April 28, 2008
Professor’s new book challenges the ‘dumbest generation’
By Beverly Clark
Emory English professor Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future” has attracted national buzz, including the New York Times and USA Today, in advance of its publication May 15. His provocative, deeply researched book finds ignorance in abundance and the Internet an all too-enticing web of social networking that further insulates youth from their intellectual development.
Q&A: Mark Bauerlein
Emory Report: What inspired you to write this book?
Bauerlein: I left academia in 2003 and went to work as a political appointee for the National Endowment for the Arts... My government work brought me in to broader contact with non-academic cultural issues and bigger populations than Emory students, and that made me see some serious problems. As a part of that, I saw that academic humanities work is simply disconnected from the basic educational needs of 8-year-olds, as well as from main pressing cultural issues of our time. And I also got tired of writing things that 20 people might read.
ER: Calling today’s youth the “Dumbest Generation” seems pretty harsh. Why do so?
Bauerlein: Let’s clarify: young people today are no less intelligent. They’re no less motivated. More of them go to college than ever before. They have better attitudes toward parents... But why are they the ‘Dumbest Generation’? There are more colleges, more museums, more libraries, more bookstores, more performance spaces and more educational programming than ever before. They have the Internet… They have more spending power than any generation in human history. So with all those opportunities, we should expect some knowledge growth, and skill development. It’s either flat — or down…
So you have all the incentives out there to be literate and learned and what do you do? Well, you spend hours checking your blog to see if someone made a comment on your last post. You upload videos from spring break on to your personal profile page. You hit that cell phone every five minutes … This is a waste.
Now, we shouldn’t be surprised that adolescents do this. That’s what kids do. We have to add to this mix of the Internet seduction the abdication of the mentors who don’t want to hold the line, who don’t want to scold the teens… This is something we should do a lot more of. Elders have chastised kids forever — until recently, and that’s bad, for it’s a healthy condition for the generations to be in some tension with one another.
ER: What can be done to turn the tide?
Bauerlein: Educators are the only ones that can hold the line in the schools…On the macro-level, though, nothing can be done. On the micro-level, parents can set aside an hour a day, where you unplug from everything and read, read anything you want. Just take that one hour to read.
ER: How do you see these themes playing out among Emory students?
Bauerlein: Emory: competitive admissions, ambitious, motivated kids…They are goal-directed in career terms and that makes them undervalue their liberal arts course work. And that’s a shame because this is the only time they will have the opportunity to become learned, well-read individuals...
I tell my students, ‘You’re ignorant, you’re lazy, you watch too much TV. Don’t talk to me about how busy you are.’ I say these things in class. They laugh at me. But they know that I care about them. I care about their minds and that they leave a class knowing more than when they came in…You can criticize them across the board if you’re attentive and if you respect them as intellects. You respect them enough to say: you can do a lot better and I want you to do better. So if that message of caring gets through, you can criticize. You can call them the ‘Dumbest Generation.’