Each generation through the course of history cannot be abstracted from its place in time and culture. As a result, generations are often characterized by a trait that reflects the circumstances of a particular period in history. It would be fair to say that our current generation is shaped by the digital age; technology now affects behavior more than any other generation of the past. This digital age, according to a provocative new book, is responsible for defining the current generation of Americans aged 15-24 with a trait that isn’t shared with any generation before it.
So what is this defining trait that our generation can proudly claim as our very own? According to Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, we are America’s dumbest generation. While criticizing generational differences is nothing new, it is not easy to ignore such an assertion, which is boldly stated in the title of Bauerlein’s book, “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).”
It is difficult to imagine that history’s progress has only lead to the creation of a generation that is supposedly dumber than any other in the annals of American history. One could argue the provocative title and thesis may be a ploy to sell some books, but it would be unfair to cast aside dismissively the entirety of Bauerlein’s argument, even if his premise does our generation no such favors. After all, it is rather sweeping in its estimations of the moral and intellectual failings of this country’s youth.
While there is some truth to the author’s arguments, his attempt to brand our generation as the dumbest is ultimately misguided and far too indiscriminate in its pessimistic assessment. Bauerlein asserts that we are a generation faced with too many distractions, ignorance and apathy are an epidemic, pop culture takes precedence over history and politics, and we are self-absorbed because we only use the Internet to gossip about ourselves and our peers through social networking sites.
Bauerlein is right that our generation has advantages and access to technology like never before and consequently, social networking figures heavily in his critique. Yes, these sites are incredibly popular, but the fact that they get all the attention does not mean they are the only aspect of Internet use among today’s youth. On the surface, social network conversations may be as shallow as the so-called friendships on Facebook, but this generation is anything but socially apathetic.
These Web sites engage youths in causes and interests that fall outside of just connecting with peers. For instance, Barack Obama was able to tap into the youth vote and encourage voter participation by mobilizing our generation through social networking. Thus, nearly double the number of young people voted in the primaries compared to past elections, showing that the apathetic label should not be so quickly applied. While social networks may raise one’s sense of self-importance, Bauerlein is wrong that these sites force people into a state of perpetual adolescence. If that were the case, the businesses and corporations that use social networking to enhance company communication must be attempting to thwart adult conversation.
The innovation evident in social networking sites is also present in Wikipedia, which, despite its faults, serves to spread information on almost any topic for free. Furthermore, in an age of endless media outlets, it is practically impossible not to absorb some news or information on a daily basis.
However, Bauerlein cites studies that show we possess a shocking ignorance of basic facts about history and politics. Even as more young Americans go to college now than ever before, the author claims that the threshold for entering adulthood has deteriorated while self-absorbed behavior has spread.
Still, the ability to recite facts does not equate to intelligence (especially when a quick Google search can find any fact in seconds). The author presupposes that a familiarity with a certain set of facts, books or art is the ultimate definition of intelligence, when it’s really an example of a well-rounded education according to one set of standards. What is more important than the ability to recite facts is the ability to construct strong analysis.
Another significant point to be made is the uncertainty that extends to the explosion of technology and its effects. David Robinson’s review in The Wall Street Journal presciently points out that “No matter how frivolously young people may use digital technology now, a schoolchild’s taste for play tells us little about what the next generation of intellectual leaders will do with technology’s tools.”
But it must be said that if there is any corrective needed for our generation and its follies, it will not come from books that brand us with labels befitting only of a doomsayer. Instead, it will result from this generation itself, which has proven to be innovative and adept at utilizing new technology.
The alarmist portrayal of this generation as dumber than any other brings to mind the principle of traditional conservatism that asserts, “Human nature has no history,” a claim that posits human nature essentially remains unchanged throughout history, and yes, through the generations. Thus, the author does not necessarily show a lack of faith in today’s youth, but a lack of faith in the traditions, institutions and values that serve as the bedrock of American society and that are meant to outlast any perceived threat, which in this case the author claims is our stupidity.
Optimism about the future and the possible accomplishments of any generation can be misguided, especially during the troubling time our nation currently faces. However, overblown pessimism takes it too far and denies the responsibility many young Americans currently feel about the direction of this country. Pure optimism about the future may be the mark of a fool, but a pessimism that ignores the complexities and more nuanced realities of our generation seems far worse.
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