If you are under 30, stop skimming this and go read it. The book is called The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30, by Mark Bauerlein. I like the title just because of how annoyingly long it is; you know everyone stops reading it once they've read the first three words. Also, the title of this blog post is funny.
If you're still reading this, then I guess I'll explain why you should stop right now and go buy that book. Firstly, I'm going to say that it was an extremely validating book, because it eloquently examines, with scientific backing, the same material that I myself focus on in my nonfiction writing (see: this blog). Basically, this blog is a lot like the book, but with almost nothing listed to back it up besides my own ego, and is much less hateful than my rants. However, about halfway through (starting with a chapter called "Online Learning and Non-Learning") Mark suddenly gets a lot more biting with his remarks, much more flippant with his tone. I like that a lot. It excited me. Before this, you spend over a hundred pages going over statistics on literacy and intelligence aptitude testing scores and how they have changed over the last half-century. While this is interesting, and it certainly lays a foundation of scientific and statistical inquiry, it gets kind of dry. But dear reader, persevere through it, because once you get to the asshole side of Mark, there's no end to the roller-coaster of awesome.
The latter half of the book is full of amazing quotes and themes, of which I'm not going to cover all here, but I'll go over my favorites. (Oh god there's so much text below this, I'm sure all of you people under 30 are going to have heart problems, but please try and wade through it. This information is vital.)
The basis and main thrust of the book is the thesis that "being online" has caused kids to lose all intellectual stimulation. While everyone believes that time on-screen gives children an opportunity to learn more than they ever could, the facts state that the opposite is happening. It's the first in a series of paradoxes Mark guides us through, and it seems the most obvious from statistical data. My generation hates books now more than ever, and are never really pressured by adults or peers into developing advanced literacy. Especially since American government institutions have shifted heavy emphasis on only caring about basic literacy (see: No Child Left Behind). You might think that by being in college you're experiencing difficult literature, but the fact is that the levels of reading comprehension and the required reading habits that professors ask of students has dropped significantly over the last 30 years. From recently being in college, I can fully vouch for this. I was never required to read anything difficult in college, nor do I know anyone whose curriculum required any of the old masters of poetry or prose. (Mostly because multiculturalists rally against the "old white men", which is also bullshit, because the two can co-exist just fine.)
Young people exist now in their own self-made universes more than ever before. It used to be that school was the place a child socialized the most, and going home meant doing your homework and doing things with your parents, and maybe talking on the phone with your friends. Now, kids run home because it means they get to go online and talk to their friends all night long, and even in school all kids do is text each other. This closes them off from learning, exploring, and having to be forced into doing something other than socializing or thinking about socializing. And everyone, from scholars to parents to anybody worth listening to, believe that the internet is awesome and it cannot be a bad thing and encourage their kids to get on the computer. Not to mention the computer or the TV will take care of a kid while the parent does something else on their own, too.
The study of history in any form, really any attention to the past at all, has been left behind in favor of the youth-knows-all self-expression method of learning. One of my favorite quotes in the book: "It is the nature of adolescents to believe that authentic reality begins with themselves, and that was long preceded them is irrelevant" (p. 168). It is very true that this is our attitude, and it is a very bad thing that our teachers and parents believe that this state of being is fine to just keep living in well into our late teens and twenties and onward. We do not learn from the past because we never pay attention to it because it is never exposed to us because we don't want to see it. We are never forced to see it. No one sits us down and makes us watch PBS when there's MTV we'd rather be watching. Our parents don't want to take us to museums anymore because we think it's boring.
Our generation is a self-centered repeating mashup of peer-created nonsense with no basis in reality, no real ground on which to stand, nothing to cite as an influence besides the same nonsense that was used to create it. All of us float in this goddamn cloud of self-importance, as if the only true way to know things is to discover them through ourselves. I can confidently say that there is no average American 18-year-old who knows enough to learn anything substantial from themselves, and yet they are told and they believe that they're ready to and should take on the universe. It's bullshit. No we shouldn't. Reading the statistics, I wish I could go back ten years and tell my 12-year-old self to read more. (Admittedly, I read a goddamn lot in my teens, but I wish I had read even more and challenged myself further.) The only real way to learn is from the experience of those older than us and/or different from us, and it only makes sense that we as children should at least bounce everyday ideas off of our parents, let alone the many thousands of years of human existence that has been recorded in books (and now online). But everyone would have our generation believe that the past is trivial, and we know no better because we are still children, and will be stuck in childhood thanks to that idiom.
