11 November 2012

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum...

The forum for my current education class, that is. I was highly skeptical of the reading assignment for the week, The Dumbest Generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future (or, don't trust anyone under 30) by Mark Bauerlein. I read review after review of the book (both in Amazon and by journalists), I looked it up on wikipedia, and I went in thinking I knew what I was going to read: some jerk who was on my generation about how dumb we all are.

Fortunately enough for me, I was surprised. While Bauerlein certainly takes what most consider to be a very aggressively negative outlook on the entire generation, he does have his points of moderation. He doesn't try to claim that all use of technology or the internet is what is killing our generation - it's the general uses that we all tend to fall into. Extensive time spent in front of the computer screen is as bad as our parents always told us too much time in front of the tv screen was. This is true. If you're spending all of your time in front of a screen and do not escape to the outside world, then you're probably not reading the classics or volunteering to better your community. Bauerlein does not, however, say the entire generation has gone to pot. In fact, he cites many authors who argue for the opposite. He points out that these shining examples do not exemplify the entire generation, but there are some worrying habits that do.

Honestly, something you wouldn't know much from reviews of this book, most of what Bauerlein has to say is about literacy. He's very concerned that we have an entire generation of kids (now becoming adults) that spent its young life parked in front of a television and are now parked in front of a computer screen instead of parked at the library with books. It doesn't take a very deep look at our generation to find a few of these folks Bauerlein is talking about either. There is consistently a problem among students who don't have the vocabularies to continue learning at the pace at which society expects us to, even if we're only getting a GED. Without the ability to read and comprehend, there is much of life that will be beyond us. In these respects, I think Bauerlein has made some points.

The other thing that rattles everyone is that he criticizes the stupidity (a bit of a harsh word, indeed) of the Millenial generation, but then he goes on to blame the several generations before for the state of things. I must say, I don't think I've ever read a book in which the author tried to insult so many people all at once, unless perhaps you remember Oscar Wilde's attempts, or perhaps even Chaucer. Given the strong reactions, particularly to this later section of the book, I was ready to be offended.

And yet, I found myself more intrigued by Bauerlein's defense of tradition and felt that he was not against moderation. He says he's appalled by the response of  academics in the 1960s who supported the "youth revolution", but it seems it is because these academics joined and justified the extremes being played out. It was strange that "only the adult world needs fixing" (page 181). It is the way in which history or anything perceived as traditional is seen as a threat and at odds with youth and a fixation on the youth identity carried far beyond adolescence that is disturbing to Bauerlein, and I can't say that I blame him. If I were trying to engage a group of students that frequently treated my own view as an active threat or with complete disregard (sometimes simultaneously), I too might be pushed to the lengths that Bauerlein is pushed to in his book.

Perhaps it is with biased perspective that I try to read Bauerlein's concern with as much empathy and charity as I can muster, but the contents of the book certainly didn't consistently offend me as much as the title seemed to communicate it would.

What did you think?

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