FLORIDA, September 9, 2012 — Many believe that with each passing generation, there is not only a loss of opportunity, but character.
While such an idea is very difficult to prove, and not to mention an invitation for controversy, there is a great deal of empirical evidence to support it. From the ascendancy of the yammering often called modern rap to the fact that so few seem to be aware of the world around them, one can deduce that our society is not on a stellar path.
What does this mean for the future? Beyond that, what caused this mess in the first place?
Mark Bauerlein is a noted academic, social writer, and the author of “The Dumbest Generation”. In a detailed discussion with me, he explains how and why our country’s youth are not living up to the standards of their elders. From the rise of social networking to the downfall of reading, not a stone is left unturned in discovering why he calls the Dumbest Generation exactly that.
Joseph F. Cotto: Technology is a wonderful thing. Nonetheless, it does come with downsides. How would you say that technology has negatively impacted young adults in this country?
Dr. Mark Bauerlein: In several ways. One, it has cut into book reading time. The leisure hours of a young person are finite (around 6 hours on average for 15-19-year-olds). The more they do one thing, the less they do another. The proliferation of screens in bedrooms, pockets, automobiles, … has edged books ever farther down the list of preferred activities.
Another is that it has intensified social contact and peer pressure. It used to be that when teens went home, social life ended, save for the landline. Now, social life goes on in all spaces, including the private home, and it can happen at any hour. This gives kids no reprieve from the tribal dynamics of high school. They become intensely aware of one another—an unaware of so much else.
Cotto: One of the gravest concerns cited with those now entering the workforce is a poor business ethic. Where might this have originated from?
Dr. Bauerlein: I would cast the problem not as laziness, Joseph, but as the wrong acculturation. Remember that young people have spent the preceding years in high school and college. There, most of them haven’t worked hard (around 55 percent of all high school students do one hour or less (!) of “reading/studying” per week), but they’ve spent nearly all their leisure hours with friends. It’s a nice situation—until, that is, they hit the workplace. They find that the people in charge aren’t inclined to give them a few extra days to finish something (as their college teachers often do). Their outlook doesn’t dominate, and they have to subordinate their interests to the aims of the workplace. They must cooperate with people much older than themselves, and they don’t like it. They want the workplace to recognize their special talents, they want the flexibility to take their laptops to Starbucks and 3pm and finish their work there, they like to have serious input on projects, and they certainly don’t like the idea of starting at the bottom.
Most jobs don’t work that way, but when they see Zuckerberg in a hoodie making billions, they think, “Hey, I should be that.”
Cotto: Younger Americans rarely become informed by reading books. Why has literacy become a thing of the past for many?
Dr. Bauerlein: For many youths, of course, books were never a strong option, but they certainly were for a whole lot more of them than they are today. The reason is that social pressures on teens are too strong and too compelling. What does a teenager get for reading a book? Very little, sometimes even scorn. (Think of a football player caught with a Jane Austen in hand.) But what does he get for having a Facebook page, for posting photos of the party last week, for texting 300 times a day? The attention of peers. Once the opportunity for peer-to-peer contact was there, books were bound to slip.
Cotto: The danger of becoming self-absorbed is present for all of us. Yet, many say that America’s younger generation is more narcissistic than its predecessors ever were. Do you agree with this idea?
Dr. Bauerlein: Of course. The trend for higher narcissism goes back to the 60s, according to some, and it stems from the self-esteem movement in schools and from a spreading adolescent youth culture that makes of adolescence a special time of life. The Digital Age has accelerated the trend.
Just think of what it is like for a 15-year-old to be able to walk around with 200 photos of herself in her pocket at all time, or for a youth to text about all the trivial things that happen to him in a normal day. Adolescence has always drifted toward self-absorption ever since it evolved after WWII, but now it has a whole new arsenal with which to pursue it.
Cotto: Why do a startling number of younger Americans fail to take an interest in history?
Dr. Bauerlein: Because they are normal kids. Why should they care about what happened on the Mall in late-summer 1963? Something really, really big happened in the cafeteria yesterday—now that’s news. Part of the process of growing up is finding larger time schemes than that of your own life, but until they leave adolescence, most of them are stuck in the personal and local and contemporary. Digital tools enable it.
Cotto: Social networking is now the hub of social life for most younger Americans. Generally speaking, do you believe that this is a change for the better? Why or why not?
Dr. Bauerlein: It COULD be for the better, but it isn’t. Social networking could be used to form book clubs, to trade opinions about current events and politics, to be a watchdog on government, and other civic and cultural purposes, and that sometimes happens. But for the vast majority of youths, the main reason to network is “to keep up with my friends.” That’s what the tools mean: not a window onto the great big worlds of history and politics and art and science, but a window onto one another.
Cotto: How has the rise of social networking related to the writing capabilities of America’s younger generation?
Dr. Bauerlein: Made them worse. They have grooved texting habits, writing in short bursts in a teen idiom. When it comes time to adjust and compose a paragraph for a college paper, the bad habits linger. That’s why I spend so much time in freshman composition working with students on style, diction, and syntax. We have to get down to the very basics and make them break their social writing habits.
Cotto: Many think that the Information Age has severely altered the human socialization process. Do you believe this to be the case?
Dr. Bauerlein: Yes, and I’ll point to age segregation as one cause. Teens are highly equipped to socialize with one another, but they aren’t able to socialize with people outside their age group. They spend so much time communicating with the same ages that they don’t know how to communicate with people 20 years older who don’t share their social interests, who don’t care about what they did over the weekend, who like different movies and music .
Cotto: In the future, might America’s younger generation become more productive? Or, could it be expected to introduce new norms to our society?
Dr. Bauerlein: I don’t know. Predictions are hard at the present time because so many new things come along every few months. In 20 years we may all have chips in our sunglasses, if not in our brains . . .
Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering how you became such a noted academic and social writer. Tell us a bit about your life and career.
Dr. Bauerlein: I’m an English teacher at Emory University, where I’ve taught since 1989. My academic career isn’t unusual or particularly noteworthy, but in 2003 I did join the Bush Administration and worked at the National Endowment for the Arts on education and research. There, I received a larger education in American life and culture, and it got me pondering questions outside of my academic training, questions such as “Why should a Chamber of Commerce care about the arts?” and “Who needs music programs in elementary schools when most of the kids score two grade-levels below proficiency in math and reading?”
To answer those questions well meant learning to talk to people outside academia and outside the arts and humanities, as well as realizing what we might call the politics of culture (with no cynicism attached to the word “politics”). The result was taking on the big trend of digital technology and contesting the many enthusiastic and revolutionary declarations about the glorious advent of Web 2.0. I had the comforts of tenure and a job that allowed lots of flexibility, and I can even teach courses in the area, so things came together well for the book The Dumbest Generation.
I think, too, that I got lucky with timing, as people had been hearing so many effusions about Digital Tools and Brilliant Millennials and a new era of human intelligence and were ready in 2008 for a bit of reality.
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