Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


The Dumbest Generation

By Shawn Healy
It is common for older Americans to marvel at the technological capacity of Millennials, equating digital wizardry with higher intelligence. On the other hand, experts have long lamented declining test scores in math, reading, and science, not to mention successive generations who are culturally and historically illiterate. In terms of media consumption, they are in the words of David Mindich, altogether "tuned out." Clearly, these dueling conceptions of younger Americans compete with one another, and Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein grapples with this tension in his 2008 book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Penguin, 236pp).

Bauerlein paints a portrait of a generation digitally connected to one's peers but isolated from both their elders and even the recent past. They are obsessed with constant affirmation from classmates who parted ways only hours ago via text messages and Facebook friends, yet couldn't be bothered by a newspaper, a book of any stripe (other than Harry Potter), or even art and classic music.

The author also suggests that we overestimate young people's mastery of the digital landscape, holding high "whiz kids" who are more outliers than the norm. We have rushed to integrate technology into all aspects of education, spending billions, but have yet to reap even incremental gains in knowledge. Students' use of the web for research purposes is likely to encompass a Google search, page clicks on the top three links, copying and pasting of text onto a Word document, adding a few transitional sentences, and handing into their teacher under their own name with no acknowledgment of the sources they consulted.

According to Bauerlein, uninhibited use of the web results in highly inefficient use of precious instructional time. Students are likely to dabble with the URL's supplied by their teacher, but probably check their email, make evening plans, and catch up on celebrity gossip along the way.

Research suggests that the Web fundamentally transforms the way we encounter information. True, its scattered paths may compliment brain synapses, but we only skim text, rarely read top to bottom, and avoid verbiage written above a fourth-grade level. True to form, PDF files equate to hitting the print function, if opened at all. Video games may immerse the mind in complex, real word decision making contexts, but fail to develop the communicative skills necessary for upward occupational mobility.

Rather than listing technological tools as the cause of informational ignorance among young people, Bauerlein considers them mere enablers. He departs from the education cultural critics of decades past, William Bennett, E.D. Hirsch, and Diane Ravich among them, in his non-ideological tenor, yet blame is assigned to the New Left. A generation of intellectuals who challenged traditional structures during the 1960's and 1970's, these scholars still read the great texts in order to critique them. In the process, however, Bauerlein claims that abstinence followed, and with it a dramatic decline in societal wisdom.

Respect for traditional authority fell alongside "great books," as "student-centered learning" replaced the traditional teacher as "sage on the stage." Educators are now trained as "guides on the side," and the author finds this transformation of the student-teacher relationship misguided, for young people, more than anything else, need structure and must sometimes be compelled to read Shakespeare or employ the Pythagorean Theorem.

Bauerlein's work is certainly a compelling read and his assemblage of data impressive. He admittedly does a better job of delineating the problem than detailing a solution, for a complete retreat to past practices is at best impossible, and probably not desirable anyway. His call for us to challenge young people to appreciate the past and develop a love of learning that will last a lifetime is worthy of acceptance, but from my own personal experience I would add that it is wrong to treat our students as empty vessels, for they bring diverse life experiences and broad collective knowledge into the classroom.

I would also suggest that it is wrong to dismiss the instructional potential of technology. The dearth of immediate gains is arguably attributable to the rush to integrate technology into schools for the sake of doing so rather than any appreciable ties to knowledge acquisition and skill development. Technology, like other learning tools, is a means to an end and not an end itself.

Bauerlein's work reminds the reader of Neil Postman's earlier work, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Whereas Postman's culprit was the TV set, Bauerlein's is the computer. The latter is by no means an inferior contribution to this critical field of work. The Dumbest Generation also echoes Cass Sunstein's, where the Web allows us to create our "Daily Me" and avoid any information outside of our own peer bubble. Like Sunstein, Bauerlein charts the correlation between cultural literacy and self-governance. Both are on life support, and Bauerlein begs us to change course before it is too late.


State of the News Media Circa 2010

By Shawn Healy
The contemporary economic model for journalism remains broken and the industry continues its desperate search for answers according to a report released by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism this week. Titled "State of the News Media 2010," the annual study documents advertising revenue declines across media platforms. Only cable news dodged the double-whammy of the Great Recession and an antiquated business model.

