Mark Bauerlein

The Dumbest Generation

VTR Date: September 15, 2008

Mark Bauerlein discusses media in the digital age.


GUEST: Mark Bauerlein
VTR: 09/15/08

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And the wonderfully insightful and provocative book that occasions this program is titled — in full – The Dumbest Generation – How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, OR, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.

Well, its author — and my guest today — is Mark Bauerlein, a Professor of English at Emory University in Georgia who also has worked at the National Endowment for the Arts, where he oversaw studies about culture and American life.

Probably full disclosure requires me to note that it’s been a good many years since I’ve filled the margins of a favored new book with quite so many checks and double checks and “right-ons” as I have with The Dumbest Generation.

And, needless to say, it’s been the experience of my last 60 years and more as a college teacher that occasions my enthusiastic – though despairing – agreement with my guest’s very negative evaluation of the impact upon America’s young of our Digital Age…and the failure to guide them through it on the part of those who should be, as my guest writes so indignantly, “the custodians of culture…stewards of civilization and mentors to the next generation.”

[Traditionally, Mark Bauerlein pleads] “They maintain the pathways into knowledge and taste – the school curriculum, cultural institutions, and cultural pages in newspapers and magazines – guarding them against low standards, ahistoricism, vulgarity, and trendiness.

“If the pathways deteriorate” my guest insists, “don’t blame the kids and parents overmuch. Blame, also, the teachers, professors, writers, journalists, intellectuals, editors, librarians and curators, who will not insist upon the value of knowledge and tradition, who will not judge cultural novelties by the high standards set by the best of the past, who will not stand up to adolescence and announce, ‘It is time to put childish things away.’

Professor Bauerlein writes about these should-be- mentors, “They have let down the society that entrusts them to sustain intelligence and wisdom and beauty, and they have failed students who can’t climb out of adolescence on their own.” That’s quite an indictment …do you mean it quite as strongly as you write and I say it?

BAUERLEIN: It, it is, Richard, and I’m glad you mentioned the point about your dismay … over having to agree with much of this book.

And it’s a harsh title … a little bit over the top and a lot of harsh judgments in there as well and I think we can all agree that we don’t want this to be true. We want the rising generation to grow up and prove everyone of the negative opinions in there false.

But, you know, we have to face the way things are. We can’t deal with problems that we see with knowledge deficits, young people don’t know enough about the structure of government … knowing nothing about, for instance, the political speeches of the past by which they might judge the political speeches of the present. And, and so on.

We have to recognize this problem and look at it and see it in terms of its nature and scope before we can really set about doing something to remedy it. And so this, this book really tries to lay out in solid, empherical ways just where those knowledge deficits lie, why they happen and some possible indications of, of who caused it, who bears the responsibility and how we might change, change things around.

HEFFNER: You don’t blame the kids themselves?

BAUERLEIN: Kids are kids. When I was 15 years old, you know, I wanted to find a date. I didn’t want to learn about the ancients. I would want to go play basketball with my friends.

The difference was, when I was 15 I would go to school, I’d hang out with my buddies, after school I’d go play basketball with them for a while and hang out. And then when I went home and I crossed that front door and when I went into that threshold social life ended.

I had to sit around the dinner table and listen to my parents talk about money and the household … I didn’t like them, I didn’t want to talk to them … but I was exposed to it. I had to listen to Walter Cronkite talk about Vietnam. What did I care about that?

I was 15 I wanted to know what happened last week in the, in the cafeteria. Those were the stakes for me. What my peers thought, not what any 40 year old thought.

And so I had that, I had that generational sense limited. There was a portion of the day where I had to be exposed to adult things. I didn’t want to and if I had options I wouldn’t have … I’d go up to my room and I had some toys, maybe some games, some stuff and, and some books.

Today if you walk into a 15 year olds bedroom, it’s a multi media center. And these are connections with the blackberry, the handheld cell phone, the laptop, the iPhone, iPod and, and so on. These keep kids in touch with one another 24/7. There’s no limit anymore to social contact.

And if you’ve got all these tools in there and you can go check your email to see if a message came through, you can look at your personal profile page to see what comments have gathered. You keep a blog and you talk about high school and your friends and how much you hate it … whatever.

Most of the blogs in this country are kept by teenagers, not by adults. They’re writing about themselves. That is a lure for them. It is a temptation they cannot resist.

HEFFNER: It is adolescence.

