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An Analysis Of The Dumbest Generation English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3187 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The Dumbest Generation, How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) is a critical analysis on the effects of the prolific spread of information and communication technology on the youth of today. In it, Mark Bauerlein argues that while this technology could have been used to increase access to knowledge and therefore improve the minds of children, it has only been used to distract them from useful knowledge and skills which he strongly implies, although rarely explicitly states, only currently come from books and exposure to art. The book at its core is a research paper, using hundreds of facts and an eight page bibliography to support his thesis, and free from having to defend his beliefs on a philosophical level, Bauerlein spends much of his paper explaining his many cited statistics and presenting his conclusion about what would happen if the trend was allowed to continue. Besides the obvious and repeatedly stated conclusion that an unchecked spread of technology would cause a completely ignorant generation, Bauerlein concludes his paper with an explanation of how an informed society is necessary to uphold a democratic government. Hidden more subtly throughout the book is the hidden message that technology’s isolation of its users from the outside world and contact with the kinds of people we might not enjoy being around causes the psychological maturing process to slow, rendering a generation raised in the digital era perpetual children. Although his book is intended to be read by a wide range of audiences, Bauerlein’s target audience is the adults of today, or more specifically, the educators of today. His solution, placed in the final chapter of the book, where he was no doubt aware that only those with a personal stake or a love of knowledge would reach before putting it down, is to encourage children to read and learn for their own edification. He mentions several counter arguments to his, but doesn’t refute their logic as much as drown them in empirical data showing that they have little to nothing backing them up. Through this book Mark Bauerlein jumped into a national debate already brought up by another similar book, The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby.

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But who is Mark Bauerlein? His most obvious feature is being a professor of English at Emory University, as stated in his web page at Emory University’s official website and on the cover of his book. Also according to the same sources, he took a break for a couple of years to be a Director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, showing that he does have experience in both gathering and interpreting the data with which he generously fills his book. His own personal website reveals that he is a fairly prolific writer himself, from such topics as racism and literary criticism itself, but for the most part Bauerlein writes about the humanities. While this information would obviously lead to Bauerlein having a personal stake in the state of American literacy, it does not really offer any evidence of bias either way for whether or not there actually is a literacy deficiency. Bauerlein uses his credentials well, relying only on his own credibility to properly evaluate data and to extrapolate the results, allowing the actual risk of misinformation to lie with his sources. For the most part, his information consists of surveys of participation in certain activities and tests of academic skill, primarily the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is a program run by a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Education (Bauerlein 14-5). Where Bauerlein seems to falter in his credibility is in trying to avoid sounding reactionary or out of touch, discussing the information revolution as a form of “Youth Rebellion” (Bauerlein 178), making sweeping comments such as “Young people have too much choice” (Bauerlein 156), and showing disdain for the design of websites conforming to the whims of their readers, whose compositions include large bold headlines intended to grab audiences and putting the broad, useful information first to keep the reader paying attention, while completely ignoring the existence of these tactics in newspapers and within his own book. However, one can understand why the condescension was included. A moderate book doesn’t sell, and an English Professor knows this better than anyone. But despite some issues regarding his relationship to the subject, the book does successfully display the flaws of the so called dumbest generation, and it certainly accomplishes its retroactively stated goal, “to open up the issue to some sober skepticism, to blunt the techno-zeal spreading through classrooms and libraries” (Bauerlein vii), found in the preface of the paperback edition.

The purpose of the book is plain, and stated in its title, sub title, and sub-sub title. Bauerlein uses statistics and logic to show that the current generation of children will be incapable adults in order to convince parents and educators to encourage the children to read books, learn history, experience liberal arts.

Like any good research paper, Bauerlein begins his exploration of the effects of technology with a moving introduction. In it, he sympathizes with the struggles facing the ambitious youth, who have to tirelessly fight to be the best out of millions just to progress to the next step in their lives. However, near the end he suddenly shifts to his own images about the average American student, which are quite grim. The introduction’s lack of relevance to the main subject was most likely added to pull in someone who would naturally expected the opposite of what is depicted in the first part of the intro based on the title. Also, by conceding the efforts and hardships of the young academics, he does not alienate them, in a way separating those potential readers from the sweeping accusations made later in the book. The pleasantries aside, Bauerlein dives into the fray with his mountains of data, citing over one hundred statistics in the first chapter. He uses several kinds of statistics; some to show that children do not pass subject material exams, some to show that a large amount of children do not know a specific fact that one is normally expected to know, and some to show that other factors one might consider for causes of a lower average intelligence such as school time (Bauerlein 30), finance (Bauerlein 31), and leisure time (Bauerlein 32) have only become less restrictive over time.

