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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



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 24th, 2010 11:24 am (UTC)
Nice to have you back, Mr. D.

Regarding the widening divide, I recently saw a video on the coming collapse of the middle class. It's long, but came highly recommended.
Jan. 24th, 2010 09:06 pm (UTC)
The font - fount thing might well be the result of an proofreader.
I once had a translator change "mean" into "average" in a text. But the statistical term "average deviation" doesn't exist ...

Ha yes, the digital kids.
If you make things as simple as 123 they blink. they are digital, they understand 0 and 1, they think you'r stooped cause you skipped 0 and you lost them at 2.

BTW, cartoons have slipped. These days cartoons (for kids) need to have an educational-value and whenever that pops in things start to go lobsided and capsize eventually.

Jan. 24th, 2010 09:41 pm (UTC)
"Ha yes, the digital kids.
If you make things as simple as 123 they blink. they are digital, they understand 0 and 1, they think you'r stooped cause you skipped 0 and you lost them at 2."

This is funny... and an accurate analogy! You should be the one writing these books, Mr. SjonSvenson! They'd be far more entertaining!
Jan. 25th, 2010 03:04 am (UTC)
Does the author address the fairy tale that children are taught entitled: "You Can Do Anything" (I'm being facetious, there is no such title.)

Why I say this: homeschooling Kurii for 7-8 years meant I could drill him in spelling, math and basic history, which was great to build foundational skills. In addition to this, I was able (from time to time) to teach him thing things like "a job worth doing is worth doing well", and that "life owes you NOTHING: being talented is meaningless if you don't work hard, and even working hard doesn't mean immediate success . . ."

Although Kurii did well academically, when he first went into the school system because he thought so differently from his classmates, he was very isolated in his charter school --- even a school that marketed itself as an independent learner's dream, and one that encouraged intellectual curiosity and incorporated college course --- his experience was that participating in discussions labeled him as a "suck" and a "freak" and he quickly learned to hide his work habits and how he felt about work habits/self-education/etc. from his classmates.

His moral/ethical backbone was what served him best, though, and he has told me numerous times he sometimes felt like he was the only one who was appalled at teachers who said "you can do anything" without stressing that EVERY worthwhile activity in life requires work, patience, perseverance, compassion and disappointment, (and will have days that are boring, repetitive and unrewarding).
Jan. 25th, 2010 05:06 am (UTC)
Yes, actually, the author addresses the "You Can Do Anything" fairy tale at some length, how it creates a sense of entitlement, and how ill-prepared the pampered students are when they hit college, and more so when they enter the "real world."

I found the book quite fascinating, and I agree strongly with half of the author's thesis, that young people in general lack a well-rounded academic background and a grounding in basic factual knowledge, that "social networking" supersedes all other interests and activities for them, and that anything that falls outside of their immediate personal interests is of no value to them. To borrow the phrase you used earlier, he is preaching to the choir in that regard. What I was hoping for was a stronger argument for the relevance of knowing facts or being familiar with literature, mathematics, science, and, yes, jazz music. Ultimately, I remained unconvinced by the end of the book.

I'm don't consider myself difficult to convince; after all, my livelihood depends on teaching this stuff to kids. And yeah, I can even appreciate having at least a passing familiarity with jazz. This afternoon, less than an hour ago, while waiting in the car I flipped on the radio (Public Radio, because I'm an intellectual snob) and heard music. "Sounds like late big band, probably late 1940s, early '50s," I thought to myself. Then the vocalist chimed in, and it took me less than two seconds to recognize Sinatra. When the song ended -- it was a recording of a live performance -- Ol' Blue Eyes thanked Tommy and the boys, and I knew that meant Tommy Dorsey and his band. So, because I'm familiar to an extent with that kind of music, I got more personal enjoyment out of listening to that bit of the radio program than I might have otherwise. But as I said in my review, so what? If they'd been playing a hip-hop program, I would have turned it off, but many teenagers would have been able to name the performer and provide some background information. Why should a familiarity with jazz be any more important than knowing about rap, hip-hop, heavy metal, techno, or bubblegum pop? I want to believe knowing the names of the states (or provinces & territories) and countries and continents is important. I want to believe that spelling matters. I want kids to be able to read a book - text printed on paper - fluently enough to laugh out loud at Lemony Snickett's clever wordplay. But The Dumbest Generation left me unconvinced that the ability to do any of these things is important.

