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article imageAuthor: The Web is Making Kids Dumber, Encouraging Them To Ignore World Events

By David Silverberg     Jul 20, 2008 in Internet
Today’s kids aren’t all right, according to the author of The Dumbest Generation. Mark Bauerlein discusses his controversial theory of how the digital age is hurting a child's verbal intelligence.
Digital Journal — “As of 2008, the intellectual future of the United States looks dim.” It’s a scary predictor coming from someone who is on the front lines in academia, watching students shrug their shoulders at books and turn to social networks for their leisure time stimulation. Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, compiled his frustration at young Netizens in his recent book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.
The book’s thesis is as blunt as the title: Technology isn’t making youth more astute or knowledgeable; instead it’s dumbing them down to the point where they can name their favourite bloggers but fail to identify past American presidents. Kids might have access to more information than ever before, but they’re not using the Web to search for maps on National Geographic’s site. They are spending their time on Facebook or Amazon or YouTube, and Bauerlein believes this digital obsession will hamper a child’s ability to secure a job in the future.
Bauerlein, 49, says younger generations don’t spend enough time learning about the world at large, writing: “They are latter-day Rip Van Winkles, sleeping through the movements of culture and events of history, preferring the company of peers to great books and powerful ideas and momentous happenings.”
The book has attracted some criticism, notably vilifying Bauerlein as an out-of-touch adult who doesn’t accept technology’s rising role in a teen’s life. But Bauerlein says it’s not about the tech itself, but how to use it. In order to clarify his position, and to point out what parents and educators should do about this problem, Bauerlein spoke to from his Atlanta office. You’ve written that the digital revolution is one of the most daunting forces of our time. But you believe kids aren’t taking advantage of the tool available?
Mark Bauerlein: The Internet offers access to miraculous sources of knowledge, art, ideas and so forth. But that’s not what teens are using it for; teens see digital tools as providing them non-stop access to what they care about – each another. They aren’t going to the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They are going to blogs, personal profile pages, chat rooms, game rooms. It’s a nonstop medium of peer pressure.
: Doesn’t the interaction with these websites foster some talents relating to creativity, design and IT?
Bauerlein: I’ve gone on MySpace, looked at these personal pages and seen a tremendous amount of creativity and imagination. It’s quite remarkable. But I see a lot of energy into making these pages that won’t pay off when they go into workplace. Well, maybe in certain artistic and design jobs.
Look at their sentences on these pages, and you realize their work doesn’t make them into better writers. Will their Web design skills help them write 10-page research papers? It’s about the knowledge factor. These kids are motivated but they don’t have book-ish interests, because they have stopped reading books and are not building up historical knowledge and civic awareness. All these Web tools could go toward those goals.
Bauerlein s The Dumbest Generation
Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation
Courtesy Mark Bauerlein It seems one of your pet peeves is American youth not knowing their history.
Bauerlein: Many people now say “Why do I need to learn history when I can call it up on the Net? Why memorize the Gettysburg Address when I can access it quickly through Google?” The Web is making these materials external. There’s no internal memorization, no sense of someone knowing the Address as part of who they are.
Imagine a college kid today going for a job interview at a law firm with three older lawyers in their 40s. The subject of the Cold war comes up and the student doesn’t know anything about it. That’s not going to look good. And that ignorance will show. These kids need to have opinions about world, ranging from the past to foreign affairs to other situations they will come across in their adult life Stephen Johnson’s book Everything Bad is Good For You takes the opposite stance of The Dumbest Generation. Johnson states today’s pop culture – from TV plotlines to immersive video games – actually strengthens someone’s aptitude. Do you agree?
Bauerlein: Johnson is somewhat right. Young kids are more adept in certain superficial ways with technology and artistic forms. When talking about the great complexity of pop culture, here’s big distinction: this kind of sophistication tends to be related to a formal narrative, such as a character in a Simpsons show alluding to something in mass culture only adults under. Or look at plot lines in Seinfeld that circle back. These are forms of irony and parody that are both witty and clever. But I don’t think they account for moral or psychological complexity A lot of older shows, like The Andy Griffith Show, was more morally complex than any Seinfeld episode. An remember Peabody in the Rocky & Bullwinkle series? He goes back in time to talk to Socrates, giving us historical content while also offering a nice dose of irony.
Johnson is OK when he says it makes sense when the increasing visuality of screens and gaming creates higher spatial intelligence. But there are no gains in verbal intelligence. In light of your theory, what kind of world leaders and business managers will the digital generation produce?
Bauerlein: We still have “super-kids”, about 10 per cent of the cohort. They do more than five hours of homework per week, shooting for Ivy League colleges, becoming resume builders essentially. This elite group is where future leaders will come from.
But I worry when you get out of this super group, there is a swift fall into a cohort that doesn’t pay enough attention to news, and doesn’t have enough historical knowledge to hold up our current leaders to higher standards. I think the main reason Obama is popular relates to his cerebral approach to words and how he tries to sustain that in a public setting. Youth find that appealing. So what should be done about this dumbing-down problem? Is it the responsibility of youth, their parents or educators?
Bauerlein: It’s important for students to have various teachers with different ideas of how to bring technology into the classroom. Bringing blogs into the classroom could improve a student’s writing skills but I like playing the role of the contrary curmudgeon. I’d like my students to turn off their cellphone for five hours in the evening and not even be tempted to call someone or text-message. I want them to be more skeptical of their enthusiasm for technology.
It will undoubtedly be a huge challenge for our stewards of knowledge — teachers, educators, ministers, intellectuals — to get young people to allow tech tools to induce their passion for knowledge.
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