogical tool. This doesn’t prove that use of computers and access to the Internet is actively bad for students, and it is possible that future revisions to the way “connectivity” is integrated into the classroom will produce better results, but Bauerlein’s survey of its current results certainly doesn’t make one sanguine about the prospects.

If Bauerlein had stopped at establishing that young people are not making good use of online resources, and that some of the practices on the web are actively encouraging their worse habits, impeding their ability to take advantage of the information that undeniably is available online, I would say he had written a valuable book. And while I would still ultimately conclude that it is a valuable book, The Dumbest Generation in its second half unfortunately descends into an ill-disguised temper tantrum against la trahison des clercs, altered by Bauerlein to “the betrayal of the mentors” but making it no less clear that those who should be counterbalancing the enthusiasms of the “masses” now are actively adopting those enthusiasms as their own. Bauerlein joins in on the now four-decades long war against the “sixties” that conservatives continue to wage, dredging up Richard Poirier’s 1968 essay “The War Against the Young” and Charles Reich’s The Greening of America as putative sources of the closing of the young American mind. He writes of the former that “Poirier’s essay marks a signal case of the generational romance, the transformation of youth from budding egos into attuned sensibilities. . .an approach that may have respected the students but yielded a terrible outcome,” while Reich “interpreted youth lifestyle as a serious expression with deep political, social, and moral content, however flippant and ant-intellectual it appeared, and while his books comes off today like little more than a dated artifact in a time capsule, shorn of the radical, Bacchic 1960s rhetoric, the outlook he promotes carries on.”

While I would agree that The Greening of America seems today a “dated artifact,” I find it hard to see how at the same time a book describing the efforts of a generation attempting to save the world from itself, to transform it utterly, could still account for a generation wholly at ease with the circumscribed world it inhabits. Bauerlein probably intends some version of the argument that “les clercs,” specifically those associated with American universities, are themselves, directly and indirectly, the products of the sixties and are now in positions of intellectual authority, from which they continue to promote anarchy and People Power. They have denigrated the value of tradition and thus “the guideposts are now unmanned, and the pushback of mentors has dwindled to the sober objections of a faithful few who don’t mind sounding unfashionable and insensitive.” But, the sanctimoniousess of the invocation of the “faithful few” aside, the time when “the stern shadow of moral and cultural canons at home and in class” intimidated students isn’t coming back, mostly because the assumptions about “tradition” underlying them were untenable in a culture where the concept of “democracy” is now so entwined with the unfettered practices of a capitalism that privileges change in its own right, and that is finally more responsible for the growth of digital technology than any professors, intellectuals, or education theorists. Conservatives will have to come up with a better explanation of why American youth are becoming dumber than the bogeyman of the ‘60s radical.

To his credit, Bauerlein does not entirely fall back on static notions of “tradition” in defending its value. He looks favorably on “culture wars” in the form of “direct and open ideological combat” that makes sectarian groups “face the arguments and strategies of outsiders.” What is being lost in the cyberspheric fog, in this view, is an intellectual tradition grounded in “great books” but that uses their ideas to formulate new ideas and provide answers for current questions. While I don’t think that this tradition is being lost at all--and do think that blogs and internet publications in general might actually come to enhance this tradition--Bauerlein thinks it needs to be dispersed more widely among those not self-motivated to join it: “A healthy society needs a pipeline of intellectuals, and not just the famous ones. An abiding atmosphere of reflection and forensic should touch many more that the gifted and politically disposed students. Democracy thrives on a knowledgeable citizenry, not just an elite team of thinkers and theorists, and the broader knowledge extends among the populace the more intellectuals it will train.”

Frankly, this seems to me a utopian fantasy, just as attached to a sentimentalized vision of the way things could be as The Greening of America. Teens and twenty-somethings are resisting “an abiding atmosphere of reflection and forensic” because they find it boring, as do most older people as well. The alternatives to “reflection and forensic” are only going to become gaudier and more widely available. No amount of “mentoring” on the part of intellectuals browbeaten into doing their “duty” is going to compete with them. Perhaps theoretically “Democracy thrives on a knowledgeable citizenry,” but in practice American democracy has thrived only as licensed consumerism, and I see very little evidence that this will change any time soon. Certainly Mark Bauerlein, if he does claim allegiance to conservatism in its current configuration, can offer few real solutions to the problem he accurately diagnoses, since conservatism has embraced capitalism as its own. It’s unthinkable that, given a choice between allowing capitalism its sovereignty and encouraging more intellectualism among young people, most conservatives would choose the latter.