My neighbor, now in his mid-30s, could not write or spell and could barely read when he graduated high school. His mother wrote his papers for him so he could pass his GED program. Today, as a computer programmer for a health services organization, he makes over twice the income I do. He discovered computers, became interested in the internet, taught himself HTML, was offered a job at a web design company, and from there pursued more training, learned from people, surfed through a number of jobs with larger salaries at each move, and now he pulls down close to $90k and is able to work from home half the time. In addition to finding his niche, what allowed him to do this was precisely the skill that The Dumbest Generation suggests young people spend too much time cultivating: people skills. The guy is a natural. People immediately like him, trust him, and feel confident that he can do the job. He's comfortable and confident in any social situation. Because he can talk, because he can network, because he casts a wide social web, opportunities come his way. The Dumbest Generation completely ignores that aspect of the way young people operate. (continued)
Jan. 25th, 2010 05:07 am (UTC)
More than ever, it's who you know, not what you know, that leads to success. The "what" part can come later. People have a knack for picking up the knowledge they need to perform a task. It's getting into the position in the first place that's the tough part. It doesn't matter what you know at a job interview. They hire the person they like. You've been there, I'm sure. "Best qualified" on paper or high score on a written test doesn't mean much in most situations. Do people like you and want you to be part of their circle, that's the key question, a question completely ignored in The Dumbest Generation.

Your story about Kurii is an excellent example of this. Well-prepared academically, he actually had to hide what he knows to fit in. If he didn't adapt in that way, his time at school would have been more miserable than it was. His knowledge and skill set was actually a detriment to him.

While it was interesting, I didn't entirely find what I was hoping for in The Dumbest Generation, that being a solid assurance that the way I learned, and the way I would like to teach, remains relevant. I'm looking forward to reading Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration, with the hope that it will provide me with better insight in how to approach what I do with competence and relevance.

Oh, as an interesting footnote: countless studies have now been completed over the last couple of decades assessing the impact of computers and technology on student performance on standard assessment tests. There has been no impact. Scores have not improved. In some cases, scores have decreased. Some school districts are beginning to pull back from technology for a combination of cost and effectiveness reasons. The book examines the rationale behind the ever-increasing adoption of technology, however; it's a process I'm seeing on a daily basis in my workplace setting. Desperate administrators are being "sold" on tech by savvy salespeople who tell them what they want to hear and who provide an impressive set of "data" culled from the top five percent of tech-using students. It's quite the racket.

One of my co-teachers was telling me just this past week that one of her friends quit teaching and went to work for an academic software company a couple of years ago, and now makes close to $100k a year selling the Achieve3000 package to schools. From what I could gather, she's another go-getter with "mad people skilz."

We use the Achieve3000 program in our school. It's mandated that we do so by our district admin, who subscribed to the program for all the schools. So far, after two years, I'm not seeing the "two grade level" increases we were promised. I'm sure, were I to raise the question, I would be told that it's because I'm not using all the aspects of the package, and that the program is only effective if used in total. Of course, none of our staff use the entire program, because we don't have that much time in a day!

According to the Achieve3000 data, most of our 6th-graders read at 3rd-grade level.

Like I said: it's a racket.

The Boss just bought 40 iPod Touch units for the 6th-grade to use. She's convinced that students will read eBooks if they can do so on an iTouch. I haven't heard whether the kids will be allowed to load music onto the units and listen to tunes while they're reading or not. But I already know the answer.

Thank you, by the way, for your thoughtful and helpful comments! I highly value your observations and insight.

Edited at 2010-01-25 05:08 am (UTC)
Feb. 1st, 2010 08:11 am (UTC)
I'm late on this rant, but I guess I'll make up for it in a 'Digital Generation' viewpoints.

I have to agree, I'm with you on a lot of this - it frustrates me when my fellow classmates dissolve into conversations that only include "LOLZ!!!" and "OMG LAWL DATS KEWL", instead of putting actual effort into their conversations. The digital era has dissolved pop culture into one big blur where not knowing how to type is perfectly fine and acronyms are the way to go. Effort? Forget that crap. Effortless isn't just a fashion statement, it's a way of life now. Sure, an occasional lapse into acronyms are fine, but if you scroll through a 12-year-old's chat history (since they don't know better than to manually delete these themselves,) you'll be surrounded by a big blur of "LOL" and "OMG" and ":)/:(/:@/insert what have you here".

