The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future*
*Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30
By Mark Bauerlein, 2008.
Book Review by Amy M. Edwards, 2008
Is it possible to rise above the rottenness of your own generation? Is it possible to gain some insight into habits, thinking patterns, and assumptions that you aren't even aware of having? When an entire generation of Americans--make that people--accepts as normal a level of anti-intellectualism among the masses, is there any hope for transcending the norm?
Although I'm safely on the high side of 30 years old (you can trust me on that), the thesis of Mark Bauerlein's book, The Dumbest Generation, has me gravely concerned for my children. The Emory University English professor argues that the newest generation gap is not anything similar to your father's generation gap. Instead, the upcoming "Millennials" are actually bringing a whole new level of despair to the usual middle aged hand-wringing over "youth today." Why? Because the digital age of video games, Facebook and My Space, blogging (ouch!), Web 2.0, texting, email, and television has created a very isolated generation that is not engaged with the broader world. The isolation is geographic ("Is Paris in England?") and civic ("How long do Supreme Court justices serve anyway?") and historic ("The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire is completely irrelevant to me.") Yes, these young people have more information at their fingertips than any other generation has experienced, but rather that trying to understand their world, they seem to be shrinking it. And, dangerously, while their knowledge base shrinks, their opinions seem to grow.
Bauerlein writes that the online phenomenon creates a peer community that is isolated and false. Teens text their peers, they read their peers' Facebook pages, they email photos of themselves to classmates, but they aren't moving beyond a very narrow circle socially or intellectually. The social set they've created for themselves does not reach across generations. Bauerlein writes, "Maturity comes, in part, through vertical modeling, relations with older people such as teachers, employers, ministers, aunts and uncles, and older siblings, along with parents, who impart adult outlooks and interests...The Web (along with cell phones teen sitcoms, and pop music), though, encourages more horizontal modeling, more raillery and mimicry of people the same age, an intensification of peer consciousness." (Bauerlein, page 136)
Web 2.0, the phrase du jour for the Internet as we now experience it (my own blog being a prime example!), makes it easier than ever to surround yourself with only your own experience. It is as if we are all living a provincial, small-town life of our own making. We read blogs of our friends, their friends, follow their links, and give each other feedback. But rarely do we encounter something outside of our own interests or views. Does this matter? It does if you are in the rhetoric stage (a term from classical education philosophy that refers to the teen years in their educational development). Rhetoric stage kids (teens) should be taking the body of knowledge that (hopefully) they've attained and begin expressing themselves, interacting with the knowledge and ideas of great thinkers of all time, and wrestling with truth. Unfortunately, Millenials and the teens that follow after them are reaching this stage of life with little body of knowledge to respond to and only the ideas of their peers to wrestle with. It is the blind leading the blind.
In The Dumbest Generation Bauerlein cries out against trends that have been observed and bemoaned before. The sad thing is that apparently no one is listening and few are deciding to make difficult changes in their lifestyles to counter-act the trend. I can think of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1988), and Jane Healy's Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It (1990) just for starters as books that served as canaries in the mine, warning of the suffocating effects of media. Unfortunately, Bauerlein doesn't offer the reader much help in understanding how to transcend this problem.
As a Christian parent, I have an even greater reason to be alarmed by this trend for my children's sake. Literacy is essential to worship. God's revelation to us in Scripture is the primary way that He communicates with us. Minds shaped by Web 2.0 are not interested in reading for pleasure. It is doubtful, then, that these minds will embrace reading and studying Scripture as a voluntary spiritual discipline. Indeed, even among Christian churched teens, personal Bible study is rare. Furthermore, churches are increasingly turning to an experiential and energy-driven method of children's ministry that does not cultivate a value for learning. On the contrary, it apologizes for spiritual disciplines, bending over backward to convince kids that church is fun. This whole approach has a way of confirming the lie that something must be fun and relevant to ME to matter.*
Here are some ideas for helping our kids rise above the unique challenges facing them because of the digital-age that shapes them:
Keep fighting against screen time in your home. Even for those convicted about the negative impact of media, it is something that creeps into our lives almost unnoticed. For me, the summer schedule tempts me to allow more video time, especially when I crave some calmness while fixing dinner. Fighting screen time is more than a content issue. Wholesome or educational viewing still should be kept to a minimum for kids. And kids two and under shouldn't really be watching at all. Computers and gaming are in the same category. Even in homeschooling and Christian circles I find that there is tremendous pressure against saying "no" to these guilty pleasures. Need a reminder why this matters? Read Jane Healy's Endangered Minds.
Sharpen your minds with literacy. This means reading long novels, non-fiction books, and reading aloud to the family. Skimming doesn't count. It takes effort to stick with a full-length book rather than scanning (scrolling down) over a online blog posting. But the effort engages your mind and stretches your attention span. It is especially critical for the developing minds of our children. We must hold a higher standard for them in part because their brains are in development. Cultivate minds that read so that they will be able to read God's Word.
Practice listening. Literacy and the love of language are important tools for effective communication. It is important to develop a good ear for quality language. Listen to E.B. White read his book Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. We also love the Little House books on audio CD, in addition to the Narnia books. Try to start early with narrative-driven audiobooks. Listening to a story without visual cues develops imagination and attention-span. Train kids early on to stick with a long story.
Keep contrary views on your radar screen. Not because every view has value. In fact, most ideas are worthless. But are you able to tell the difference? Are you able to apply your Biblical worldview against a hostile view and teach your kids to see the danger of false philosophies? A caveat: Grammar stage kids are not developmentally ready to wrestle with abstract ideas. Keep things simple and black and white in the early years and begin more argumentative thinking in the logic stage (middle school years). An important warning: Don't forget about Philippians 4:8 "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." But check in on contrary thinking and keep abreast of the false philosophies that are shaping the world that our children are growing up in.
Deepen your Biblical worldview and your understanding of history. As a homeschooling parent committed to classical education, I am giving our kids the very long view of history with which to analyze our current times. Kids need to understand history in order to put their own lifetime into context. The Millennials are incapable of seeing outside of themselves, let alone outside of their age. This is a skill that must be honed intentionally.
Steel yourself for the consequences. Learning to rise above the rottenness of your generation means being like Daniel, in the Old Testament. It is a calling that often carries great risk, difficult suffering, and possible loneliness. I need to hate the media-impact on Millennials for two reasons: its foundational philosophies are godless and it's anti-intellectualism leaves people unprepared to know God through Scripture. I must cultivate literacy and intellectualism in my children to give them a better ability to study their Bible and follow after God's will for them.
*For more on this, see my book review of Perspectives on Children's Spiritual Formation posted 9/27/07. Also, for thoughts about studying the Bible chronologically rather than topically, see my post A Word in Defense of Chronological Study.
Imparting a classical education at home. Check out the Edwards Academy.
. . . we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done. .
so the next generation would know them . . . and they in turn would tell their children.
so the next generation would know them . . . and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.