The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future
By Mark Bauerlein
(New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin Books,  2009)
Book Review by Lee Duigon
The evidence put forth by the author of this book—hundreds of studies, focused on tens of thousands of high school and college students—is well-nigh overwhelming. In fact, his proofs are so strong, so comprehensive, as to leave no room for doubt. How he packed it all into one book is beyond me.
A single book review can’t possibly cover all this ground, so it will have to suffice just to restate the author’s major points and hope you’ll be moved to read the book yourself.
Because they are very important points indeed.
Creating a Bubble
First, what has long been the central lesson taught and learned, not always purposely, in public schools?
That the student’s age-group peers, his friends and fellow students, are the most important people in his life, and winning their approval, mostly by practicing conformity, his chief concern (Preface, Introduction, and Chapter 1).
Now, largely thanks to social media, smartphones, and other digital gadgets, young people live more and more in their own self-created bubbles, cut off from everyone and everything but each other and their social media, chat, and gaming sites. Instead of looking outward, they turn increasingly inward—narrowing, not widening, their world.
Second, those who shower the most praise on “educational electronics” are also selling these devices and their software. Of course they’re going to trumpet the virtues of their product. Yes, these gadgets are going to make their users smarter, more eager to learn, more aware of the world around them, etc., etc. It’s all sales talk. We should be able to see that, yet we don’t. We’re too busy buying up all the gizmos we can get. Some schools have even dropped academic programs so they can use the money for more computers.
Third, “educators” augment the sales pitch by pointing to their best and brightest students as examples of what “educational electronics” can do—ignoring the likelihood that these would still be the best and brightest students even if the schools had no digital gimcracks at all. Worse, they ignore the vast majority of kids who aren’t getting any smarter—who, it can be shown, are getting … dumber.
Fourth, when I was in college in the 1960s, many of the professors praised their students to the skies—the smartest ever, the hope of America, the freest and most “moral” generation ever, and so on. I put it down to manipulation: getting the students, by incessantly stroking their egos, to align with the professors’ politics. You didn’t get that praise if you didn’t agree with the politics.
The manipulation is still there, and always will be, but now it’s worse. They’re still praising the students … but now they believe it (Chapter 5, “The Betrayal of the Mentors”). They abdicate their leadership and curry favor with the students—because they believe the digital kids are smarter than their teachers.
Oh, they’ll still say that a conservative student, if they can find one, is hopelessly benighted, an enemy of social justice. Nothing will pry them from their habitual leftism. But with most of their students they try to find a mutual admiration society.
Fifth, a scientific study of reading has shown that most users, when reading from a computer screen, only “read” a small part of what is actually there. The more information on the screen, the more they miss. It’s just too easy to skim lightly over the lines of print and keep on scrolling down.
The ease with which the reader can flit from site to site fosters a short attention span. If they aren’t hooked right away, they just move on. Comprehension and retention are reduced.
Sixth—and this should come as no surprise—online learning takes a distant back seat to online gaming, constantly chatting with and messaging to their peers, noodling around YouTube for funny videos: very little learning actually goes on.
The students are not using the technology to learn. They use it mostly for entertainment and socializing. You’d think anyone who’s ever been a teacher would expect that; but it’s just another issue that’s been ignored by “educators.”
In Praise of Twaddle
In the process of all this, the digital dummies aren’t learning and their teachers aren’t teaching. Instead, we get twaddle like this: “It’s possible to acquire a deep understanding of history without acquiring historical facts” (pp. 27-28). It’s a celebration of ignorance.
A number of studies show that as many as half our country’s students will never read a book again, once their formal education is completed. We are left to wonder how many books they actually read while they were in high school and college. I have heard more than a few young adults, and some not so young, say, “I never read.” Bauerlein calls this not “illiteracy”—because most of them can read, if they have to—but “aliteracy,” a conscious decision not to read. Some, he says, take pride in this.
No, they aren’t getting better-educated. History, civics, literature, geography, art, music appreciation—these all get very short shrift as both students and teachers embrace their ignorance.
Imagine not reading, being cut off from the collective experience of all mankind—all the insights, all the questions, speculations, and debate: and virtually no contact with any minds greater than one’s equally ignorant peers in chat rooms.
And if you don’t read anything else, you probably aren’t going to read the Bible, either—nor any of the multitude of Bible study aids available online.
Bauerlein doesn’t discuss the shortfall in religious education. When I was a boy, the Catholic and Jewish kids got time off school for religious instruction. I used to marvel at my Jewish classmates’ textbooks in Hebrew, and my Catholic friends used to discuss their religious instruction lessons with us Protestants. It’s hard to imagine anything like that happening today.
How are citizens to cast knowledgeable, conscientious votes for candidates and public policies when they don’t know anything? This is how our crippled education system, in Bauerlein’s words, “jeopardizes our future.”
And I fear we’re running out of time to change course.
Homeschooling and Christian schooling are needed now more than ever. If you take away just one lesson from this book, that’s the lesson we need.