An equally serious problem with Bauerlein’s argument, at least for me, is the way in which he largely equates “reading” with acquiring “knowledge” as usable information. Although he occasionally puts in a word for the value of reading imaginative literature, by and large he focuses on the utility of reading in forming both individual character and a “knowledgeable citizenry.” There’s little in the book about reading as a good in and of itself, as the cumulative sharpening of sensibility, as, specifically where literature is concerned, a respite from the ceaseless acquisition of “information.” Given that Bauerlein has elsewhere expressed a belief in “the positive and independent value of literary experience and literary tradition,” it’s rather disappointing that he doesn’t find a place in his book for elucidating the “independent value” of fiction and poetry, apart from their place in the “great ideas” approach to education.

Ultimately, however, I have to say that The Dumbest Generation did make me think through the implications of our ongoing transition from print to screen more critically and more thoroughly. I still think that critical-intellectual discourse can be conducted online, and that, used the right way, the Internet can encourage serious reading and provide knowledge that goes more than skin deep, but that “used the right way” is everything, of course.

ADDENDUM One has to wonder what Bauerlein makes of the new NEA report on reading that shows “literary reading” has increased substantially over the past several years. Especially of the finding that “Eighty-four percent of adults who read literature (fiction, poetry, or drama) on or downloaded from the Internet also read books.”


Dan, MB has commented on the NEA report at the CHE blog:


And thanks for your thoughtful review of this book.  Like you, I wonder more about the fate of “serious reading” than just reading in general.  What I’d love to know is this: to what extent has the number of “real readers” declined, as opposed to those who picked up a random Danielle Steele or Stephen King or Clive Cussler novel every now and then.  Because, in the end, I’m not one to celebrate the act of reading in and of itself.  I’d like to think that the teenager who watched *Arrested Development* or listened to Radiohead’s last CD got more real cultural interaction than the teenager who read Al Franken’s last book.

That said, as a high school teacher, I do find myself attracted to the “cranky traditionalist” position, if only because my students actually take it more seriously than the “hip relevant let’s-rap” type of teacher.  I’m preparing to teach *The Odyssey*, and I was reading an essay on teaching Homer to young folk that made a point that rankled my inner-Dewey but pleased by inner-Harold-Bloom: rather than ask Homer to be relevant to students, why not ask students to open their minds and enter the concerns of Homer and his world?

By on 01/20/09 at 01:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther - I don’t teach at your level, but I’ve tended to find that the Odyssey is an easy text to teach because entering into the world of the poem is exactly what students want to do, anyway.

By on 01/20/09 at 09:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A fair critique, Dan, and I think that our disagreement over the last one-third of the book is due mainly to differing estimates over the seriousness of the “mentor” problem. I do believe that a new attitude toward the young took hold in the Sixties (although its intellectual roots go back to the turn of the century), one that stigmatized stern judgment of youth culture and leisure choices as reactionary and fuddy-duddy.  This is a catastrophic development, and I see its expression all the time.

For example, in a meeting of educators a few months ago, as we were crafting new standards for high school English, and grammar and spelling came up, one person said, “Well, I don’t know if we can really be that rigid about spelling any more. The kids are online doing marvellous inventive things with spelling, and we may soon be having to learn their ways, not our own.”

What to say?  Yes, it’s wacky, and you may be tempted to toss it away as a fringe moment. In truth, it’s only a logical extension of a widely-held supposition. It’s come up in several reviews of and interviews about Dumbest Generation, when people say, “The older generation has been grumbling about the younger generation forever,” as if that observation kills the thesis of the book.

I’m not so sure of the truth of that statement, but let’s accept it as such. So what? Yes, elders criticize the juniors, but that’s part of their job. Nothing else is going to make a 16-year-old realize that what happened 50 years ago in Little Rock is more important than what happened at the party last weekend. The kids have no reason of their own to respect the materials of history and civics and literature. Life for them is all immediate and social.  What happens with their friends is crucial. What happened in the Tet Offensive is irrelevant.

The voice of the elders should break that adolescent groupthink, but all-too-many educators, librarians, journalists, and intellectuals don’t want to assume that role.  They are uncomfortable with their own authority when it comes to accepting the tension between youth culture and adult matters.  This is a betrayal of the mentors, and we need more of them to accept their role as youth critics, all the while, of course, being attentive and helpful teachers.  They need to accept the old principle announced by Paul and cited by Obama, that the time is coming when adolescents must put away childish things.

By on 01/21/09 at 04:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me guess: if any teacher even vaguely liberal dared to say something to students about the Tet Offensive—such as the widely accepted idea that it was a tactical defeat but a strategic victory for the Viet Cong—then next response would be cries from conservatives about indoctrination, would it not?  Sounds like it’s safer for people to stick to grammar and spelling.

The first childishness that needs to be put away is that of conservatives who have reduced all such discussions to culture war, pre-fab generational stereotypes, and Just-So stories about the Sixties.

By on 01/21/09 at 04:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know of any examples of conservatives attacking teachers for talking about Vietnam. But if teachers talk about Vietnam in a tendentious, biased, partisan manner, then whatever their place on the ideological spectrum, they should be criticized.

