Given the chosen title, let alone the specific content, it is not surprising that Mark Bauerlein did not garner a lot fans or high ratings for his book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. But that is precisely what he set out not to do. The Dumbest Generation is a lament over the cultural and intellectual malaise that defines the under 30 year olds in America. Bauerlein uses anecdotes and statistics throughout to bolster his argument that the youth of today are in fact not as well-informed, intelligent, forward-thinking, or whatever else positive that can be said about them. He goes beyond the isolated examples that faintly shine every once in a while as a glimmer of hope for those who want to uphold a positive outlook.
The statistics from assessment tests and the surveys Bauerlein brings forth provide damning evidence that today’s American youth are historically and sociopolitically illiterate, mathematically inept, vocabulary-deficient, all the while being unjustifiably confident in their intellects and future career prospects. This is very hard to argue against given the shocking figures reported by universities and future employers who suffer from having to provide basic training for incoming students and employees just so they can be able to handle basic cognitive tasks.
To be clear, Bauerlein does mention that he is under no delusion that the youth of the past eras were any smarter. To the contrary, he concedes that the youth of the fifties and the sixties are no different than today’s Millennials when it comes to intellectual capacity. His concern is whether this capacity is being directed and utilized to its full potential in a way that allows one to grow out of childish concerns of adolescence into informed civic-minded concerns of adulthood. Based on the current trends and available statistics, Bauerlein concludes that adolescence has been extended, and we now have frivolous-minded children trapped in adult bodies. To understand why this is so, we must look to how modern advancements in technology, the Internet, and social media are being utilized by today’s youth.
Bauerlein’s attack on the Internet as a medium for gaining knowledge was for me quite reminiscent of Guy Lyon Playfair’s attack on television in The Evil Eye and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. As a medium, the available studies from cognitive neuroscience point to the inability of the Internet to engage the mind in the same way as reading a book can. This is not necessarily a problem in itself, unless the Internet becomes an alternative to reading books, which is what the youth have done. Bauerlein’s argument is not against the use of technology in education or the Internet per se. Rather, he cites assessment scores showing how exchanging traditional modes of education and reading completely for computer screens and gadgets has actually dumbed down this generation.
To add insult to injury, surveys designed to test student and engagement and satisfaction with education give the false impression that such changes are for the better. This is where Bauerlein brings up such surveys to show how we have done something quite radical in comparison to previous generations – instead of the wisdom of experience and adult insight, we now use youth happiness as the moral benchmark upon which we judge the youth. In other words, the adults have disposed of their responsibility to mentor the youth into adulthood, and relegated it to the youth themselves. In doing so, the adults have failed this generation. Furthermore, given their narcissism and ignorance of civic issues at a deeper level than their topical here-and-now immediate awareness, today’s Dumbest Generation may be paving the way for the collapse of democracy in America.
Bauerlein has not completely lost hope. He is sounding the alarm to try and turn everyone’s attention to the gloomy facts so something can be done about it. The Dumbest Generation is more a criticism of the adults who are supposed to be preparing today’s youth to be tomorrow’s mentors, but are failing quite miserably at doing so. The available data reported in this book paint a dark future, and to not see that is to either be blind or to be complicit. In order to get the most out of this book, the reader would need to get past the offensive title and set aside what they think about the intellectual state of the Millennials.