How Dumb Can You Get?

By Stan Persky | August 12, 2008

Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future [Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30] (Tarcher/Penguin, 264 pages, $27.50, 2008)

I’m a feet-on-the-ground kind of guy, so I seldom have visions. But a year or so ago, while I was in the library of the little university where I teach, something odd happened. At first, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Downstairs, the students were busily at the computer terminals, looking up stuff on Wikipedia or checking their Facebook “wall” or doing whatever it is students do on the library computers.

I went upstairs to the stacks, where the library’s collection of books is housed, and where, off to the side, are the carrels, filled with students in various states of study and/or slumber. Clutching the slip of paper on which I’d scribbled the call number of a book that I was looking for–a book written in the 1930s by literary scholar Edmund Wilson–I slipped into the forest-like rows of bookshelves. Maybe it was the odd silence that engulfed me as I browsed in the stacks, or maybe it was something else, but a moment or two later when I arrived at the shelf where Edmund Wilson’s books are kept and reached up for the one I wanted, I was hit by a multiple realization.

First, I was the only person browsing in the stacks. There were lots of people around, but none of them was browsing in the book stacks. I was all alone in the forest of books. Second, it became clear to me why, whenever I looked for a book in the school library, it was almost always there: because the students seldom took out books to read. The collection was pretty much intact. Finally, as I began glancing at the spines of the books on the nearby shelves, which often included the year of their publication, I realized that very few of the books there had been published or purchased in the last ten years. That’s because the library, I immediately understood, had bought very few books in recent years. Obviously, the “acquisitions budget,” as it’s called, had been diverted to buy the computers.

That’s when I had my little vision. The spines of the books, instead of reminding me of trees in a forest, as they often do, suddenly began to look like tombstones. Each date on a book spine recorded the death of a book. I was standing in the middle of The Dead Library. Book readng was over.

The vision lasted about five or ten seconds. Then I snapped back to my ordinary pedestrian existence, skipped down the stairs, passed the students crowded around the computer terminals, checked out my book at the checkout counter, and went off to read a few pages of Edmund Wilson.

The library is still a fairly busy place, filled with students and librarians and computers and places to study, but the students cheerfully ignore the collection. The Dead Library is up there, silent, like an unexplored forest or an unvisited old graveyard.

Like most visions, my vision of The Dead Library isn’t exactly true. There are still book readers, and books are still being borrowed from school libraries. But I notice that Mark Bauerlein, in his new book, The Dumbest Generation, has also noticed this moment of biblio-desolation. “At every university library I’ve entered in recent years,” says Bauerlein, who’s a professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, “a cheery or intent sophomore sits at each computer station rapping out emails in a machine-gun rhythm. Upstairs, the stacks stand deserted and silent,” he adds, reassuring me that I’m not just imagining things.

In a front cover book-jacket blurb, the prominent literary scholar Harold Bloom–who is sort of the Edmund Wilson of the present generation–rightly calls Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation “an urgent… book on the very dark topic of the virtual end of reading among the young.” That’s true. But there’s more.

Bauerlein suggests that young people are suffering not only a decline in reading, but also significant “knowledge deficits” about history, geography, science and art, and an ignorance of civic life that poses a threat to democratic society. However, if Bauerlein accurately alerts us to an important problem, it’s equally the case that his Dumbest Generation is a polemic that suffers from serious defects (which I’ll get to in a moment).

When he isn’t being an English prof, Bauerlein works in research and analysis for the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). He’s a report writer and reader, quite a good one, and in The Dumbest Generation he provides a painstaking and persuasive summation of a raft of recent reports. The reports reveal that young people in the U.S. have more schooling, more disposable income, more leisure time and more access to news and information than at any time in the recent past. What do they do with all that time and money? They download, upload, post, chat, and network (9 of their top 10 sites are for social networking), and they watch television and play video games 2 to 4 hours per day.

What don’t they do? They don’t read, even online, and two-thirds of them are not proficient in reading. They don’t follow or engage in politics, notwithstanding the hopeful Obama-boom/blip among the young; they don’t vote regularly (nearly half of them can’t comprehend a ballot); and they can’t find Iraq on a map. They know who the current “American Idol” is, but they’ve no idea that Nancy Pelosi is the first woman speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Bauerlein’s book intentionally doesn’t attempt to assess behaviours and values of under-30-year-olds. “It sticks to one thing,” Bauerlein says, “the intellectual condition of young Americans, and describes it with empirical evidence, recording something… insidious happening inside their heads.” It charts, he says, “a consistent and perilous momentum downward.”

