A Grain of Truth? A Generation of Know-Nothings
AP writer Beth J. Harpaz commented the other day about Mark Bauerlein’s best-selling book “The Dumbest Generation,” which contends “that cyberculture is turning young people into know-nothings… ‘the absence of technology’ confuses kids faced with simple mechanical tasks.”
This is a very hot and controversial topic – over two hundred comments take the AP writer, author Bauerlein, parents, teachers and young people themselves to task – but for a variety of reasons and on both sides of the issue. Does it bother you that many young people cannot sign their names, use a can opener, tie their shoes, address an envelope or do their laundry? Is it enough that they can go on-line to solve a problem, use a GPS to get to their destinations, use an iphone and run rings around their elders at wii games? Are we elders just curmudgeons? out of step? or even jealous at their technical skills and prowess?
Read the AP article “Are we raising a generation of nincompoops?” with reader comments here – leave your comments below.
6 Responses to A Grain of Truth? A Generation of Know-Nothings
Let me say as a teacher at UMass Lowell I do not think this generation is any smarter or dumber than any other – they know what is important to them and sort through tons of crap every day to make choices, navigate the increasingly screwed up world they are inheriting from us, and are at the same time a product of the school systems and universities and colleges we’ve provided them. If these young people are a generation of know-nothings – which I disagree with – then my generation and their parents’ generation are the ones to blame. As an aside, in using lots of technology in the classroom, they always know how to make it work, when clearly I do not!
Speaking as both a teacher and someone under the age of 30, I love it when self-righteous baby boomers such as Bauerlein articulate what essentially has been the default position of every generation of middle-aged individuals regarding the young people of their time. It starts thus: “Kids today….”
Listen to any aging flabby-faced cable news pundit and you just might learn how “Kids today” don’t know the value of a hard day’s work. Open the Lowell Sun’s Op-Ed page and you just might read how “Kids today” don’t have any values. And read the über-snooty Mark Bauerlein’s book and you just might be convinced that “Kids today” don’t know anything about anything.
I remember one interview in which Bauerlein decried the abundance of networking media—computers, Blackberries, Facebook, etc.—and lamented that “Kids today” don’t have time for tales about Antony and Cleopatra or Julius Caesar. But does anybody? Sadly I can’t recall the last time my boomer father and I had a good chat about animal metaphors in King Lear. Ditto for my grandfather.
Bauerlein’s entire premise is that the current generation of young Americans is “the dumbest generation.” This means he must overstate the intellectual curiosity of previous generations—including his own—for his argument to have any coherence because frankly, I don’t think his generation was as well-read as he thinks. Of course, the book itself doesn’t need to possess coherence. The title and mere idea are simple and provocative enough to catch the attention of older Americans seeking validation and vindication in a world they understand less and less with each passing day.
These are the same complaints made by every generation. Society changes and the skills needed to survive in society change. You would think one generation would learn from the mistakes of the past and stop making these complaints.
I would argue that being able to problem solve by finding answers on the internet is an invaluable skill, one that far too many people, to their own detriment, lack. For example, over the summer I was asked at work to graph a large amount of data I had in Excel. I had no idea how to do this in Excel 2007, so I went to Youtube. Five minutes later I could do it.
Besides, most of the skills being complained about represent more a failure of parenting than anything. If a child doesn’t know how to do their laundry by the time they’re getting to high school, never mind college, it’s generally because their parents haven’t taught them/forced them to do their own laundry.
And as a broader point, how are we measuring intelligence? Every generation sees greater accomplishments in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences than the previous one. Twenty years ago we knew basically nothing about how development fit into evolutionary biology. In those twenty years, with the establishment of the field of evolutionary developmental biology, we’ve completely rewritten the textbooks. I will learn more information and have a much better understanding of what is actually at work in nature as an undergraduate than I would have in a PhD program 50 years ago. Are we really a dumber generation?
And as one of the subjects of this book I resent being categorized as a “bibliophobe.” That’s about as far from the truth as is possible to be.
WHEN I WAS A BOY…
I certainly think they’re the most distracted generation in history. Frontline’s “Digital Nation,” featured one segment in which a group of college students talked about how they were capable of “multi-tasking,” writing a paper for school while receiving instant messages, phone calls, text messages, etc. The result of the research done with these students was that their work was suffering. The human brain hasn’t changed that much, and it’s still much easier to learn one thing when the mind is focused on that one thing. My baby boom generation had an enormous educational advantage: no electronics, and three stations on TV showing reruns of Mr. Ed, Dick Van Dyke and What’s My Line. You might as well get out a book, and there would be no interruptions while you were reading it.
My has an Argentine friend who calls the current generation there “La Generation del Nadismo,” because they’re interested in “nada.” He says that his generations of college students were interested in politics, literature, art. The current generation, he complains, is interested only in pop culture.
I’ll say one thing: video games have certainly honed their hand-eye coordination, but a lack of reading does have a mind-narrowing effect.
As a biology major, I have to say that “multi-tasking” is complete crap. The brain just can’t process that amount of information. “Multi-tasking” in fact means that you’re shifting your focus from one task to another. Then it becomes a matter of self-discipline…the temptation is there, but that’s when you go to the library and leave your laptop behind.
As for the interests of the generation, that depends on the individuals. I think that there have always been students interested mostly in pop culture and students mostly interested in politics, literature, etc. But the same goes for adults. There are plenty of adults whose main interest is pop culture, and there are plenty whose main interests are more academic. I have plenty of friends who are interested in both, though where they find the time I have no idea.
As for video games, there’s actually some interesting new research showing that individuals who play video games are much better at making split-second decisions than individuals who don’t. This is especially relevant when driving.
I’m not sure I understand the point of the topic. There are a lot of young people fighting (and dying) for our freedom, safety and democracy right now. And their knowledge of technology is coming in handy in a lot of instances.