Newspapers continue to headline the hardest hit, and the web has failed to emerge as the panacea. A full 90% of newspaper revenues remain tied to their print versions, and online advertising actually fell. The study suggests that only 21% of online readers actually click on adjacent ads, yet 62% of news consumers access the Internet for at least a portion of their news. Online newspaper readership grew by 14% in 2009.

The report references Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute, who estimates that newspapers have lost $1.6 billion in reporting and editing capacity since 2000, down 30%. Even as the economy stabilizes and shows signs of recovery, he expects continued cuts in 2010.

Print circulation continues its free fall, down another 10.6% in 2009. Daily circulation has dropped 25.6% in the last decade. Only the Wall Street Journal advanced in the last year, passing USA Today as America's largest daily newspaper.

Contrary to popular wisdom, however, newspapers are not going extinct. Closures and printing cutbacks have mostly centered on two-newspaper towns, and newspaper stocks have stabilized.

New journalistic models have proliferated in this vacuum. Jan Schaffer of J-Lab estimates that $141 million of nonprofit money has poured into commercial, nonprofit, public, and university-led news ventures, yet this accounts for a mere 10% of what has been lost over the last decade.

News consumers navigate an increasingly fragmented media environment. A little more than a third (35%) identify a favorite news destination and a mere 19% would continue to visit a news site that constructed a "pay wall." Yet 80% of web news traffic targets a mere 7% of sites, 67% of them "old media" outlets. 13% offer news aggregation, and only 14% produce original online-only content through reporting, not mere commentary.

The news organizations themselves are increasingly becoming niche operations, with more focus and necessarily narrower ambition. News, in a sense, has become "unbundled," as we no longer rely upon a single source.

New media outlets offer significant promise, but still depend upon their older peers for original content. 80% of blogs link to "U.S. legacy media." "Pro-am" partnerships like those explored by the New York Times may illuminate the path ahead.

As mentioned earlier, the only growing segment of the media is cable news, and their fortunes are tied to a retreat toward partisanship and an elevation of edge and opinion in place of objective journalism.

Network news is not on life support, either. The report contends that erosion continues, yet the 22.3 million Americans who tune into network news broadcasts each evening eclipse the cable news audience times five. However, network newsrooms have not been spared from industrywide cuts.

Local news outlets are experiencing accelerating audience declines beyond that of their networks, as have the network's morning news programs, long a source of strength.

Magazines have been perhaps hardest hit. Their very place in the 24-hour news cycle remains in question. Newsweek's focus on opinion-centered journalism is indicative of an industry in search of a sustainable path forward.

In sum, the 2010 State of the News Media survey suggests a continuation of ongoing trends for coming year. Doomsday predictions of extinction are probably overblown, individual casualties aside, and promising alternatives lie in the wake. However, a fundamental disjuncture remains: information wants to be free, and journalists need to eat. The path forward in 2010 and beyond depends upon resolving this perplexing revenue disparity for the good of democracy.

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First Amendment A Lonely Star in Texas

By Shawn Healy
Yesterday, the First Amendment lost an opportunity for a preferred place in Texas state education standards. A proposal by Mavis Knight, a Democratic member of the State Board of Education, would have required that students study the reasons the Founders "protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over others."

It speaks specifically to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and admittedly carries ideological baggage. While liberals hide behind a "wall" of separation between church and state, conservatives suggest that government endorsement of religion passes constitutional muster so long as it is not directed toward any one denomination. In short, one would sanitize the public square and the other would decorate it with religious ornaments. As usual, reality probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Public schools have long served as prime battlegrounds in our nation's culture wars. They serve an incredibly heterogeneous student population and are too often tasked with resolving an infinite number of societal failings. It should come as no surprise then that the Texas Board of Education is grappling with policies that encapsulate our remarkably polarized political system. The stakes are high given that the Lone Star State is surpassed only by California in terms of population, textbook publishers cater their offerings to these state standards, leaving schools in smaller states with their imprints.

While Knight's First Amendment foray failed, her conservative counterparts successfully pushed through standards addressing the impact of taxes and regulations on private enterprise and the importance of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Religion also received a nod in that US History students are required to explain the "laws of nature and laws of God."

The ideological bent of each of these requirements, Knight's included, raises eyebrows over objectivity concerns, but a qualified educator can brush these aside. The larger point is that there is value in formal instruction of civics, government, US History, and law as demonstrated in the Illinois Civic Blueprint. Moreover, discussion of current and controversial issues of public concern takes center stage in every engaging social studies classroom.

