Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog

3.29.2010

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 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.

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SHAWN HEALY

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



Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project


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