By on 01/21/09 at 07:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I’m with Mark there.  Works like *The Things They Carried* are pretty commonly taught at the high school level, and I recall answering a document-based question on Vietnam for a practice AP US history test in high school 18 or so years ago.  Let’s not pretend the cons have such itchy trigger fingers.

I’m also convinced by Mark’s take on teachers as Jeremiah figures rather than buddies for their students.  However, while I love the Paul quotation, my inner Rousseau asks: “Are social networking sites and cell phones really ‘childish’ things?  Aren’t they the trickle down habits of a shallow, corporate culture?  That is to say, is it the frivolity of youth dragging down the adult world, or the brutality and shallowness of American adulthood seeping down to the children?”

So by all means, let’s exhort young adults to find more serious pleasures; but let’s also go after the corporate morons who would transform our children into little solipsistic consumers (and the apologists, like Virginia Postrel, who would defend consumption as “expression of individual style” or some such bullshit).

By on 01/21/09 at 09:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That statement seems itself tendentious.  Any statement can be criticized, by anyone.  But conservative “criticism” generally involves some sort of forceable attempt to restrict academic freedom.  There is no way for outsiders to make an easy judgement that someone’s statement was “tendentious, biased, or partisan”.  Who is going to be the judge?  You and Horowitz?  The legislature?  The legislature, as rattled by students ginned up by you?

The reason that so many people reject conservatism—if we’re going to making generalizations about attitudes that took hold in the Sixties—is that for so long, conservatism has been anti-intellectual, and unworthy of respect.  For instance, your anecdote about spelling.  Presumably you are aware that spelling is a matter of convention and usage.  If enough people start spelling forever as 4eva, then lo and behold, this becomes accepted.  They may well be cautioned that they are going to look bad in kind of contemporary, official context with the current minority variant.  But that’s not perhaps as bad as pretending that spelling is some kind of invariant set of rules, set down in stone, that never changes.  The latter makes a fine harumphing sound, but it has the disadvantage, intellectually, of not actually being true.

By on 01/21/09 at 11:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, your take on spelling is misguided.  Spelling, like any set of conventions, exists to establish social cohesion and ease of transmission of information or knowledge.  The child today who is ignorant of conventional spelling will suffer from a lack of automaticity in parsing words and sentences, which will damage comprehension.  S/he also will restrict her ability to research at the level of the word (dictionaries, encyclopedias, internet searches).

Sure, conventions change.  But the person who has mastered many sets of conventions and can move fluidly among them based on situation is going to succeed socially in ways denied to the person who is restricted to one convention without being aware of the convention itself.  In spelling as in jazz: screw around once you can play the standards perfectly.

By on 01/22/09 at 02:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m aware of that, Luther.  And sure, it makes sense to teach students how to use conventional spelling and grammar.  But you’ve just illustrated the difference between a pragmatic answer given by an educator, and a conservative answer. The educator who made the supposedly wacky, fringe statement perhaps should have been told that they were making standards for high school, not some kind of advanced course that teaches about conventional variation.  But there’s a lot more actual truth in the nameless educator’s statement than in Mark’s implicit view.  Aren’t we also supposed to be teaching high school students things that are actually true?

By on 01/22/09 at 10:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But there’s a lot more actual truth in the nameless educator’s statement than in Mark’s implicit view. Aren’t we also supposed to be teaching high school students things that are actually true?

This is pretty weak sauce.

First, it’s clear based on Mark’s quote (who knows if it’s faithful or not) that the educator’s statement was not intended as a thesis on the ‘actual truth’ of changing conventions, but as a basic approach toward the pragmatic act of teaching spelling.

Second, since Mark didn’t make his “implicit” view explicit you’re essentially putting words in his mouth and then refuting them. 

On an unrelated note: Every time this topic comes up I find more and more reasons to wish that Luther Blisset had been my high school english teacher (or college professor, etc., for that matter).

By on 01/22/09 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Conservatives never want to make their views explicit.  For instance, when Mark says above “they should be criticized”, what does that mean?  Anyone can be criticized, by anyone.  You wouldn’t know, without examining the actual history of conservative behavior, that this means legislators trying to score culture war points.  Similarly, why exactly is the quote supposed to be not just pragmatically wrong, but entirely risible—“wacky” and “fringe”?  Only because Mark is trying to import a conservative belief in the invariance of socially determined conventions that actually do vary, without having to actually defend it.

By on 01/22/09 at 02:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not trying to assert the “invariance of socially determined conventions,” Rich. I’m just trying to make sure that students proceed in their lives with the intellectual equipment they need. All the discussion about evolving conventions doesn’t change the fact that if a student gets inventive with spelling in a job application, goodbye.