Bauerlein is aware that his pessimistic findings may be dismissed “as yet another curmudgeonly riff. Older people have complained forever about the derelictions of youth, and the ‘old fogy’ tag puts them on the defensive.”

But the 49-year-old Bauerlein insists that the facts are the facts. Despite the “Information Age,” the “Digital Revolution,” and all the other slogans about access to knowledge, “young Americans today are no more learned or skillful than their predecessors, no more knowledgeable, fluent, up-to-date or inquisitive, except in the material of youth culture.” The last is a point Bauerlein reiterates throughout his book. What the young are knowledgeable about is confined to their own rather narrow, narcissistic milieu.

Further, “they don’t know any more history or civics, economics or science, literature or current events. They read less on their own, both books and newspapers, and you would have to canvas a lot of college English instructors and employers before you found one who said they compose better paragraphs.” The wellsprings of knowledge are everywhere, “but the rising generation is camped in the desert, passing stories, pictures, tunes and texts back and forth, living off the thrill of peer attention.”

Bauerlein documents this ignorance in the desert by examining a dozen or more recent, major, reputable, mass surveys of the intellectual condition of young people, including one he directed for the NEA. The whole story is almost too depressing, so just a sampler:

“On the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress history exam, the majority of high school seniors, 57 per cent, scored ‘below basic.'” That’s a polite way of saying they failed. “Only 1 per cent reached ‘advanced.’ … Two-thirds of high school seniors couldn’t explain a photo of a theatre whose portal reads ‘Colored Entrance.'”

In a 2003  National Conference of State Legislatures citizenship study, “While 64 per cent knew the name of the latest ‘American Idol,’ only 10 per cent could identify the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.” Less than half knew which party controlled the American Congress; a 2004 National Election Study found that barely over a quarter could correctly identify the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; a 2006 Pew Research report learned that only a quarter of 18-29-year-olds knew that Condoleezza Rice was U.S. secretary of state while a mere 15 per cent knew that Vladimir Putin was the president of Russia.

And so it goes, in every field surveyed, from math and science, to fine arts participation to geography, where the 2006 Geographic Literacy Survey found that 63 per cent of test takers “could not identify Iraq on a map.” Maybe that’s why GPS devices are a hot shopping item. But marketing aside, not only is there a knowledge deficit. When you ask the young to interpret some bit of the world in terms of what it means, things only get worse.

Beyond Bauerlein’s discussion of “Knowledge Deficits,” his chapters on “The New Bibliophobes,” “Screen Time,” and”Online Learning and Non-Learning,” make what amounts to a pretty irrefutable case about what is and isn’t on the minds of the present generation. If you aren’t convinced by the tidbits presented here, you’re invited to check out the text itself.

The standard rebuttal of Bauerlein’s case, which usually appears under a rock-song heading that declares “The Kids Are Alright,” claims that while book reading may have, well, changed, the young are reading more than ever, via the Internet. One review of The Dumbest Generation published by Canada’s most influential book review section, The Globe and Mail (“Are the kids all right? Depends upon whom you ask,” July 19, 2008), is a case in point.

The reviewer, Don Tapscott, chairman of nGenera Insight (a business consulting firm) and the author of a forthcoming tract, Grown Up Digital, claims that the young are “reading plenty of non-fiction on the Internet,” which, he assures us, “can be just as intellectually challenging as reading a book.” Well, if they were reading an article from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or any of a dozen first rate magazines and newspapers available online, that might be true. But as Bauerlein documents, that’s not what they’re reading. They’re reading each other’s post-it notes on Facebook, and viewing pop star gossip on YouTube (or YouPorn or PornTube). Predictably, the deniers and would-be refuters of Bauerlein’s thesis have little to offer beyond bromides about the wonders of technology.

The problem is not with Bauerlein’s “empirical” account of the decline of reading and much else. That rings true, at least to quite a few of us in the teaching profession. What doesn’t ring true is the book’s “packaging,” its skewed explanation of the source of the deficit in reading, knowledge and civics, and ultimately, its sense of the big picture.