BAUERLEIN: It’s adolescence and, and why, why would you want to pick up a book off the, off the shelf that’s going to talk about some, some, some guys named, named Julius and Anthony and Cleopatra when you can, you know, go, go gossip with your friends about what, what happened in home room that week. That’s just being kids.

But that shows how important it is for adults and the stewards of knowledge to set limits on this kind of contact. To make exposure to adult things … the big worlds of history and civics and foreign affairs … to make them realize there is a larger horizon out there than high school.

History didn’t begin on your 13th birthday. This is the reminder that constantly has to be put forward to, to adolescence. Digital tools are building the walls around them that are making it harder and harder for those adult voices to reach them.

HEFFNER: You know, one of the criticisms of the book is that … you know this perfectly well … in a sense say, there aren’t any adults around, really, to be the … those who maintain knowledge, those who bring to the young the knowledge because they have lived through something rather similar themselves. And what you have is not this generation of young people, but I go back teaching a long, long time and I know this has been a steady, steady, steady process.

BAUERLEIN: Sure. Sure. And we see slipping standards. We see, you know, US history requirements disappearing from college campuses. My own university, Emory in Atlanta, just got rid of its US history requirements in the, in the curriculum.

When we do tests … for example … the National Assessment of Educational Progress did its tests on US history … they’ve done it three times since 1994 and each time more than 50% of high school senior scored what is equivalent to what is an “F” on that. In 2001 52% … high school seniors … choose … when asked “Who was the ally of the United States in World War II?” … 52% chose Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or Imperial Japan … not the Soviet Union.

Now, how, how can you not know this? This isn’t just a passive ignorance. This, in fact, is again an active withdrawal from the larger facts of our civilization. And I would blame the stewards of knowledge not only for not passing along that knowledge, but for not passing along the deep and profound conviction that if you don’t have this knowledge your are an incomplete citizen and an incomplete adult, as well.

HEFFNER: What’s their response?

BAUERLEIN: The academics?

HEFFNER: The academics.

BAUERLEIN: Well, it’s very easy to pigeonhole this demand as sort of a retrograde requirement that you’re, you’re forcing the young people to honor our nation in, you know, perhaps uncritical ways. You’re emphasizing patriotism over much.

And my response is “No, this is, this is that we need to remember the glories and triumphs and also the failings of our nation. The failings of our civilization as well.”

And what bothers me about many of the humanities professors in, in my world, or the softer social science professors is that while they might find some traditionalist notions of US history to have certain, certain ideological narrowness to them, and that they would want a broader representation of more traditions say, on the Left, or, or of women and minorities being more represented in the curriculum … my response is … but when we ask your students about Liberal traditions … figures on the Left, they’re not learning that either. You’re not requiring them to read Karl Marx or John Dewey or the great Progressivist thinkers.

The ignorance is widespread, it’s broad, it’s across the ideological spectrum. And what we need to do is to make this an entirely non-partisan understanding … it’s about the relationship to the past. And ultimately for, for the professors in charge of the curriculum it becomes a relationship to their own authority that they are uncomfortable with.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

BAUERLEIN: Well, when you start looking at a curriculum and saying, “We’re going to require everyone to take a course in US history. In our English major we’re going to require everyone to take a course in Shakespeare.”

It isn’t always so much the content of those requirements that bothers them, it is the proscriptiveness of any set requirement at all, it sounds to them authoritarian. It sounds like you’re taking away student choice, that you’re being too dictatorial about their education. And a lot of these people did come to their maturity through the sixties and seventies … when there was a revolution in … on college campuses … and when much more discretion was turned over to students … that’s why I have that, that, that, that subtitle, “don’t trust anyone under 30” … that echoes the free speech movement slogan, “don’t trust anyone over 30”.

And the last thing that many of these people want to appear is, is old-fashioned … out of touch … retrograde … reactionary … conservative. They don’t want to assume the role of being a guardian of knowledge, a steward of tradition, it doesn’t go with that vision that they formed of youth, independence, and youthful enthusiasm and exuberance and freshness that they formed when they were younger.

HEFFNER: But you know … it’s very interesting … as I read the book, The Dumbest Generation … my feeling was that however much you might condemn the generation that came to immaturity in the 1960s and thereafter, that you were talking about a phenomenon, you were talking about a technological revolution that had the seeds within itself of what has happened.

Now you make it sound … what shall I say … more political. If you drop the political aspect and you looked at the technological change … the digital age … in your book you find it the seeds for what you condemn.

BAUERLEIN: Sure. The … you know … you know the thing about the digital age to remember is all the tools that we’re talking about have the potential to be knowledge and taste inducing tools. We can go onto the Internet and, and look at masterworks in, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art website. We can go look at old maps at National Geographic.

