::Literate Blather::
Thursday, June 05, 2008
5 Questions About: Generation Y

An Interview with Professor Mark Bauerlein About How Generation Y Is Becoming the Dumbest Generation Ever

(If you’re under the age of 30 you probably won’t read this interview. It’s too long – and there’s no nudity or explosions. It also won’t enhance your Facebook page or get
you more friends on MySpace. So we’ll wait for you to leave so the adults can move on to a fascinating interview with Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.” Despite the rather sensational title, the book makes some compelling arguments that the deconstructionist educational environment in high schools and universities are failing to properly educate the younger generation. The trend is exacerbated by technology – laptops, mobile phones, text messaging, etc. – that are unproven to have any benefit in education. Mark was kind enough to answer our questions about his book).

DaRK PaRTY: Don't all "oldsters" complain about how dumb "youngsters" are? In your opinion what are some examples of why Generation Y is the dumbest generation yet?

Mark: Yes, the elders have complained forever about the juniors--and that's a good thing. A vibrant society has the generations in some degree of tension, with elders reminding juniors of their inexperience and ignorance and hubris, and juniors resenting and replying with accusations of rigidity and authoritarianism. Each claim makes the other side a bit more careful and respectful of the many generations before them and the many yet to be.

So, why is Gen Y dumber?

Well, in spite of having more money than any other generation, more access to knowledge (more libraries, museums, historic sites, educational media, colleges, and, of course, the Internet), and more encouragement to know about other cultures, languages, and history (globalization and the Knowledge Economy tell them so), they have actually lost ground on historical knowledge and on reading and verbal test scores. Also, they have never held reading in lower esteem. They have just as much raw intelligence and motivation as previous cohorts, but with all the advantages they have, they should be doing much better.

DP: Other academics argue that video games and multi-tasking to different media are a new forms of learning. Why aren't you convinced?

Mark: I'm happy to accept video games and multi-tasking as different ways of learning. But are they productive ways, and do they build verbal skills and historical understanding and civic awareness? I don't see any evidence of that. They are probably responsible for gains in spatial intelligence, but they don't do anything for writing and vocabulary.

Let me put this another way. When college professors start saying, "Hmm, these recent entering classes seem better readers and writers than previous classes," then I'll back off. Or when employers start saying that the communication skills of recent hires keeps going up, I'll accept the argument.

DP: So they can't read or write or retain knowledge about history, geography, and the sciences. But they are natural entrepreneurs and extremely tech savvy. Isn't that where the global economy and society are headed anyway? What's so important about an old-fashioned classic education?

Mark: I wonder about the tech savviness of the kids. Some studies cited in the book show that for all their superficial ability to access information, they don't know what to do with it or how to judge it when it comes up. Yes, they put enormous energy into their personal profile page, but will that help them complete an application to law school? Or, as for the value of historical knowledge, say that they want to go into the non-profit sector and do environmental work in Eastern Europe. Will knowing something of the environmental record of communism help them? Or, if Africa, a little knowledge of colonialism will go a long way. If they interview for a job with a media firm and over lunch they don't recognize the names Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather, how will the others look at them?

My point is that historical knowledge and civic awareness are a lot more important in many workplaces than the tech folks realize.

Finally, one of the dangers of the Internet is that it makes kids believe that since knowledge is only a few clicks away, they don't need to internalize it. If they can pull up Abraham Lincoln when they need to, why memorize the Gettysburg Address, right?

Well, my answer is, "Is that all Abraham Lincoln is to you--a face, a date, some words? Nothing more than information?" That attitude impoverishes the character of these kids. They don't seem to realize that the great ideas, actions, art works, and personalities of the past are the better materials of their egos. If they don't attend to the best (and worst) of our inheritance, then they build their maturing selves out of the ready materials of youth culture--a meager resource. Who do they want as their heroes? Pop stars, or George Washington, Margaret Thatcher, Jesse Owens . . .?

DP: Can you give us few reasons of why reading literature is so important?

Mark: You know, the Founding Fathers could not really conceive of leaders who weren't steeped in classical literature. The Aeneid was deeply important to them (check out our $1 bill), and so were Plutarch's Lives, Cicero's speeches, . . . Literature was, for them, moral instruction.

It was also verbal discipline. The same is true today. Reading builds vocabulary, improves writing skills, strengthens the muscles of memory and concentration, not to mention acquainting readers with the best uses of the language over the centuries.

DP: So you've identified the problems with Gen Y. What are some solutions?

Mark: Solutions? Maybe none, at the macro-level. Digital culture is a tidal wave, and combined with the energies and willfulness of youth, it can't be stopped. The more it becomes a medium of peer pressure, the more it captivates the hours of the kids. Every tool I mention in the book could be a knowledge- and taste-inducing activity, but that's not what kids care about. They want to relate to other kids, not to grown-ups. They want to talk about what happened last week in the cafeteria, not what happened at Leningrad. The best I can say is for parents every day to require a reading hour for everyone, themselves included. Everybody goes into a room and logs off, disconnects, unplugs. Grab a favorite book or paper or magazine and read for an hour without interruption. Then, go back to the games and chats. It's not a matter of eliminating digital technology, but a matter of keeping some balance in kids' lives.

TV Party No More: Why We Don't Watch Television

The Death of Privacy

Broken Down Public Education

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Blogger Bybee said...
I was shockingly dumb in high school. I remember seeing some of the current events and wondering irritatedly what this possibly had to do with *me*. But none of my teachers really discussed them...nor my parents. If I'd just had a gentle nudge by an enthusastic, knowledgable older person...college age and on up, I probably would've made the leap. I finally did, but it took years. My son is doing better than I did. Whew.

Blogger GFS3 said...
I'm shocked by the reaction the book is getting on the Web. Lots of anger toward Mark for writing it. It's my humble opinion that books like this are necessary for people to start talking about important issues like education and technology. Too many people become shrill on the Web (and granted, I can be just as guilty as the next guy -- but we all could be a bit more civil to each other).

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I'm part of generation Y, and I'm ashamed of it. I had classmates in high school who didn't know what the Nazi symbol was, and I had classmates in Uni who didn't know there's conflict in the Middle East (Israel-Palestine to be precise). Schools don't value history and the humanities as much as they should. This is why we are becoming idiots.

I'm definitely buying this book.

Blogger Rute Melo said...
I'm part of generation Y also, I have 15 years, I do not think our generation is the dumbest! Yes, decorating things is necessary but is not the only thing. We are a busier generation, we have more activities like sports and music, we have more information, sometimes is so much that you can not know everything and if that information is in the net all time we can thing about other things more important. We are a generation that likes to express, like any teenager, but once these manifestations were acts of rebellion, as do tattoos, piercings, the way you dress, hair color more wierd! today it is so normal that the only way we can express ourselves and via the Internet in our blogs. We have better ability to handle pressure, we have the ability to do several things at the same time, we learn quickly and we dominate various fields of knowledge. Sorry if in this text have mistakes, but i'm not american...so i have did my best :D

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