By on 01/23/09 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther says, “the person who has mastered many sets of conventions and can move fluidly among them based on situation is going to succeed socially in ways denied to the person who is restricted to one convention without being aware of the convention itself.”

I agree, and not just when it comes to spelling. Let’s require all those suburban white kids to master the conventions not just of Standard American English but also of African American English Vernacular. Let’s design a standardized test to measure the students’ ability to use AAVE, and, in the spirit of No Child Left Behind, let’s punish those schools that aren’t getting with the program. I’m perfectly serious.

Mark says, “I’m just trying to make sure that students proceed in their lives with the intellectual equipment they need.”

A worthy goal. But part of that equipment is a mastery of the conventions of AAVE--necessary, among other things, for understanding important aspects of American culture and for insuring that kids (of all races) don’t perpetuate the still-widespread and very damaging racist association of black vernacular with intellectual inferiority.

Eventually, maybe everyone in the U.S. could be bilingual in Spanish and in English/SAE and English/AAVE, kinda like how everyone in Switzerland knows French, Italian, and German.

William Labov for Secretary of Education!

By on 01/24/09 at 12:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Eveningsun, I don’t buy the case that knowledge of AAVE is necessary for “understanding important aspects of American culture.” Do we have to know a regional dialect to understand the culture of the region?  Must we even know a nation’s language to understand its culture?  Unless you buy into some rigid model of conceptual frames and the impossibility of translation, the answer is clearly no.

At the same time, a history of the English language course at the high school level would be a great boon.  My high school juniors are taught out of the Norton Anth of Brit Lit, and as we progress through history, we’re reading sections of Seth Lerer’s *Inventing English*.  That’s my way of ensuring that students learn how a language is, in the words of poet Bob Perelman, a dialect with an aircraft carrier.  (We also compare trying to read bits of *Sir Gawain* in Middle English to trying to read sections of *The Canterbury Tales* in ME.  The relative ease of Chaucer is a testament to the ways in which a London dialect fed into Modern English, versus a West Midlands dialect that seems opaque to modern English readers.)

By on 01/24/09 at 04:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Must we even know a nation’s language to understand its culture?  Unless you buy into some rigid model of conceptual frames and the impossibility of translation, the answer is clearly no.

Luther, you’re certainly right in a general sense of what it means to “understand” a culture. But surely you’ll be able to understand that culture better by understand its language. Ditto for dialects.

And I would insist that certain products of African American culture are indeed “important aspects of American culture” more broadly. Understanding “Go Down Moses” is important to understanding America in the same way that understanding, oh, Troilus and Criseyde is to understanding England. We devote a lot of time and expense to teaching the language of Chaucer, among other reasons so that we can better close-read his work, but virtually none to understanding the language of the spirituals (or the Uncle Remus stories, or contemporary rap and hip-hop, or whatever). I think that formally teaching AAVE would help Americans better understand America, and would have the ancillary benefits of helping all students better understand language itself, of helping white people better understand black people, and of countering the damaging social effects of devaluing the language of millions of black schoolkids.

By on 01/25/09 at 01:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My internet brousser iss hihlighting mmissspelledd words as I tipe this commment. If I werent too laziie to go back this hoole comment would be imaculate.  My word procesor willl do the same.  Someone now who subbmits a job applicasion with hte misspelled werds would probably seem incompetent in compater skills more than iliterate in the traditioonal sense.  In fact, older peeple will be more likely to mispell now, to the extent thay don’t kknow how to use basic teknologie!  I seriosly dout people spell werse now than at any point of human histery.  Its eassy to get outraaged at some misguided teecher letting kids youse teh creeative sepliing.  Those kid’s’ll never succceeed in lyf!  Buttt the minate they get their own blog the’lll know theyll seam stoopad to hte pears iff they rite like thisss!

By on 01/25/09 at 01:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, what the surveys seem to show is that schools don’t know how to teach the internet.  They don’t know how to reduce it to a format acceptable to the school norm - the individual student, who has to be decked out with knowledge like a christmas tree because, as we all know, we all live on farms miles from each other and have to rely on our stock of memorized knowledge and moldy copies of the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica. Perhaps, however, our real lives are full of, well, social actions. Perhaps we are collaborators. Perhaps we don’t live like Robinson Cruesoes. Perhaps even, o radical thought, our measures should not be of individual students, but of students in communities of practice.

I know, that would knock over the whole point of education, which is to create a healthy competition in which our most meritorious, passing their tests so sweetly, can look upon themselves as meritocrats and their other classmates as losers. An awful good preparation for the lifestyles of the best and the brightest - the high grades in that financial engineering class, the bonuses, the value added.

Of course, the value added is being turned to ash in our mouths. The changes that have happened in the world, the media literacy of the young, for instance, count for absolutely nothing in the classroom, since I think Robinson Crusoe had none, so why should our ittle tabula rasas?

By roger on 01/28/09 at 01:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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