The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future.

  • Mark Bauerlein
  • Jan 14, 2009
  • Series: Volume 12 - 2009


Book: The Dumbest Generation

Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future. New York: Jeremy Tarcher, 2008.  264 pages with index.  $24.95, hardback.

The cleverly acerbic title of this learned jeremiad should not offend anyone interested in knowing how contemporary communication technologies affect the mindset and sensibilities of those who use these most-those between eighteen and thirty years old. The book's thesis is that heavy use of technologies such as cell phones, text messaging, and the Internet (especially through laptops) is not wisely connecting younger Americans to the broader world; it not engendering better relationships. Rather, it is decreasing their knowledge of things that matter most: history, civic values, and the enduring philosophical questions. Instead of growing in virtuous knowledge, these "digital natives" (as pundits call them) are adept at using these technologies to interact with each other-usually about popular culture and other adolescent obsessions. They are "tech savvy" (to pluck another cliché) not at uncovering vital facts about crucial matters, but, rather, at tracking things like Paris Hilton's new romance (or lawsuit), learning new video games, downloading cool audio files from pop culture bands, and the like.

Bauerlein's conclusions and concerns should not to be dismissed as the curmudgeonly complaints of a "digital immigrant"-one of those over thirty for whom the world of cell phones, text messaging, and so on is strange, and to which it must be adapted reluctantly and only where necessary. Rather, this Professor of English at Emory University bases his conclusions on a raft of studies related to his involvement as director of research with The National Endowment for the Arts. His basic argument is not overstated, but may be a bit over documented. Bauerlein does not argue that these technologies are rendering this cohort less intelligent, per se, but, instead, less knowledgeable, less curious, and less concerned to apply their intelligence to intellectual matters that require sustained study of ancient artifacts such as books and engagement in ancient practices such as classroom lectures and discussions.

One of Bauerlein's especially salient insights is that these technologies are radically increasing peer-to-peer interaction (through technologies that many older people do not even understand, let alone use), while decreasing relationships between young people and their elders. This isolates "the dumbest generation" from the wisdom of their parents, grandparents, teachers and others-let alone the wisdom of history. He calls this "the betrayal of the mentors" (the title of chapter five). This peer-to-peer fixation and obsession tends to perpetuate a culture of adolescence; faddishness, impatience, and commitment-anxiety become the new norms. While adolescence historically meant a time used to prepare earnestly for the responsibility of adulthood, it has now been given an independent value detached from actually growing up (168). This valorizing of adolescence (and the technologies now inseparable from it) is yet one more postmodern step away from an inter-generationally integrated society-the kind we find advocated and celebrated in the Bible. Here, parents and other elders (not impersonal technologies) instruct children, children should honor parents (not shun them because there are not techno-savvy), and, while the differences among children, young adults, and the aged are recognized (Ecclesiastes 12; 1 John 2:12-14), society is not segmented by generations such that it loses its social cohesion.

Bauerlein skewers the popular misconception that the Internet increases the availability of knowledge in a uniformly valuable way. What was once obscure is now at our fingertips, we are breathlessly told. But this cliché misses what Marshall McLuhan (more of a literary sage than a social scientist) identified a generation ago: "the medium is the message." Each medium-whether telephone, television, or book-affects the content it conveys; the medium is not neutral. For example, Baerlein marshals impressive evidence that while the Internet makes an ocean of texts and images available for inspection, the way people "connect" with this content is by skimming, not reading (this is partially due to the fact that images dominate). One may have up on the screen a most profound essay on G. K. Chesterton's moral convictions, but if one skims instead of studies the essay, the material goes unappreciated. This media milieu leads a generation of well-informed and media hyperactive ignoramuses. This idea of being simultaneously well-informed and ignorant is not contradictory. Having information dancing around in one's mind-usually factoids or sound bites-is not the same as possessing knowledge. Although the meaning of knowledge is philosophically contested, the ancient and still respected view is that knowledge is defined as justified, true belief. That is, to possess knowledge:

1.      One believes a statement.

2.      That statement must true (it corresponds to reality).

3.      One has sufficient reason or warrant to hold that belief.

 If 1-3 obtain, then the belief in question is not accidentally true-as when one guesses the correct answer on a multiple choice test-but known to be true.

Therefore, one may be well-informed (given all the data available through technologies) without having very much knowledge, since knowledge requires a particular personal orientation to information-one that reflectively probes material, asks pertinent questions, is aware of the perennial issues, and consults proper sources. This orientation toward acquiring knowledge is not cultivated through text-messaging, YouTube videos, or Wikipedias, for example. This is exactly what Bauerlein has found: Americans aged 18-30 are less knowledgeable than those of this age in previous generations. Ironically, in many cases this means the more technology, the less knowledge.

Moreover, "the dumbest generation" often plug into multiple technologies simultaneously. A few years ago, I spied a young woman in a coffee shop who was listening to something on her iPod, talking on her cell phone, typing on her laptop, and yelling to someone across the room-all at the same time. This multitasking is hailed by many as a valuable and even necessary skill in our multisensory, multicultural, multi-everything world. But multitasking has its price: "Multitasking entails a special cognitive attitude toward the world, not the orientation that enables slow concentration on one thing-a sonnet, a theorem-but a lightsome, itinerant awareness of numerous and dissimilar inputs" (84). I often tell my students, "You cannot multitask philosophy. Sit in a quite room and read the text, slowly." Many teachers now battle multitasking in the classroom. Instead of attending to the professor's lecture, to the comments or other students, and to the class texts, students check their emails, look at their eHarmony pages, examine their Face Book account, and even trade stocks and watch entire films. These multiple distractions diminish the classroom, which should be a zone for focused learning and the pursuit of knowledge, not dispersed information poaching. (For this reason, I recently banned laptops from my classrooms.)

Without elaborating on Bauerlein's politics and vision for constructive change, his main concern is the loss of cultural memory and the resulting devaluation of civic virtues and knowledgeable engagement. He is a classic professor who wants people to read good books, discuss the great ideas, and engage in civil conversations about what matters most. May his numbers increase! The Christian, of course, should be mortified at the thought of an entire generation losing the spiritual and intellectual disciplines required to know God and make him known (see Hebrews 5:11-14). So much more could be said on this, but I will give the author the last word: "The Dumbest Generation will cease being dumb only when it regards adolescence as an inferior realm of petty strivings and adulthood as a realm of civic, historical, and cultural awareness that puts them in touch with the perennial ideas and struggles" (236).

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary
January 2009



Scott Moore

Great idea with keeping laptops out of the classroom. I'm sure that reduces the distractions and enables a more pure study of the material.

William Farris

Don Tapscott, of Wikinomics fame, takes the opposite side of the discussion. He has vested interests in promoting the opposite thesis, as do classically oriented purveyors of education. Perhaps it will settle out someday, but there have always been distractions of one kind or another. My personal library of books, articles, periodicals, and ebooks would not be 25% the size it is now if there were no internet and no amazon and cross-referencing, blogging, twittering, etc. OF course, I can't read them all because I am clamoring for yet more!