I was a bit luckier than my peers when it came to technology - my parents didn't buy a DVD player or have a CD player until I was nearly 9 or 10, and I grew up listening to music on casettes and watching tapes on a VCR. My dad, having worked in a computer company, allowed me to play around on computers to a point. I know my way around things thanks to computer classes early on, including the virtues of the Ctrl button. Online, I found myself surrounded by literate people who recommended me towards some great books.

Many of my peers find themselves immediately uninterested by LOLcats, Charlie the Unicorn, other internet memes - why? Because they don't get it. The humor's the wrong kind for them - even today, slapstick is the popular genre of comedy (albeit, much more violent than before) and any sort of humor or other art forms that require deep thinking are classed 'lame' and 'stupid'. And, okay, LOLcats don't really require deep thinking, but my theory is that LOLcats is 'lame' because it mocks the digital age - the overusage of non-grammar, acronyms and 'dumb spelling' isn't funny because it's an ironic humor, which is something they don't get. Charlie the Unicorn is just 'too weird' - the underlying message to it also doesn't help.

The fact that my peers can't even read or use complex words (recently, a friend asked me what 'ironic' meant - mental facepalm.) really makes me angry. I can assure you that many, if not most of my friends will never pick up and fully read a Harry Potter book, or a Chuck Palahniuk novel. Nobody today will read "To Kill A Mockingbird" or remember who J. D. Salinger is, unless it's for 'class stuff.' Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other poets will be lost to time. Many kids aren't being taught 'the classics', because, well, most parents don't bother. My own brother, age 9, still prefers Pokemon manga to actual books. (I rescued him - he is currently reading Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix, last I checked.) People put too much focus on the 'thinking' part without realizing that without the groundwork (aka factual knowledge,) they have nothing to think about. But of course, once the child hits anywhere from eleven to thirteen, people expect them to know all these classical, knowledgeable works that they haven't bothered teaching them. Hence, the big gap.

As for the music thing... Excuse my language, but that's a load of bullshit. I myself happen to listen to a lot of music - pop, rock, hip-hop/rap, indie, occasionally country - and I can tell you, none of this music will make you 'stupid'. Many people I know who listen to Panic! At the Disco, Fall Out Boy and other 'dumb emo pop bands' are some of the most brilliant writers I know. Many of my Asian friends listen to Korean hip-hop and they bring home top test scores. Rap, maybe, will affect you, but in actuality, as long as the music has good lyrical content that leaves for thinking (rather than just "let's get fucked up and party all night long",) it won't affect your intellect.
Feb. 1st, 2010 08:12 am (UTC)
Also, society today simply doesn't care about literature or good music, as long as you can get the job done right. As long as you can do your math, read normal people lingo and have some people skills, you'll be good - who cares about literature? Oh yeah, the old generation, who rants on and on and on about how "people today are so uneducated" but then turn around and place the importance on 'critical thinking' and 'life skills', none of which have to do with this reading crap.

@ Pastilla - you're absolutely right. People place importance on "You can do anything!" but don't place it on the fact that you have to work, and you have to work hard in every aspect if you're going to 'do anything'. Hence people like Miley Cyrus and many thirteen year olds across the world being so self-entitled.

Would type more, but it's midnight and my brain is making no sense. Forgive me if something is wrong.

Edited at 2010-02-01 08:27 am (UTC)
Feb. 1st, 2010 08:19 am (UTC)
tl; dr
Feb. 2nd, 2010 04:30 am (UTC)
..."let's get fucked up
and party all night long"

That's pretty much the extent of the lyrical sophistication I hear when young people (or my neighbors) have their music cranked up. However, my comment about rap and hip-hop was largely... ironic. The same way the author of the book overly broadly, and erroneously in my opinion, suggests listening to jazz is a sign of intellect, it's equally absurd to suggest that everyone who listens to rap or hip-hop is dumb.

Thank you for your lengthy and enlightening commentary. Maya is an example of the kind of "Millennial" that adults assume are representative of all young people. As you so eloquently point out about your own generation... they ain't all like you!

I wish I could have presented my reflections on this book as clearly as you have expressed your thoughts in this comment. I especially appreciate your observations on "Charlie" and LOLcats. I hadn't really considered LOLcats in that regard before, but I believe your are entirely on-target with your analysis.

Additionally, you've further inspired me to continue my effort to read more "literature" this coming year.

Again, thanks for "thinking and responding" in such a valuable manner.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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