I read about half of Mark Bauerlein’s bestseller, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, very carefully, and then skimmed the rest.
I wanted to read this book as research for a new course idea I’m kicking around. The overwrought title and cover blurb from Harold Bloom did give me pause, but the author is a professor at Emory and I assumed there would be some cogent, thought-provoking arguments inside the book.
Not so much. The book is filled with overblown rhetoric and illogical arguments.
I could cite many passages of purple prose but will content myself with just one, from his concluding paragraph: “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).
I love the definite article there. Not just any perennial ideas and struggles, but the perennial struggles and ideas. Bauerlein never bothers to define what he means by intelligence or knowledge, but there is the occasional rhetoric about our “great American heritage” sprinkled throughout the book, so mostly he seems to be talking about a kind of Allan Bloom/E.D. Hirsch version of cultural literacy where the ability to recall Googleable factoids masquerades as knowledge and intelligence.
Bauerlein loves data and marshals an impressive array to prove that young people are stupid: nearly every page of the book contains facts and figures drawn from score reports from the ACT, SAT, and other standardized tests as well as studies and surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Endowment for the Arts, and many other organizations. We learn that Millennials can’t identify Iraq on a map! They don’t read in their free time! They don’t know who William Rehnquist is, but 98% of them recognize Beavis & Butthead!
Although Bauerlein doesn’t do much with this data beyond wring his hands, he’s still on solidest ground when he’s crunching numbers. When he leaves the stats behind, his evidence and reasoning often no longer even make sense. For example, he bases his claim that the Millennials show a “brazen disregard of books and reading” on the comments one teenage girl made when she called in during one of Bauerlein’s NPR interviews. He decides that Millennials have no use for libraries when he visits the bustling Apple store at a mall, then heads over to the public library, which is comparatively deserted.
He manipulates and twists evidence that would seem to go against his point. For instance, the Harry Potter phenomenon is not, it turns out, proof that kids read. Instead, it’s proof that kids like to have a social experience: “Kids read Harry Potter not because they like reading, but because other kids read it” (43). How does he know this?? Not a shred of evidence is cited to support this absurd claim. Has he seen the HP novels? Kids don’t burn through an 800-page book in a weekend if they aren’t committed to the book as a reading experience. HP “opens you to a fun milieu of after-school games, Web sites, and clubs. Not to know the characters and actions is to fall out of your classmates’ conversation” (44). What clubs? What games? What websites? I love to imagine the “after-school games” the passionate reader of HP might participate in. Quidditch, anyone?
Of COURSE kids want to talk about what they’re reading. As an English professor, Bauerlein ought to know that reading is an intensely social activity. Readers may read “alone in an easy chair at home” (43), but passionate readers then want to share what they’ve read with others.
Kids today just don’t realize that books can matter, Bauerlein believes. He quotes Frederick Douglass, John Stuart Mill, Walt Whitman, and W.E.B. Du Bois on the life-saving power of literacy and then claims, “Their testimony sets the bibliophobia of today’s youth into merciless relief” (58). But could Bauerlein really not find examples of “today’s youth” who “profit from books”? He should read about the letters Laurie Halse Anderson receives. He should find out about Nerdfighters. Why doesn’t he have a chat with Nancie Atwell or Penny Kittle or Donalyn Miller about whether “today’s youth” reads and finds value in reading?
At times, I wondered if I was even meant to take the book’s arguments seriously. The title is perhaps more suggestive than I realized about the book’s ultimate agenda–not to identify and explore a serious issue but to provide sound bytes.