January 23rd, 2010


The Dumbest Generation

Just finished reading The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, 2008, by Mark Bauerlein.

The book jacket blurb, taken from the author's introduction, includes the phrase "founts of knowledge." In the introduction as printed in the pages of the book, the phrase is "fonts of knowledge." I wonder which was the author's preference? I wonder if the author couldn't decide so went with one of each? I wonder if the book jacket designer is one of those "under 30" people about whom the author is warning us?

22/365 - Understanding the Workplace EnvironmentI heard a radio interview last week with Larry D. Rosen Ph.D, author of an upcoming new book, Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn. Mr. Rosen seemed to suggest that the current generation is the brightest in history, that they are somehow innately skilled when it comes to digital communication, and that their "wired-ness" unleashes vast new levels of creativity, thirst for knowledge, and problem-solving skills.

In my role as an elementary school staff member... I'm just not seeing it. My administrators keep attending conferences and trainings and then coming back to school parroting these same themes of spectacular performance potential among all of today's kids, and reiterating the new rote refrain about "the digital generation" and their intuitive grasp of all forms of electronic media.

I work with these "digital learners" on a daily basis. And that "innate digital" crap is... well, it's crap! Kids "play" with computers, but they don't know what they're doing half the time. They have no qualms about breaking something, either glitching up the software or physically breaking the hardware, and just walking away from it. They like pushing buttons and watching the pretty lights move around the screen, but anything that requires thought or effort is an immediate turn-off. It's quite common for a kid to have an emotional meltdown if the software seizes up or an inadvertent click sends them on an unexpected tangent. I can't count the times I've heard kids scream in anguish when they unintentionally delete an entire page of painstakingly typed text.

Did I say "typed"? That may be "old skool" terminology, but typing, keyboarding, or whatever you want to call it, the kids can't do it! It takes 'em freakin' forever to peck out a couple of sentences... only to have it all disappear in front of them.

(Thank goodness for the "undo" feature; saves me a lot of grief having to listen to kids cry!)

I'm sure there are plenty of tech-savvy kids out there... among a certain socio-economic class. Sure, some parents introduce their kids to computers and cell phones and all that jazz at a young age, and the kids eventually figure out how it works, either through instruction from their parents or from their friends. But those "digital" kids are not, in my experience, representative of ALL kids. There are plenty of kids who, while excited when they get to "play with" the computer, are hardly "digital natives." And working through the levels of "Grand Theft Auto" hardly qualifies a kid as a budding genius, any more than racking up the high score on the pizza parlor pinball game did for kids "back in my day."

The Boss at work lectured us the other day about all the stuff kids supposedly know: wikis, blogs, emoticons, blah blah blah. She was reading a lot of terms off her notecards, but it was obvious she didn't know what half the stuff she was talking about meant. Nor do most of the kids at our school. I make it a point in my class to TEACH the kids about emoticons, and touch on blogging, and introduce them to LOLcats and "Charlie the Unicorn" and other stuff a 21st-century learner needs to know to navigate among the "digital natives." I'm doing my best to teach the little beggars how to be "innately digital," but it's a chore and a challenge.

Anyway, after listening to the radio interview -- AM radio no less, how primitive -- about the new book, I looked it up online when I got home. Amazon, while primarily a sales web site, is also an exceptional research tool when it comes to books and music. While looking at information about the upcoming Rewired book, I ran across this book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future by Mark Bauerlein, published in 2008. Granted, the title sounds rather alarmist. I was intrigued, however, by the opportunity to take a look at "the other point of view" before reading Mr. Rosen's new book extolling the virtues of the Digital Generation. Summoning my own digital learning skills, I quickly navigated from Amazon to the local library website and found Dumbest Generation.

As with all things, I'm sure the "truth" lies somewhere in between these polarized viewpoints. My experience over the past few years with children aged 8 through 12 suggests that, for many of them anyway, the reality is trending more toward the lower common denominator. I shall attempt, however, to approach both The Dumbest Generation and Wired: The iGeneration with an open mind in an attempt to understand the motivations of, and learn to present information in a manner that is relevant to, the younger generations, no matter how "innately digital" they may or may not be.

To summarize The Dumbest Generation (I love the riff on the title of Brokaw's glamorization of war tome): the Digital Generation (aka "Millennials") can't read, they have a limited vocabulary, they lack the basic factual knowledge necessary for critical thinking, they have no interest in classics of literature or jazz music, they don't visit art museums, they have no interest in voting, and the future of America's freedom is at risk because of this. Numerous studies from generally reliable sources are cited.

