Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation

Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation* argues that modern western society (and particularly American society) is moving from a relatively literate print-based culture to a post-literate technology culture. Bauerlein’s specific focus is on the new realm of social technologies (“e-mails, text messages, blog-postings and comments, phone calls, tweets, feeds, photos and songs” (p. x)) that he believes overwhelm the process of maturation, attenuate cultural boundaries, and threaten the “intellectual development” of young people: “Instead of opening young Americans mind to the stores of civilization and science and politics, technology has contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them” (p. 10). The Dumbest Generation is an enjoyable pro-reading, anti-technology jeremiad in the tradition of Neil Postman (to whom Bauerlein pays homage), but it’s not without its limitations.

Drawing on research from a number of government sources and reputable cultural institutions, Bauerlein argues that young people in America are increasingly moving away from book reading, particularly fiction and literature. One of the best empirical studies he relies upon is a large-scale reading survey from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts that measured leisure reading rates in 1982, 1992 and 2002. The rate (based on reading a single book outside of school or work) shows a precipitous drop of 17% in 18-24 year-olds (from 59.8% to 42.8%) between 1982 and 2002. This is certainly troubling, but Bauerlain glosses over the fact that leisure reading for 25-34 year-olds also declined (from 62.1% to 47.7%), as it did for 35-44 year-olds (from 59.7% to 46.6%). Moreover, this decline in leisure reading occurred before the wholesale adoption of the social computing technologies that Bauerlein believes is at the core of today’s “dumbest generation”. [Indeed, one of the newest and biggest social networking fads, Facebook, is barely mentioned, whereas another fad that has already receded, MySpace, features prominently in Bauerlein’s analysis.] Therefore, it appears to me that he is identifying a larger problem, one to which modern technology may contribute, but which is nevertheless deeper and longer-standing than Bauerlein contends.

I can offer no objective, measurable reasons for this post-literate society, except to say that this trend is certainly reinforced and confirmed by what I have witnessed in my 16 years as a high-school and college teacher. I see a spreading anti-intellectualism, one that is marked by young people who are often aware that they read less, and yet are indifferent or belligerently proud. (Bauerlein calls such young people bibliophobes.) Perhaps the reason lies in TV and video games, older electronics that pre-date social networking technologies, but which work in the same disastrous way: intellectually fallow screen time that crowds out reading time. [I am reminded of Postman’s provocative discussion of TV’s inducement of stupor-like alpha waves.] Working hand-in-hand are other potential causes: educated people having fewer kids (relatively and absolutely), a pop-culture explosion that emphasizes fun rather than satisfaction, and economic changes that remove both parents from the home (and thus create a vacuum that is easily filled by screen-based technologies).

So social technologies cannot be seen as the sole reason for concern. And, without up-to-date data that can parse the multiple challenges facing a literate culture, Bauerlein’s book must therefore rest on anecdotes, persuasive arguments, and reasoning to convince us that social technologies – sometimes called Web 2.0 – are helping to lead us down a dangerous path. At this level, to be sure, I do think Bauerlein succeeds.

Bauerlein starts with a pretty familiar defence of print-based culture. Modern technologies crowd out and simply overwhelm the old methods of socialization and transmitting knowledge. At a basic level, the lack of reading is self-reinforcing: “as the occasions of reading diminish, reading becomes a harder task. The more you don’t read, the more you can’t read” (p. 59).The consequence of this is a society (or at least large portions of it) incapable of benefiting from those skills peculiar to reading. For example, habitual “readers acquire a better sense of plot and character, an eye for the structure of arguments, and an ear for style, over time recognizing the aesthetic vision of adolescent fare as, precisely, adolescent” (p. 58). To the extent the “linear, hierarchal sequential thinking solicited by books has a shaky hold on the youthful mind, and as teens and young adults read linear texts in a linear fashion less and less, the less they engage in sustained linear thinking” (p. 141). Logic and argumentation crumble: the “reading” in a Web 2.0 world is fragmentary at best. Even in the online world, in studies of teens done by the Neilson Norman Group, adolescents display “[r]eading skills, research procedures, and patience levels insufficient to navigate the Web effectively” (p. 146). Knowledge itself ultimately suffers, and Bauerlein marshals scores of studies to show that young people are indeed suffering from a decline in cultural literacy, basic numeracy and functional scientific knowledge.

One of his most interesting arguments is that modern adult society is doing a poorer and poorer job of moving young people beyond adolescence. Social technologies intensify and extend adolescence, and contribute to an increasingly narcissistic youth culture:

“Maturity comes in part, through vertical modeling, relations with older people such as teachers, employers, ministers, aunts and uncles and older siblings, along with parents, who impart adult outlooks and interests…. The Web (along with cell phones, teen sitcoms, and pop music), though, encourages more horizontal modeling, more mimicry of people the same age, and intensification of peer consciousness” (p. 136).

This horizontal modeling appears to remain for longer periods of time, according to Bauerlein, and helps closet the average teenager from any new or challenging experiences. This is where “dumbness” starts to find fertile ground:

For education to happen, people must encounter worthwhile things outside their sphere of interest and brainpower. Knowledge grows, skills improve, tastes refine, and conscience ripens only if the experiences bear a degree of unfamiliarity…. Adolescents don’t [understand this process like adults do], and digital connections save them the labor of self-improvement” (p. 138).

Bauerlein’s last major point is that educators have become increasingly complicit in pandering to these social technologies. Given their own progressive proclivities or ignorance, educators and academic researchers appear incapable of resisting the bandwagon. They do not ask, generally speaking, if adolescent enthusiasm necessarily leads to pedagogically desirable results:

‘Knowledge is never more than one generation away from oblivion.’ If the guardians of tradition [ie. educators] claim that the young, though ignorant, have a special perspective on the past, or if teachers prize the impulses of tenth?graders more than the thoughts of the wise and the works of the masters, learning loses its point. The thread of intellectual inheritance snaps” (p. 186).

I am reminded of Sydney J. Harris’ dictum that the “whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” Put another way, we as educators owe it to our students to teach them what is irrelevant to narrow little lives dominated by social minutiae. We need to screw our courage to the sticking place and fight for what broadens their horizons, rather than what is trendy and innovative – yet intellectually arid.


* Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation (Tarcher/Penguin, Toronto), 2009.

Posted by Colin Welch at 5:01 PM
Edited on: Monday, January 25, 2010 6:22 PM


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.