The dumbing down of America's youth

Created date

September 21st, 2010

As English professor Mark Bauerlein sat in the quad on Emory University s campus, he noticed something about the students. Few of those zipping from class to class communicated with others, at least not with anyone around them.

This is Generation Me, and its members will never reach maturity until they realize that 99% of what happens to them in an average week is of no consequence to anyone else. Mark Bauerlein Instead, they had cell phones pressed tightly to their ears; others had their eyes fixed on small screens in their hands, checking e-mail, surfing the Net, texting friends, oblivious to their surroundings. Nearly all of them, Bauerlein recalls, were about 20 years old.

Something had changed

When I was in college, we would talk to each other as we walked the campus, he says. In the libraries, too, you see a difference. Today, every computer station has an occupant, and you can lie down and take a nap in the stacks where they keep the books. A shift had occurred away from print and toward an intangible digital realm of truncated text messages, impersonal e-mails, and two-minute YouTube videos. Bauerlein s own research for the National Endowment for the Arts Reading at Risk report confirmed this change, and highlighted the downward slope that he says largely defines the nation s teen and 20-something generation. It s a conclusion that other studies have alluded to for years, many of which he pulls together in his bookThe Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future(Tarcher/Penguin, 2008). This work, 236 pages in all, paints a gloomy portrait of American youth one that s deeply narcissistic and increasingly unsophisticated in its world views and intellectual pursuits.


While Bauerlein confesses that he s received as much flak as he has support for the book some seeing it merely as another curmudgeonly riff he stands by every word written, every statistic cited, and laments its findings. Even with educational ambition on the rise and college attendance higher than ever, Bauerlein found the intellectual decline broad and steep among what he calls Generation.Net. Things don t look good, he remarks. Book reading is down, civic and historical knowledge is abysmal, and we re not getting a blip of improvement in spite of the fact that we have greater access to education and information than ever before. We re actually seeing a clear decline in verbal skills. Reading and writing skills are down, and literacy in general has fallen at the high school level. Research findings from most quarters support his assertions. For one, the amount of time spent reading and studying has hit ridiculous lows. A 2006 study entitledHigh School Survey of Student Engagementreported that 90% of the nearly 82,000 students surveyed spent, at most, 45 minutes a day reading and studying. Another report, this one from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, found that weekday homework time for 15 to 17 year olds amounted to 50 minutes compared to two hours per day devoted to television. So, what does this have to do with the digital age? Everything, according to Bauerlein.

Leisure vs. literacy

The leisure habits of today are killing their knowledge base and literacy, he asserts. Kids now have laptops, televisions, and video game consoles. Verbal and writing skills are on the decline because 15-year-olds can t sharpen these abilities by sitting in front of a computer communicating solely with other 15 year olds. But Bauerlein says that s what is happening, and he blames it on an adolescent world of constant and instantaneous communication, in which text messages transmit all hours of the day, and everything appears to revolve around the ego. Think about the technology and websites that are popular today, he challenges. You have MySpace, the iPhone, the iPod, and YouTube, the slogan for which is Broadcast Yourself. This is Generation Me, and its members will never reach maturity until they realize that 99% of what happens to them in an average week is of no consequence to anyone else. The digital world, Bauerlein argues, is an irresistible temptation to teenagers not yet comfortable with their place in life, and who also want everything quick and easy. Though he admits that these digital tools are not all bad, he stresses that the younger generation might benefit from a book or two, a trip to the library that doesn t involve a computer, and perhaps even some informal conversation with adults. After all, they are the future. If they fail to change, however, Bauerlein says that only time will tell. He writes: The youth of America occupy a point in history like every other generation did . . . and their time will end. But the effects of their habits will outlast them, and if things do not change they will be remembered as the fortunate ones who were unworthy of the privileges they inherited.