The first problem, which may be caused by Bauerlein’s publisher rather than by Bauerlein himself, is the over-hyped packaging of the book. Calling the book The Dumbest Generation, a phrase plucked rather out-of-context from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000), a satirical novel about the excesses of “political correctness” in the 1990s,  simply invites pointless challenges. Since Bauerlein isn’t offering an in-depth historical account of knowledge levels over several generations, or even any comparisons with other cultures, the use of “dumbest” is needlessly provocative. And while Bauerlein makes clear in his text that he’s using “dumb” to mean “ignorant” rather than “stupid,” it’s bound to cause confusion of the “who-are-you-calling-stupid?” variety.

To make matters worse, there’s a glibly earnest sub-title, “How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future” that also over-hypes the problem, and sounds like a publicity department’s efforts to make sure that all the right hot-buttons are pressed. And just in case potential readers still don’t get it, there’s even a sub-sub-title, “Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30,” a play on a 1960s over-the-top admonition about not trusting people over 30. I guess it wouldn’t have been sexy enough to more modestly call the book An Ignorant Generation: The Decline of Reading, Knowledge, and Citizenship Among Young People Today.

A far more serious defect mars the book when Bauerlein departs from his sound empirical findings and attempts to identify the source of the present decline. In the latter third of the book, under chapters headed “The Betrayal of the Mentors” (a play on the title of Julian Benda’s 1920s critique, The Treason of the Intellectuals), and “No More Cultural Warriors,” Bauerlein decides that the decline of reading was initiated by the youth culture of the 1960s, and especially by the “indulgence” of their mentors, who should have known better.

“Spend some hours in school zones,” Bauerlein advises, “and you see that the indulgent attitude toward youth, along with the downplaying of tradition, has reached the point of dogma.” Adds Bauerlein, “Like so many dominant cultural attitudes today, the final ennobling of youth motives and attribution of youth authenticity derive from the revolutionary heat of the 1960s.” Soon, we’re into a full-blown case of “blaming it on the ‘60s,” as Susan Jacoby calls this particular affliction in her recent book, The Age of American Unreason (2008).

“The benighted mental condition of American youth today,” Bauerlein tells us, “results from many causes, but one of them is precisely a particular culture-war outcome, the war over the status of youth fought four decades ago. From roughly 1955 to 1975, youth movements waged culture warfare… and the mentors who should have fought back surrendered.” Bauerlein’s portrait of the 1960s is simplistic, shallow, and skewed beyond caricature. In his version of the 1960s there’s no civil rights movement, no resistance to an American imperialist war in Vietnam, no feminist or gay movements, no birth of modern environmentalism. There’s barely a Bob Dylan song blowin’ in the wind.

Not only is this a shabby intellectual account, it also thoroughly vitiates a lot of the hard work Bauerlein has done in empirically demonstrating the decline of reading and knowledge. It isn’t at all clear why Bauerlein doesn’t blame the obvious culprits: the present-day manufacturers and advertisers of devices and especially trivial content who relentlessly push their wares upon young customers, and convince them that it’s cool.

Isn’t the aggressive marketing of the panoply of digital distractions something like the recent Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) fiasco? There, manufacturers and advertisers created a “need” for SUVs where none existed, and in North America brainwashed half the driving public into purchasing gas-guzzling, unsafe, “off-road” vehicles that 90 per cent of them weren’t going to drive off-road, unless you count the Wal-Mart parking lot as an off-road adventure.

No, it’s not the makers of Grand Theft Auto or the latest Batman superhero entertainment who are responsible for the dumbing down of the young, it’s a band of youthful radicals from a half-century ago, according to Bauerlein.

Bauerlein conveys almost no sense of the market-driven, mindless–okay, let’s say it–capitalist, cultural context driving the present era. There’s good data, but no big picture. Lately, when I review books that delineate contemporary social problems, readers often say that they get it, but then go on to ask that famous political question, “What is to be done?”

Bauerlein doesn’t attempt to discuss any solutions, apart from a few handwaving gestures. In a sense, the answers are obvious: to reverse the decline in reading, knowledge, and democracy, we have to overthrow capitalist culture, and much of capitalism. In an equally obvious sense, the problem is too big: nobody knows how to overthrow, transform, or even slightly change globalized capitalism and its cultural productions. People who are asking, “What is to be done?” are asking for a comprehensive political program, and those of us who have read history know how often “total” programs have turned into “totalitarian” regimes. For the moment, perhaps the most we can hope for is Obama’s “change we can believe in.”

And, of course, when the teaching season starts up again next month, I’ll try to persuade my students to enter The Dead Library and discover that it’s a living, magic forest.


Vancouver, Aug. 12, 2008. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano University in North Vancouver, B.C. He’s the author of Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education (2007).


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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