The Dumbest Generation
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 Republic.com, 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.