Knight's First Amendment-centered proposal is also supported by researchers Kenneth Dautrich, David Yalof, and Mark Hugo Lopez in their 2008 book titled The Future of the First Amendment. According to their ongoing study, "...Those high school students who take classes with First Amendment or media and society are more likely to support the exercise of free expression rights." They find that student support for First Amendment rights is surprisingly lower than that of their teachers and administrators, but that their sentiments for the five freedoms grow stronger in application, such as music censorship, prior review of student newspapers, and perhaps a debate over religion's place in the curriculum.

The Texas State Board of Education would therefore be wise to put politics aside and stand behind teaching the First Amendment. It knows no ideology or party and has served us all quite well since its adoption in 1791. Its freedoms are foundational and should therefore form the bedrock of a solid social studies education.
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No Apology

By Shawn Healy
One could argue that Governor Mitt Romney's reprisal to capture the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 rose from the ashes of his failed 2008 bid and the loss of his chief rival Senator John McCain to current president Barack Obama that November. In the interim, Romney has raised money prolifically for other Republican candidates, served as the voice of the party in media interviews, and offered terse criticism of the man who occupies the office he still covets. His new book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, sets the stage for a second run, offering dense policy analysis in the 309-page volume.

In an era where politically-polarizing tomes pepper book stores and cater to partisans on both extremes, allowing them to feed their heads in self-perpetuating echo chambers, No Apology is a departure of sorts. While the title is crafted as a direct refutation of President Obama's perceived apologies for what Romney considers "American exceptionalism," the former Massachusetts Governor offers more than caricatures of his opponents, and his well-articulated national agenda checks the appropriate conservative boxes, yet offers a level of detail that transcends a political culture premised on talking points.

Whereas President Obama devoted a scant amount of verbiage to foreign policy in his recent State of the Union Address, No Apology leads with a call for a return to muscular national defense. Romney also delves into a number of domestic policy domains, defending the near-universal health care system he helped pass in Massachusetts, while at the same time rejecting comparisons to the Democratic bills currently circulating in Congress. His prescriptions move beyond the obstructionism of his fellow party members in Washington, but he does embrace their calls for tort reform and interstate competition among insurance companies.

Romney also writes about education policy and laments the relative decline in America's competitiveness, embracing standardized testing, merit pay, mechanisms to remove incompetent educators, charter schools, school choice (though he questions its political viability), and distance learning. He reserves terse words for teacher unions, bodies he considers detrimental to requisite educational reforms.

His energy policy relies on alternate energy sources including nuclear power, natural gas, clean coal, even hydrogen. He holds solar and wind power as promising complimentary energy sources, but doubts that either represent a panacea. In an early bid for support in the Iowa Caucuses, he touts his support for ethanol subsidies and production. Romney is highly critical of the cap and trade legislation passed by the House last year, and also dismisses the wisdom of a more direct carbon tax. However, he does tout the potential of a carbon tax coupled with reciprocal tax offsets in sales or payroll taxes.

No Apology is a serious work that departs from standard campaign biographies. Indeed, its closest parallel is arguably Obama's Audacity of Hope. Romney intersperses brief biographical footnotes throughout, but its policy-orientation reigns. While he shares anecdotes from his failed 2008 presidential run, he avoids ex post facto analysis, and also strays from foreshadowing a future run for the nation's highest office. This means there is no dissection of how his Mormon faith proved an obstacle among conservative Christian voters, or his repositioning on major social issues that led many to conclude that he was a "flip-flopper" of convenience. He does make several references to his faith, and reaffirms his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

The irony is that Romney's 2008 campaign largely trumpeted social and military issues, peripheral to his core competency as an economic turn-around agent. In No Apology, he takes the opportunity to press the reset button, recasts himself as a more centrist, pragmatic technocrat, and lays the groundwork for a repeat presidential run during the most devastating economic times since the Great Depression.

Governor Romney will make his only Chicago appearance on Wednesday March 24, 2010, at the Chase Auditorium (10 S Dearborn) in Chicago at 6pm in an event sponsored by the McCormick Freedom Project, in partnership with Chicago Young Republicans, the Illinois Policy Institute and WLS 890 AM Radio. Join us for an insightful discussion about our First Amendment freedoms, a re-emerging conservative movement, and Governor Romney’s solutions for rebuilding industries, producing jobs, improving education, and restoring the military. General admission tickets are on sale here for $25. The price includes a signed copy of No Apology.


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at