The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, by Mark Bauerlein, reads like a shot of tequila to one who doesn’t usually drink …or ruminate about these social issues. Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University and former director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts.
The title suggests Bauerlein’s thesis. I was drawn to this book by the perverse humor of calling those under 30 “dumb.” Bauerlein warns of a crisis facing our nation’s young people. He claims that our young people are unaware of their own cultural poverty and may look back one day to stone the gatekeepers of culture for leading them down the path of least resistance. Bauerlein argues that, “They (the gatekeepers) have let down the society that entrusts them to sustain intelligence, wisdom and beauty and they have failed students who can’t climb out of adolescence on their own.”
Wow… the indictment of our country’s anti-intellectualism and the daunting feat of recovering from a generation’s worth of neglect is enough to keep a woman up at night! I spent many an early morning reading, re-reading and looking away from the pages trying to remind myself this is only one man’s expression of passionate cynicism. Still, Bauerlein had me…until he wrote that, in adult life, we no longer have time to read classics by authors like Dante and Milton. “There is too little time for the French and the Russian Revolution. Political ideas come from television or a Sunday op-ed , not a steady diet of books old and new.” It’s been my personal experience with great literature and historical works that the authenticity of my age is a perfect complement to these great ideas and sustained observations. The best examples of the past were totally lost on me in high school when I struggled to choke down Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. To the credit of my teachers, fortunately I was exposed to a canon of ideas which I can now choose to reclaim on a richer, more relevant level as an adult.
The decline in book reading habits among our young people results in greater gaps of knowledge and cultural literacy upon which our democracy is based. Thomas Jefferson observed that, “If we leave the people to ignorance, old customs will return and kings, priests and nobles will rise among us.” Bauerlein’s call to action is loud and clear for those of us who serve youth populations in our communities. The academic curriculum set by the most rigorous schools and the most courageous educators needs reinforcement from families, libraries and open eyes throughout the village.
The informal conversations I have had since reading this book suggest not everyone will agree with Bauerlein’s views. Responses included, “Well, there will always be the minority–the smart ones who will counter balance the know-nothings in every generation” and “I am really scared because I see so many girls pretending to be dumb at my school” and “No, I don’t believe that my generation (Baby Boomers) is any smarter than the younger generations due to the fact that my own son knows things that I have never even heard of.” I am just waiting for a funny comment on the irony and hubris of men who have the time to write books for publication. Regardless of your outlook, this book will get you thinking about the future of intellectual pursuit in our society.
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