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Are the Kids All Right?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Emory professor Mark Bauerlein takes a dim view of the millennial generation and the digital age.

In French-Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand’s 1986 movie “Le Déclin de l’Empire Américain” (“The Decline of the American Empire”), a professor observes that throughout history the decline of an empire is always preceded by its citizenry’s preoccupation with self-gratification. Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein makes a similar argument in his new book, The Dumbest Generation (Tarcher, $24.95). He feels that the millennial generation places an extraordinary emphasis on personal happiness and, thanks to the technological advancements of the day, enjoys unprecedented peer contact and access to entertainment. “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,” Bauerlein writes. As a result, the millennials are at risk of losing the “great American heritage, forever.”

Bauerlein opens with a chapter on the millennial generation’s “knowledge deficits,” as evidenced by test results and survey data. In 2005, 46 percent of high school seniors scored “below basic” on a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) science exam. A year later, 53 percent of high school seniors scored “below basic” on an NAEP history test. When, in 2003, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education tested college students on their knowledge of the First Amendment, “only one in 50…named the first right guaranteed in the amendment.”

Considering these results, it comes as no surprise that the average American student spends little time studying, despite the huge amount of free time kids enjoy in the 21st century. A 2005 study of students in grades 3-12 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children spend an average of 6 hours and 21 minutes a day on leisure activities such as watching television, playing video games, and going online. Meanwhile, according to the 2006 High School Survey of Student Engagement, 90 percent of high school students spend 5 hours or less a week on homework. “Their lengthening independence has shortened their mental horizon,” says Bauerlein.

‘Teens and 20-year-olds love their blogs and games, they carry the iPod around like a security blanket,’ he mocks. ‘Adults everywhere need to align against youth ignorance and apathy.’

Not only is the millennial generation doing poorly on tests of knowledge and ability; it also spends relatively little time reading for pleasure, which, in Bauerlein’s view, suggests a lack of intellectual curiosity. After lamenting the proliferation of young “bibliophobes,” Bauerlein goes on to decry the use of computers in the classroom. He points to studies that show performance declines in schools that rely heavily on computers in their curriculum.

With The Dumbest Generation, Bauerlein joins a growing throng of scholars and experts calling for education reform. But are his expectations unrealistic? American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray might say yes. In his new book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing American Education Back to Reality, Murray argues that the goals of our education system are highly skewed. Like Bauerlein, he is troubled by the increasing number of college students who must take remedial courses. But instead of disparaging the intelligence of younger Americans, Murray simply acknowledges that “Ability varies. Half of the children are below average. Too many people are going to college. America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.” Murray emphasizes the significance of true personal satisfaction—the deep satisfaction of doing what one is good at and doing a good job—whereas Bauerlein preaches a hard-line message about the importance of accumulating knowledge.

Why is it important for students to read and excel in school? This question may seem obvious, but Bauerlein’s answer is telling. If children do not read and learn, he writes, they betray their civic duty. Bauerlein believes that the purpose of education is to cultivate a responsible citizenry, and that a democracy cannot focus solely on the intellectual elite. But what if Bauerlein stopped castigating a generation he believes is ignorant of history and stupefied by technology—and thus incapable of civic engagement and responsible voting—and took a more pragmatic view based on current realities?

As George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, author of the 2007 book The Myth of the Rational Voter, has written:

If you’re a normal American, you’re likely to conclude that we just need more (or better) education. But if you’re an economist, it’s hard to ignore a much cheaper alternative: Encourage people who don’t understand the issues to stay home. At minimum, we should stop trying to raise turnout, and stop trying to make the politically apathetic feel guilty about non-participation. Apathy may not be a virtue, but it’s a lot better than the activism of the irrational.

Bauerlein is obviously addressing older Americans when he belittles the pursuits and lack of intellectual engagement of the younger generation. (The full title of his book includes this advice: “Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.”) “Teens and 20-year-olds love their blogs and games, they carry the iPod around like a security blanket,” he mocks. “Adults everywhere need to align against youth ignorance and apathy.” Bauerlein fears that the millennial generation is not producing successors to today’s public intellectuals and leaders. Measures of “leisure trends” are significant because they reveal “the status of the knowledge principle,” he says. “As of 2008, the intellectual future of the United States looks dim.”

Perhaps the digital age, rather than being the root of a new problem, as Bauerlein insists, has simply magnified or exacerbated an existing problem.

Not everyone is so pessimistic about young Americans in the digital age. In fact, some authors have celebrated technology’s influence on the millennials. Neil Howe and William Strauss’s Millennials Rising, which Bauerlein dismisses, calls millennials “the next great generation.” Other recent books—including Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World and John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives—also take a positive view of technology’s role in shaping the lives and education of American youth.

Bauerlein’s complaints recall The Closing of the American Mind, the 1987 bestseller by the late University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom, which Bauerlein cites in The Dumbest Generation. Much like Bauerlein, Bloom lamented a decline in students’ intellectual engagement and reading habits: “whatever the cause, our students have lost the practice of and the taste for reading,” he wrote. “They have not learned how to read, nor do they have the expectation of delight or improvement from reading…. I first noticed the decline in reading during the late sixties.” Bloom also argued that “there is less soil in which university teaching can take root.” Could it be that two decades later the symptoms Bloom described are simply more noticeable? Perhaps the digital age, rather than being the root of a new problem, as Bauerlein insists, has simply magnified or exacerbated an existing problem.

Or are Bloom, Bauerlein, and the Canadian director Arcand just three kinds of pessimists? Is Bauerlein simply fear-mongering when he says of the millennial generation, “the effects of their habits will outlast them, and if things do not change they will be remembered as the fortunate ones who were unworthy of the privileges they inherited”? What would it take to actually lose a cultural heritage? Could intellectual engagement be like the market, experiencing natural ups and downs? The “great works” are great because they address eternal human questions—questions that people will ask forever. Will the “Great Conversation” not always be there for anyone who wants to join it? Can a generation of digitally connected, narcissistic Americans let their heritage slip through their fingers, never to be restored?

Bauerlein’s point that classic literature and “finer things” are aesthetically and philosophically superior to the “maelstrom of youth amusements” is well taken. But could some youth diversions, made possible by technology, be an inferior attempt to explore the larger issues addressed by the great works? Could the decline in reading say something important about the incentives for today’s youth to read?

Unfortunately, Bauerlein considers no alternatives to his thesis that the digital age will be America’s undoing. The work of engaging students in self-reflection and motivating them to wrestle with big questions may be more difficult now than it has ever been, but it is not yet impossible. Intellectual curiosity and love of liberty persist, and parents and educators still have ample opportunity to display the rewards of an active life of the mind to new generations.

Christy Hall Robinson is an associate editor at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image Credit: Mark Bauerlein.

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