The Dumbest Generation

Mark Bauerlein
2008

When Bauerlein warns that informed citizenship is impossible when no one is informed, he makes an important point. Yet if only he’d make it with less disdain, with less contempt, agreeing with him would be easier.

Mark Bauerlein is worried.

With the rise of the internet, where is the next generation of elite intellectuals like himself to come from?

No, really, he’s worried about this. It seems that the Internet is turning the younger generation into a mob of shallow consumers, without the love of learning and books and ideas that alone can keep alive the heritage and culture that sustain our society.

We’ve all read stuff like this before, but seldom — at least, this side of Harold Bloom — has so much gloom been gathered into one place.

Bauerlein’s disdain for the younger generation is expressed succinctly in his book’s title: The Dumbest Generation.  After that start, who can expect sober and reasoned cultural discussion to follow? Even if it does, many readers will be so annoyed out of the gate that it will be needlessly difficult to get them to listen. The rest of the title: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).

While it’s true that there is much to be said about the ways that 24/7 immersion in the online life are changing our culture — among others, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which I reviewed here recently, makes some similar points — it’s difficult to get past Bauerlein’s scornful elitism and pay due attention to his message.

That’s one of the problems with “social issue” books: they are written by people who care passionately about their subjects, and that emotionalism too often outshines their legitimate concerns. We’ve seen that here recently, in the dark warnings by Chris Hedges and in Barbara Ehrenreich’s rejection of positive thinking in Bright-Sided.

Bauerlein sets up his critique by acknowledging the potential of the Internet to enhance intellectual life: “Never have opportunities for education, learning, political action, and cultural activity been greater. All the ingredients for making an informed and intelligent citizen are in place. But it hasn’t happened.”

Instead, Bauerlein laments, the younger generation are wasting the opportunity:

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. Young people have never been so intensely mindful of and present to one another, so enabled in adolescent contact.

Late in the book, Bauerlein manages to pin the problem on the 60’s, everyone’s favourite whipping decade. It seems that when my friends and I created youth culture, inventing the notion that teens are a cultural group distinct from the adults around them, we did more than make The Beatles rich. Unwittingly, we sowed the seeds of social destruction:

The benighted mental condition of American youth today results from many causes, but one of them is precisely a particular culture-war outcome, the war over the status of youth fought four decades ago.

It won’t be long before the change is evident everywhere. It’ll be a close call whether Alex Trebek will retire into senescence before Jeopardy! runs out of contestants who know the capital of Ohio without using Google — or answering “O.”

I’m having a hard time managing my reaction to The Dumbest Generation. As the last few paragraphs make clear, on the one hand I have the impulse to mock yet another version of the ageless warning that the next generation will ruin the world.

On the other hand, the superficiality and consumer-driven self interest against which Bauerlein rails is certainly out there, and I strongly suspect that the post-postmodern fragmentation of culture is an important weapon in the corporatist arsenal.

When Bauerlein warns that informed citizenship is impossible when no one is informed, he makes an important point. Yet if only he’d make it with less disdain, with less contempt, agreeing with him would be easier.

To illustrate this tonal dissonance, here’s more Bauerlein:

They have all the advantages of modernity and democracy, but when the gifts of life lead to social joys, not intellectual labor, the minds of the young plateau at age 18.

They are encased in more immediate realities that shut out conditions beyond—friends, work, clothes, cars, pop music, sitcoms, Facebook.

… The youth culture of American society yields an adolescent consumer enmeshed in juvenile matters and secluded from adult realities.

And so on and so on. There are important issues here, but how can one treat them seriously while fighting past the bitterness of their expression?

Bauerlein’s elitism gets in the way, and it pops up everywhere:

Young adults end up with detailed awareness of adolescent fare, and draw a blank with the great traditions of opera, Impressionism, bebop, Restoration comedy.

No cohort in human history has opened such a fissure between its material conditions and its intellectual attainments. None has experienced so many technological enhancements and yielded so little mental progress.

Apparently, without a love of opera, or the ability to quote from the works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, all is lost. This is, of course, nonsense, and mixing cultural snobbery in with concerns about the future of participatory politics merely weakens the impact of the second, more important subject.

Bauerstein has more success when he dials down the disdain and concentrates on the contexts of informed citizenship:

Think of how many things you must do in order not to know the year 1776 or the British prime minister or the Fifth Amendment. At the start, you must forget the lessons of school—history class, social studies, government, geography, English, philosophy, and art history. You must care nothing about current events, elections, foreign policy, and war. No newspapers, no political magazines, no NPR or Rush Limbaugh, no CNN, Fox News, network news, or NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. No books on the Cold War or the Founding, no biographies, nothing on Bush or Hillary, terrorism or religion, Europe or the Middle East. No political activity and no community activism. And your friends must act the same way, never letting a historical fact or current affair slip into a cellphone exchange.

That’s better. Less spleen, until the last sentence, anyway, and a more cogent focus on the requirements for participatory citizenship.

American Idol and Facebook don’t bode well for the future of informed political debate, that’s true. But then, did Elvis make us better citizens? Or Star Trek?

Well, maybe Star Trek.

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