According to Mark, it is the fault of adults that this happened, because they let it happen over the course of the last 50 years. Since the 60s, America has become more and more centered on youth, so much so that now I would wager that we have completely eclipsed all dominant adult-oriented culture. (Except for maybe The Economist and Fox News.) In the 60s, academics and culture-generators alike began believing that youth was inherently correct in its rebellion of "the system" merely because they were rebelling with such fervor. Nevermind the fact that kids could not really articulate their revolution, or that they overwhelmingly grasped onto whoever was the most radical at the given moment without pause, and had absolutely no organization but yet were one gargantuan mass. (Conversely, this is why I think the internet will kill us all; it is a completely disorganized gargantuan mass that, when finally riled, will overtake the world with nonsense that shrouds even today's pop culture mythos.) No one bothered to stop and seriously question what was going on in the 60s, and because of that we let the whole thing slide until the kids were in charge 20-30 years later, and they had no idea what to do.
The teachers now move away from being authority figures and instead try to buddy-buddy with their students, meaning their words fall flat on our ears, because not only are they trying to be our friend but they're boring, too. So to combat even this, professors dumb everything down to group assignments, so that perhaps one out of five kids will carry the assignment for the other four in the group. They wonder why nobody goes to talk to them during their office hours: the smart kids who were forced to do all the work hate them instead of seeking them out, and the kids who didn't do the work are only encouraged to do less. The leading case of why people I know ever went to see their professors was to try to get extensions on their assignments, and most adults let it happen because "college life is so demanding". No, it's not. What hit me hardest after I graduated was the realization of how hard I had to work to make the college experience challenging for myself. (Obviously my ego is huge, you must believe this by now.)
So we now have this swirling nexus of technology and throwaway culture and a supported idea that learning is unnecessary, all of which has led to soul-conquering immediacy and almost total youthful self-centeredness. The worst part, I think and Mark points out, is the lack of skeptics and critics, the absence of a group trying to examine what's actually going on. There are a few, but they are relegated to the sidelines, rather than being considered watchful protectors of reason. (I don't think it was stated in the book, but I like to think that the rise of the young in the late 20th and the 21st century so far is a lot like the rise of medieval religion.) A lot of people who are entrenched in this culture believe that the views of Mark's (and mine) are reactionary and offensive to the future growth of our society. However, Mark doesn't really care, the science is on his side. But then again, that's not going to convince anyone since science isn't really that important or relevant to our interests (except that whole global warming thing which is more of a collective nightmare than a rigorous scientific inquiry).
In the final chapter of the book, Mark explicates the personality and flavor of the culture warrior, one who was mentored and self-guided to acquire knowledge and understanding of the past and how it applies to the present. The culture warrior is passionate, reads a lot, accepts being taught while always questioning the teacher, and has a paramount interest in skirmishing with anyone (specifically peers) who may hold an opposing intellectual viewpoint. Mark's main concern in relation to the Dumbest Generation is that all of the greatest of these warriors were formed early in life thanks to the rigors (whether self-made or mentored) and raw social importance of education. As he has outlined (and I have as well, haha), my generation severely lacks even the possibility of generating true culture warriors. The youth-world of today is not one of argument and diverse ideas, but rather a homogeneous popular/hypertopical brain-soup of repetition and self-interest. This is not to say that those culture warriors of the past were awesome nice people, in fact they were complete assholes, perfectly willing to berate each other for hours on end. The difference between these culture warriors and the self-professed asshole intellectuals of today is that there used to be a ever-flowing dialogue enriched with specific citation and raw information from all sides of the argument, things we have in easy abundance today but never utilize. Again, another paradox that baffles. We're full of them.
Another one of my favorite quotes I'll leave here, because even my massive ego can't just blurt it out from my mouth, but I'll let Mark say it: "if you ignore the traditions that ground and ennoble our society, you are an incomplete person and a negligent citizen." He said it, not me. (But I wish it was me.) And don't take that to mean that everyone needs to be a culture warrior or hyper-intellectual, it just means that everyone needs knowledge and needs to want knowledge for the betterment of the self and the society at large. Democracy depends upon an informed citizenry, which we (under 30) are entirely not. Even if you voted for Obama.
Anyway, that was long-winded but I wanted to rant about this, since the book is rather all-encompassing of this blog's goals. It's a good book. It's required goddamn reading as far as I'm concerned, and I stake my massive ego on that. It has a lot of points that may not be the most even-tempered, but that's important, too. Old people need to get mad at us and tell us kids we're wrong. That's what is happening when kids graduate from college and enter the workplace, as Mark explains. We grow up in our bullshit and when we finally make it to reality, we are completely unprepared for it, thanks to our self-importance and our dwindling abilities to read and write effectively. It's an ideological crisis as well as a practical one. I, for one, have compiled a huge reading list that I will be working on for the next couple months. (More reviews to come.) And I like talking to people who are a lot older than me. And I like talking about this stuff, if there's ever anyone to talk back. Anyone want to start debating theology on Facebook with me?