I can attest from personal experience to the limited reading skills, the even more limited vocabulary, and the stunning lack of basic factual knowledge among young people. The surveys of colleges (hundreds of 'em) which indicate that, specifically, incoming students lack "factual knowledge" does not surprise me in the least. Where I work, the push is toward "critical thinking." The concern I have raised time and again is that students cannot think critically if they lack the background facts necessary to critical thinking. Each time I am shunted aside with an assurance that "they'll pick up the facts as they work on higher-level projects." Whenever I hear this, my internal monolog devolves to an ever-so-erudite "f8ck you straight to hell you f8cking morons - no wonder our f8cking test scores are so f8cking low!"

But I digress.

I hate my co-workers sometimes.

Most times.

With a few exceptions, pretty much all the time.

[/digression] [/aggression]

But... jazz? The author must mention Thelonious Monk three or four times throughout the book, and lists attending jazz concerts as one of those activities in which young people participate far less than in previous generations. Like, maybe they just don't dig that bongo scene anymore, Daddy-O! WTF jazz has to do with how smart kids are is beyond me. The author mentions opera once, I think; and "art music." I don't know if "art music" means classical, or Yma Sumac. Does the pop version of classical music as performed today by Andre Rieux qualify as "art music"? Or does "art music" have to include a Theremin and atonal vocal accompaniment?

I agree that rap and hip-hop, by it's very nature, makes listeners stupid. But forty or fifty years from now, some stupid kid, all growed up to be an ivory tower aesthete, is going to be lamenting that "these stinkin' stoopid kids today don't appreciate the timeless artistry of Snoop Dog."

The real question, though, even about the parts with which I agree, is... so? Some time ago, I posted a query regarding the relevance or necessity of knowing the names of all 50 states. Many of the respondents to my query -- financially and personally successful in challenging or technical careers -- generally seemed to suggest that no, it's not that important. Facts that don't pertain directly to the task at hand aren't really necessary anymore.

This is what Bauerlein notes about the younger generation today. If it's not directly and immediately pertinent to them, they don't want to know and they don't care. Bauerlein thinks this will lead to problems down the road, both for individuals and for our entire culture.

I want to agree with him, but seeing my friends and people I know, observing their lives and their successes, I can't. Not entirely, anyway. From what I see, smart people don't need to know all about literature and music and politics and stuff. People seem to get by just fine without "a solid grounding in the classics." In fact, most of 'em do better than I ever have with my liberal arts degree from a liberal arts college.

Somehow, I blundered through my liberal arts education without picking up much of "a grounding in the classics," so perhaps that's what's held me back.

One AWESOME thing in the book: the author cites a study about the use of complex vocabulary in various media, specifically books and television programs, categorized by target audience: young children, young adults, and adults. Even the simplest books feature a greater incidence of challenging vocabulary than most adult-oriented television programming. But that's not the cool part. The cool part is: CARTOONS feature some of the most challenging vocabulary of any television programming!

I have long maintained that much of what I know -- or purport to know, anyway -- I was initially exposed to while watching cartoons in my childhood. Bugs Bunny and other Loony Toons cartoons, in particular, featured higher-level vocabulary and sequences based on historical and social references. I was fortunate to grow up in an era when these cartoons were a staple of weekday afternoon programming; otherwise I'd know a lot less than I do. Scary thought, huh? Anyway, now I know that there's an actual scientific study verifying what I've long known personally: kids can learn stuff from cartoons.

Smart kids are gonna do well, digital or no digital. Kids with supportive, stable home lives are gonna do okay no matter how many or how few hours they spend on the internet or txting one another. Impoverished kids with ignorant, uncaring parents and unstable home lives will have a tough time of it no matter what. With the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" widening by the day, the standardized test scores of public school students will continue to decline whether the schools are "wired" or the kids are scribbling on the backs of shovels with a piece of charcoal.

I dunno if any of the kids at my school would get that reference. I think the story was beaten into our heads with a shovel, back in my day, back when teachers threw a lot of facts at kids and some of it actually stuck.

Did you see that O'Reilly Factor episode last week where Bill was amused and irritated by some news anchors who thought Lincoln was one of the Founding Fathers? Did you notice that the youthful blonde girl right-wing pundit he had on as a guest at the time looked utterly confused: it was obvious that she had NOT FREAKIN' CLUE ONE as to what he was going on about. I found myself chortling at the irony. Yes, I've reached that point in life where I chortle; and where I can understand O'Reilly electing to feature a cute young blonde girl as his sidekick rather than someone who might actually understand what he's talking about.