After having thoroughly proven that today’s students don’t know what they should, he moves on into the next chapter to discuss why this is. Bauerlein simply says that children don’t choose to learn enough. His weapon of choice now is the survey of students in which he shows that children do not read literature or participate in the arts. The main survey he brings up is a report from National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk, in which Bauerlein show that the reading of any kind of literature is declining, and especially so in children. However, “the survey asked about voluntary reading, not reading required for work or school” (Bauerlein 45) and despite assertions that to be considered a reader one merely had to read “any work of any quality of any medium-book, newspaper, magazine, blog, Web page, or music CD insert” (Bauerlein 47), it is unlikely that most of the people who said that they did not read were aware of or understood this qualification, and in all likelihood disregarded any reading they did do as sufficient. Bauerlein goes on to give several examples of the positive effects of a zeal for reading such as Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman, which serve more to emotionally touch the reader rather than to logically prove his point, as the last section did.

Back to the facts, Bauerlein sends out scores of numbers indicating that the youth of today spend a disproportionate amount of time on screen technology. However, instead of merely analyzing the data, he takes the time to bring up counterarguments. He shows how other authors such as Steven Berlin Johnson have explored the special social and thinking patterns that could only occur in a world of instant communication and interactive digital worlds in such books as Everything Bad is Good for You, and doesn’t actually protest their reasoning, and even gives us his own visions of an ideal world where the technology created a vibrant massive community seeking knowledge and obtaining true enlightenment.

And then Bauerlein caps it off with an answer to the rhetorical question “Why, then, should bibliophiles and traditionalists carp so much?” with the short maxim, “Because that glorious creation of youth intelligence hasn’t materialized” (Bauerlein 107). He shifts once again to his statistics, now not only showing poor scholastic performance but poor job performance as well, painting a new picture of a generation of perpetual children who know little and know nothing practical. Not only do the digital medias have less complex vocabulary (Bauerlein 128-9), but they foster “peer absorption” (Bauerlein 133) and poor attention spans (Bauerlein 148). He describes the newest batch of young adults as “twixters” (Bauerlein 160) who despite financial stability, technology, and readily available education, do not settle down and wander through life fairly aimlessly. The solution, according to Bauerlein, is for the educators of America to rise up and promote reading and arts instead of technology alone, which has been shown to be ineffective by itself to promote learning and knowledge.

In the final chapter, Bauerlein compares an ignorant adults that the ignorant children would become to Rip Van Winkle (Bauerlein 204-9), knowing nothing that they need to in a world that suddenly demands their attention and participation, and unaware of how to feel about the issues surrounding them. Bauerlein closes with a conclusion that if uncorrected, the trend of an unintelligent youth would undermine democratic society, and that only by reintegrating tradition into learning could we save society from the “sovereignty of youth.” (Bauerlein 223) brought about by a freedom from material that challenges what they think.

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The overall structure of the book is designed for a broad range of readers. An interesting introduction pulls in readers of all sorts, and then a series of facts puts the issue of childhood ignorance freshly onto the minds of concerned adults. Specific proof of his claim trails this to counter those who doubt the validity of his claim, followed by acknowledgement and rebuttal of claims to appease those more enlightened on the subject, and he finishes the book with a powerful, almost alarmist message that exploits the fears of a society of idiots and their patriotism to swing to his side his colleagues, students, and critics.

Of course, Bauerlein is certainly not the first to comment on the rising ignorance among today’s young adults. Just three months before The Dumbest Generation was published, The Age of American Unreason, a book by Susan Jacoby, hit the shelves with a similar conclusion, that the digital age has caused the current youth to become self absorbed and ignore what goes on around them; Bauerlein mentions it in passing. For long years it has been suspected that digital technology would not improve education. In an essay by Michael Schrage from 1997, aptly named “Computers Will Not Transform Education,” shows doubt about the young internet’s ability to revolutionize education, and points out that neither the radio nor the television had a great impact on student performance. This sentiment was also expressed in another essay that year, “Computers Cannot Replace Good Teachers,” by Clifford Stoll, who makes the calm assertion that “most learning isn’t fun. Learning takes work. Discipline. Responsibility-You have to do your homework.” Both of the predictions of a high amount of spending on technology by education and an insignificant change in performance are evident in The Dumbest Generation. However, Bauerlein’s presentation of poor performance seems to contradict the Flynn effect, the rise of IQ over time, but instead of contesting it, he lets it sit, and in some ways appears to ignore the elephant in the room when discussing the relevancy of new visual learning techniques, relying nearly entirely on test performance.

