Reviewed 9/24/2008

The Dumbest Generation, by Mark Bauerlein

Access to this book courtesy of the
Santa Clara, CA City Public Library
How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future
Mark Bauerlein
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008




ISBN-13 978-1-58542-639-3
ISBN-10 1-58542-639-3 264pp. HC $24.95

This book opens with a chronicle of high-school overachievers caught up in a "competitive frenzy." But this is only a counterpoint, for the true purpose of the book is to examine the mirror image of these intellectual paragons: the growing percentage of American students who don't know facts their parents would consider basic, who lack skills older generations would deem essential. Facts like what protections the First Amendment confers upon American citizens; skills like how to find a foreign country on a map of the world.

Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, has assembled a great deal of evidence to support his case. But that is nothing new; there is a host of studies, reports and books documenting the decline of American students, both in absolute terms and relative to students of other advanced nations.

What makes Bauerlein's work stand out is the passion he brings to the task of understanding and describing this burgeoning deficiency and its effects. That passion comes through clearly. To read his description of "the fiery polemical climate of City College in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s" is to feel his hunger for a revival and expansion of the kind of sharp discourse the intellectuals there conducted among themselves. To read his description of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and their Port Huron Statement is to see that the idealism of 1960s counterculture still has a hold on him. To read his account of ArtShow is to understand his dismay at its acceptance of its students' dismissal of the work of masters like Rembrandt or Picasso, of art history in general.

And that passion may be the most valuable part of his proposed solution. It is easy to advocate stricter academic standards, or more instruction in the basic skills of spelling, punctuation and arithmetic that are the true bulwarks of professional success. Most every book on education reform does advocate those measures. Just as common is the warning that immersion in the self and the here-and-now dooms our democracy. But to convey the sense that regaining those skills, that historical perspective, that involvement in larger causes than day-to-day survival, is not only necessary but enjoyable — that is a rare thing.

Denigrating the quality of the younger generation has long been a tradition. But study after study documents a real decline in educational attainment, along with a lack of concern in those who show the deficit.

The latest NAEP figures are but another entry in the ongoing catalog of knowledge and skill deficits among the Web's most dedicated partakers. When we look at the front end of digital usage, at the materials and transactions available online, we discover a mega-world of great books, beautiful artworks, historical information, statistical data, intelligent magazines, informative conversations, challenging games, and civic deeds. But when we go to the back end of digital usage, to the minds of those who've spent their formative years online, we draw a contrary conclusion. Whatever their other virtues, these minds know far too little, and they read and write and calculate and reflect way too poorly. However many hours they pass at the screen from age 11 to 25, however many blog comments they compose, intricate games they play, videos they create, personal profiles they craft, and gadgets they master, the transfer doesn't happen. The Web grows, and the young adult mind stalls.

– Page 108

Bauerlein's excellent book is packed full of results of these studies, and frequently mentions references such as Todd Oppenheimer's The Flickering Mind. It is a thorough discussion of the situation, albeit a somewhat gloomy one. It has an extensive bibliography with 207 entries (books, magazine articles, and Web sites) and a good index. Highly recommended.

1 This is taken from an entry on the USA Today "Generation Next" blog. See p. 66.
2 Pesky homonyms are only one reason why spell checkers are not perfectly reliable. Others include seldom-used words and specialized terms that are not in the checker's built-in dictionary. Then there's the fact that computers and networks, like any mechanical system, are subject to failure.
3 Bauerlein (page 110): "In ACT's National Curriculum Survey, released in April 2007, 35 percent of college teachers agreed that the college readiness of entering students has declined in the past several years, and only 13 percent stated that it had improved. Furthermore, college teachers found that the most important prerequisites for success lay not in higher-order talents like critical thinking [ . . .] but in lower-order thinking skills, that is, the basic mechanics of spelling, punctuation, and arithmetic."
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