All the potential is there. But you have to add to this the dispositions of the users. And we get back to “what do 15 year olds care about?” And, and 15 year olds care about other 15 year olds … that, that, that’s their interest.

That’s where their ego stakes really are. So the Internet for them is an empowerment tool. And this really comes back to the, the political sense of things. Because when we’re talking about empowerment and we’re talking about groups, politics comes into play. And the, the empowerment issue is “Look how are you going to regard the education of the young? How are you going to understand what it takes to become a mature adult? A mature citizen?” And that means that there is always going to be some tension between the generations.

The Elders and this, this is another thing … criticism that I face … Elders have always been criticizing the young for their ignorance and their inexperience and so on.

And I grant that, that’s true. It’s not always true, we do have breakdowns of that critical faculty, that’s one of the components here that is a problem, but Elders do do that and that’s actually a good thing.

This is how an inheritance, a civic and cultural inheritance is passed along. There’s no reason for a 15 year olds to remember the dead. They preceded long before them. It’s all about the present for them. So they need to be reminded, they need to have a stern elder voice come into their lives and say, “You need to stop thinking so much about your classmates and you need to start thinking about Abraham Lincoln a little bit more and Thomas Jefferson. You need to get off your Face Book page and you need to go read the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.”

HEFFNER: The Face Book page really ticks you off, doesn’t it?

BAUERLEIN: Well, I look at these My Space pages … it is enormous the amount of energy and creativity and imagination they put into those, those pages. They’re very formulaic in terms of what you can do, and so they have to put their character, their individuality, their identity onto, onto that page. And so they want it to be flashy and colorful, they want to upload pictures and, and videos of themselves. They want to talk about their lives to make themselves be special.

HEFFNER: To the exclusion of the learning that you feel has to take place at that time.

BAUERLEIN: Well if you look at the, at the contents of, of those My Space pages again it’s all social, it’s all about one and other. Sometimes they use them to help each other with homework, but you don’t get that steady engagement with, with serious ideas and, and texts. And it’s the opportunity cost that goes into making those pages. If they just spent a portion of that time studying a foreign language or practicing a musical instrument … they’d be incredible.

HEFFNER: Okay, we’re down to the “if only” … it’s not going to happen is it?

BAUERLEIN: It’s not, it’s not going to happen (laugh).


BAUERLEIN: On, on their own it’s not going to happen. But I’ll tell you where we might find pushback on, on this.

Kids are reading and writing words more than ever before. They’re processing that information through the screen more than any time in, in history … the number of words that passes through their minds keeps, keeps going up.

Why is it then that only 6% of college professor say that students enter their class very well prepared in writing.

Why is it that corporate America now spends roughly $3.1 billion dollars a year on remedial writing training for its own employees. State governments spend $250 million dollars a year on writing problems in the work place.

We are seeing communication skills, verbal skills deteriorating to the point where it is costing corporate America and higher education and public agencies a lot of money.

HEFFNER: And your answer? Why?

BAUERLEIN: My, my answer is that the kind of reading and writing kids do online for years … they’re grooving these habits for years … doesn’t not translate into the kind of writing demanded in the classroom and in the work place.

And, and all of the time is going toward the text messaging. You know the texting, the, the, the posting, the commenting … uploading and downloading …

HEFFNER: About themselves.

BAUERLEIN: About themselves. And it’s a form of reading, it’s a kind of literacy, it’s very good for information retrieval, say. But when you ask them to slow down and analyze a complex argument … memorize a poem … follow a dense narrative from, from events to event, they break down. That kind of slow analytical deliberative activity they, they almost find irritating. Stand behind a 17 year old in the library in front of a computer screen and just watch how fast those pages fly by.

Listen to the kids typing out messages and emails … da da da da da da da da (laughter). You know it is so fast and that acceleration of communication works very well in their social lives, it does not work very well in, in the law office or in the classroom.

HEFFNER: Professor Bauerlein let me ask you something. Do you believe in inevitability? Do you believe that it’s possible we have reached a stage and have developed mechanisms that now will make us be concerned with ourselves and others like us to the extent that we are going to have to accept the exclusion of the discipline that you knew as a child and certainly that I knew as a child?

BAUERLEIN: I, I think it’s … I think it’s gone …


BAUERLEIN: … yes … I think it’s gone.

HEFFNER: But you want to spit against the wind?