However, not all of the data works in favor of Bauerlein. According to The Nation’s Report Card, the official web site for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “Mathematics scores for 9- and 13- year-olds are higher than all previous assessment years” and that “Reading skills at all three ages improve since 2004.” Furthermore, according to the charts on the long-term trend section of the web site, average scores overall have increased gradually but constantly since the first test in 1978. So while Bauerlein may be correct that the number of students who pass the test may be decreasing, this is mainly due to the level of competence being raised faster than the children are getting better, a much less frightening scenario. In fact, “On both the reading and the math tests, and at all three tested ages (9, 13 and 17), the lowest-ever scores in the history of the NAEP were recorded by children born between 1961 and 1965” (Neil Howe). However, the raw score increase has not gotten any faster in thirty years, the increase is most likely due to increased incomes, higher teacher to student ratios, better health, and many of the other improvements that Bauerlein points out rather than technology, which would have shown higher improvement in recent years, when the information revolution started. Of course, all of this is only relevant if you put your faith into NAEP tests, which according to Jim Hull of The Center for Public Education in “The proficiency debate: A guide to NAEP achievement levels,” you can’t. Hull shows that NAEP standards for proficiency in a subject are higher than nearly all of the state regulated proficiency tests, and the tested material often widely differs from state curriculum.

One of Bauerlein’s main sources is Reading at Risk, a report explaining the results of a 2002 survey of reading habits by the National Endowment for the Arts, which he states indicates decreased reading in all age groups and a large decline in young readers. However, the 2008 results were released in January 2009, as a sort of sequel titled Reading on the Rise, which bared the unexpected news that the percentage of literary readers had actually gone up, and even more astoundingly, “Literary reading has increased most rapidly among the youngest adults.” This isn’t just contradictory to the trend of 1992 to 2002, from which Bauerlein draws proof of a non reading public; it completely turns it upside down. And while the report was published eight months after The Dumbest Generation, the survey itself was taking place as Bauerlein was finishing his book, and that the miraculous return to literature had begun and reading rates were rising as Bauerlein was writing about how the reading rates were falling, and he didn’t notice the complete reversal happening right under his nose, or chose to ignore it.

Most people who picked up The Dumbest Generation were probably expecting a lot of expanded logic and presumptuous reasoning like what makes up the counter arguments to this book such as Everything Bad is Good For You, which do not have much true evidence. I was personally delighted to find that Mark Bauerlein had taken the time to find not just adequate data, but a tremendous amount of information. For the most part, his logic is sound; however, his main struck a bad chord. Because technology has increased while the intellectual performance of the newest generation has gone down, technology must be causing the newest generation to be the dumbest. Post hoc ergo proptor hoc. While he briefly explains why several other possible causes for lower test scores haven’t happened, he doesn’t ever find a factual link between technology and the change in scores other than the times in which both occur. As far as books and technology, print reading would naturally decrease as web usage went up, simply due to the limits of time. In fact, Bauerlein doesn’t have any proof of high literary reading from before twenty years ago; we are simply expected to believe that those before us spent all of their free time reading. What Bauerlein fails to address is the fact that social networking is not the result of technology on reading, but the effect of technology on actual, face-to-face social interaction. I’ll jump to agree with the assertion that a decrease in performance could be based on the ability to choose not to succeed, but it is society, not technology, that facilitated this shift. The children of today aren’t expected to read literature much, and don’t gain anything concrete from it, so most of them don’t and I would expect it. Am I supposed to believe that the students of yore read The Divine Comedy for fun? They didn’t, and for the most part, people read only what they like to read or what they have to read. And when children don’t have to read much, they mostly read what’s fun, each other, and other frivolities like video games. In The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30, Mark Bauerlein uses out of context information to convince readers that our advancements have made my generation the “dumbest,” when really it is simply not expected to do more, and its opinion is valued as important as the instructors. Indeed, with discipline, technology can be and already is used for incredible feats in learning. Without the photocopier, the online databases paid for by my school, and the internet, I would know nothing more on this subject than what is in this book. If more was expected of students, both student knowledge and beneficial use of technology would rise, to the point where English professors like Mark Bauerlein would stop separating published content into the categories of print and web. And quite frankly, I’m insulted he used the title “The Dumbest Generation” when a title more fitting to his thesis would be “The Laziest Generation.” An alarmist book, The Dumbest Generation was written to sell a malformed idea that an English professor had a lot of published work already invested in, and was written to sell a lot of books. In both of these he succeeded.


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