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Battle of the generations

Created date

August 25th, 2010
The Dumbest Generation
The Dumbest Generation

Anyone who's ever caught a Wednesday episode of Jay Leno's Tonight Show is likely familiar with "Jay Walking". Usually about five minutes long, the bit follows the late-night guru's monologue and highlights some of the less-than-stellar minds within the greater Los Angeles area. Although Leno probably has to roam the sidewalks for hours in search of a bulb dim enough to make audiences laugh, it's usually a doozy when he finds one. With a microphone in hand and a cameraman at his side, the Tonight Show host asks his hapless subjects simple questions like, "Who was the first president of the United States?" And often, the only response they give is a vacant stare, sometimes an empty giggle. On the surface, it's funny. But the bit's substance (or lack thereof) points to a disturbing problem that, to some, is hardly amusing. In his book, The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein spends some 300 pages outlining the decline in civic and historical knowledge, as well as the substantial drop in reading amongst members of the last few generations. One segment of "Jay Walking" in particular proves his point. During an Independence Day special, Leno meets a family (husband, wife, son, and grandfather) at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. True to form, he asks questions that most first graders could answer. The scene that plays out in this episode is striking. After a brief introduction, Leno begins his line of questions with the father, a burly man in his early 40s. "How many original colonies were there?" he asks. "Uh, how many original colonies were there? Right now or back . . . errr, thirty?" Leno knows he's got a live one. "No, it's an unlucky number, sir." "An unlucky number." He pauses contemplatively. Leno tries to help him out. "What's an unlucky number?" "Three. Six. My unlucky number is five. Nine . . . twelve . . ." Leno, in an effort to stem the flow of unlucky numbers, shifts the focus to the man's wife. "Now, your wife is here?" The man nods. "Do you think she can do better? Waving his wife over, he responds, "She should do better." When the wife arrives, Leno restarts his line of questions. "Now, your husband didn't do very well here. Have you guys got kids?" he asks her. "Yes," replies the woman, who's also in her early 40s. "Do you both help them with their homework?" "Yes," she answers with a beaming smile. "Who's better at helping with the homework?" "I am," answers the wife, as her husband emphatically points to her in agreement. "Alright, perfect. What happened on the Fourth of July?" She pauses in thought, then responds with, "Um, I have no clue." "No clue? Can you take a guess?" Leno asks. "Mmm, Independence Day?" "That's right!" Leno exclaims with an air of enthusiasm that betrays his surprise. "Independence from who?" "I don't know." She consults her husband briefly, but all she comes up with is another "I don't know." "Your kids aren't home schooled are they?" Leno asks. "No," the wife replies with embarrassed laughter. At this point, the son, who's about 15, joins them. "Your mom and dad are not doing too good," Leno informs him. "Now, we've got a holiday coming up, July 4. Why do we celebrate it? What happened on July 4?" With some uncertainty, he responds, "Independence broke out?" "Independence Day," Leno confirms. "What year, though? What year did we get our independence?" After a long pause that Leno's editors had to elapse with dissolves, the teen shakes his head and admits that he's stumped. "Is grandpa here? Where's grandpa?" Leno asks. "Grandpa, come on over here. You've gotta help this family here. Grandpa, we've gotta holiday coming up, July 4. What do we celebrate on July 4?" The exchange occurs in rapid-fire succession. Without missing a beat, the grandfather replies, "Our independence." "From who?" "From the British." "Where does the Statue of Liberty come from?" "From the French." "Thank you very much," says a pleased Leno. "How many colonies were there?" "Thirteen." "Thirteen, very good. What bird is on the Great Seal of the United States?" "The eagle." "The eagle," Leno confirms. "Now, I want you to take these people, leave the park right now, get them a history book, and have them learn this stuff." The question of whether this generational disparity is funny, I leave to you. Find out more about The Dumbest Generation in the October issue of the Tribune.