BAUERLEIN: One, one, one, one has to, you know, one has no choice. So one can do things in ones personal lives with their own children or your own students to try to, to go against the grain and to preserve some space in, in their lives for the slower more, more analytical, erudite activities …

HEFFNER: You know …

BAUERLEIN: … but I’m, I’m pessimistic … I’m pessimistic.

HEFFNER: But you know this reminds me so much …back in McLuhan’s time …

BAUERLEIN: Yeah (laugh) …

HEFFNER: … when McLuhan I think, quite accurately … said “pay attention to this damn screen”, he was talking about television …


HEFFNER: … he didn’t envision what was going to be the screen, the multiple screens through our young lives. And I remember a cartoon of “The Man of the Future” … be a Cyclops … just a single eye in the middle of the forehead to focus on the screen.

BAUERLEIN: Right. And, and I would say that, that was right. It did begin. That screen focus did begin with television and what has happened is that with the interactivity of the screen now … I mean kids couldn’t talk back to the TV … they couldn’t comment on the screen … the television. Now, again, they are empowered … they can talk back about anything. They can give their opinion about anything … after all it’s “My” space, all right it’s You Tube. And, and it certainly gives them an exaggerated opinion of their, of their, of their place in the world and the value of their ideas in the world.

But, but … yeah … we have … in, in some ways there are qualitative differences from, from television, but in other ways it’s just a sort of an exponential growth of what was the seeds that were there …

HEFFNER: Well, then …

BAUERLEIN: … at that time.

HEFFNER: … maybe your next book has to analyze it without the anger that is in this book. And there is so much anger and despair … and I feel it, too …

BAUERLEIN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … as I read it and shake … nod my head …


HEFFNER: … but if this, if we’re not simply to sit around spitting against the wind, to, to clean up the euphemism … don’t we have to create something for the future that is posited upon this kind of adolescence, that this is it.

Don’t we have to judge the nature of our institutions in terms of what the “real” impact of the digital age is?

BAUERLEIN: It, it, it is. It is. And the big test for education now is how do we take these tools, bring them into the classroom and turn them toward productive uses.

My skepticism is that the concerted effort of educators is nothing compared to the collective will of teenagers. And that, that, that unequal … you know that imbalance of power is, is something that we have to … we’re going to have to find a way to reckon with in, in a different way than just “Well, is there someway that we can, we can bring blogs into our classroom and make kids write well using blogs”.

I think what happens is that the, the youth culture, the mass culture of the Internet and the web actually pulls the classroom and the teachers more toward them …


BAUERLEIN: … than it pulls the, the students toward the engagement with, with, with better materials and more thoughtful communications.

HEFFNER: So that maybe those who you would like to see teaching our youngsters … the custodians of knowledge who have abdicated their roles … maybe what they really need to do is be constructing something very, very different that is posited upon the horror that you describe and builds from there.

BAUERLEIN: Well, I … I actually think that if we could get more, more of the stewards of knowledge talking about what is being lost in this transformation into the digital age, that there is an audience out there in the business community, in the political community waiting for us to, to make these arguments.

I mean there, there are many groups out there who are trying to improve civics education, for instance, in our schools because they look at the current political climate and they see that the citizenship knowledge of, of people today is, is so thin that we’ve, we’ve got to … we’ve, we’ve got to educate more young people in the civic traditions of our country.

And there’s a business community and politicians are on this. But the funny thing is, and the reason why I, I, I do have this chapter called the “Betrayal of the Mentors” …


BAUERLEIN: … is that there is greater faith in the materials of liberal education among the business community, political community, journalists than there is among the Liberal educators.

HEFFNER: And suppose we conclude “so what?”, there may well be, but we’re all spitting against the wind.

BAUERLEIN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Which seems to be your first message and then you want to say, “Well, stop the wind, I want to get off”.

BAUERLEIN: Well, yeah, and you know there’s the famous statement … you know you stand athwart the tides of history and you say, “Stop”.

You know, I, I think that … yes, one has to be realistic about where we are. But one also has to speak out of principal as well, and, and stand up for, for what you believe in. Reading isn’t going to go away. Books are not going to go away. My fear is that they will be more and more read and discussed in small cells. We won’t have a larger public culture of books. A public culture of, of reading. And, you know, one, one … one simply tries to continue fighting, fighting the good fight. However …

HEFFNER: Fight …

BAUERLEIN: … however much pessimistic you are, you have to go on.

HEFFNER: Fight the good fight.

BAUERLEIN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: And thank you for writing the book and joining me today.

BAUERLEIN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.