Young people ARE stupid. Okay, not stupid. They're WOEFULLY UNDERINFORMED when it comes to history, science, literature, or spelling. But... they get high-paid gigs sitting in with Bill O'Reilly on The Factor. A 23-year old sister of a friend is the Human Resources Director AND the Director of Economic Development of a major California city. She's TWENTY-THREE YEARS OLD! Drop-dead gorgeous, too!

I don't care who ya are (as that TV comedian who looks an' talks a lot like me, only funnier, says), at twenny-three you can't possibly have much "background knowledge," no matter how many classics of literature you read in college. I'm guessing NONE would be the number of classics of literature my friend's sister read. She was busy focusing on practical subjects that would land her a high-profile, high-paying gig, and it paid off in spades!

I was hoping Bauerlein could give me something to hang my hat on as far as restoring my relevance in the world as an elementary school teacher, that he could cite something tangible to let me know that teaching kids to read and add and divide is important, that there's a reason for kids to know the names of the states or the background to the American Revolution or the year the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Or that knowing how to spell Plymouth matters. Plymouth isn't even a car anymore, so who cares how to spell it?

Who cares? That's how I felt by the time I turned the last page of The Dumbest Generation tonight. So what if young people don't care about voting. Look what voting gets us: jack. Not cheese or Sparrow, either. Fat cats getting rich at the top while "representing" us. The local legislators granted themselves a 35% pay increase this past year, while allowing the state to chop thousands of jobs, institute furloughs for everyone else, and close the schools one day a week. Right now, they're busy putting the finishing touches on a "civil unions" bill for same-sex couples, and planning a gazillion-billion dollar elevated rail line (and handing half-billion dollar contracts to local construction companies even though there's no finalized plan and no start date) that doesn't service the areas with the traffic needs, while the state economy tanks. I didn't "vote" for any one of those scumbags, yet they're all in there, living large on what they skim off our paychecks each month. I know how to read, I can understand a ballot, I know who Thomas Jefferson was, and I vote. Fat lotta good it does.

No wonder young people don't care. They see people like me spinning their wheels and grinding their way to the grave with no "life" to show for it. Why vote, why read "old" books, why listen to "old" music; what did any of that ever do for the "old" people?

Sorry, Mark Bauerlein. While I agree that young people don't know, and don't care, about a lot of the things that previous generations thought were important, I'm not convinced that it matters. They're having fun, and they're doing all right.

Besides, you pretentious beatnik relic, it's YOUR dope-smoking peace-love generation that drove Plymouth out of business, turned Cadillac into a commie state-run failure, put the military to work protecting oil and opium interests, and handed hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars over to your rich banker friends to reward them for being LOSERS and CROOKS. So much for coffee shop protests and stickin' it to The Man. Come down out of your ivory tower and get a REAL job. At McDonald's. That's about all your fancy liberal arts background would be good for in the real world of the 21st century.

okbai -- lolz

Vocabulary Words: The Dumbest Generation

I made note of a few vocabulary words to check out while reading The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein.

recondite - I should know this, because I wrote it down and looked it up while reading a previous book. It means: not easily understood. Abstruse. Okay, now I have to look up abstruse.

colloquy - one of those words I've seen many times, and have had a kinda-sorta idea of what it meant. It means: a conversation, especially a formal one. A written dialog.

polemic - another one of those kinda-sorta words about which I should feel more confident. It means: a controversial argument, especially one refuting or attacking a specific opinion or doctrine.

meretricious - another word I've looked up before. Isn't this the one that has something to do with prostitutes? Tacky prostitutes? Let's see, meretricious actually means: of, like, or relating to a prostitute (see, I told ya!). Attracting attention in a vulgar manner. Plausible but false or insincere; specious. This last application is the meaning intended in this book.

perfervid - extremely or extravagantly eager; impassioned or zealous.

hagiographic - a biography of saints; worshipful or idealized biography.

aporiae - in rhetoric: the expression of a simulated or real doubt, as about where to begin or what to do or say. In Logic or Philosophy: a difficulty encountered in establishing the theoretical truth of a proposition, created by the presence of evidence both for and against it. Okay, that there, that's one of them college words, I tell you what!

sanative - appears twice in The Dumbest Generation. Obviously Mr. Bauerlein does not want that generation reading his book! It means: having the power to cure; healing or restorative. Oh, I get it! Like "sanatorium".

abstruse - difficult to understand. Recondite.

Definitions courtesy The Free Dictionary dot com, which rawks awesome... and it's free!

Except for aporiae, which would be even more college-y if it were written as aporiæ, and which is apparently too danged snooty for a mere "free" dictionary; I found it at Dictionary dot com, which roxx almost as awesome as the previous site, and it's also free; but I like the first one better because they let you know it's free right there in the name! Plus, the free one has a livelier home page.