Have We Raised the ‘Dumbest Generation’? (An Author Q&A)

After two years filled with remote learning, many of us wonder about what an increasingly online world may mean for kids. Well, in a new book, author Mark Bauerlein, who in 2008’s The Dumbest Generation lamented the “stupefying” impact of the digital age, argues that young adults have suffered significant consequences from ubiquitous technology. In his new book, The Dumbest Generation Grows Up, Bauerlein, a senior editor at First Things and an English professor at Emory University, makes the case about the long-lasting psychological and intellectual effect of growing up digital. Given the timeliness and the provocative title, I was interested in hearing what he had to say.

— Rick

Rick: So, Mark, what’s the big picture?

Mark: Back in 2008, when I wrote The Dumbest Generation, the word on millennials was a big cheer. Web 2.0 was racing ahead, and teens were praised as the digital natives, early adopters leading America into a superconnected 21st century. One book had the title Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. My response: “No! This is awful!” In my book, I wrote about how 250 selfies and 4,000 texts per month were a disasterwhich brought charges of “old fogey, Luddite, curmudgeon” from educators and digiphiles at the many lectures I gave in the months following my book release. Fifteen years later, millennial glow is no more. The consequences of letting them close their books, cut off the elders, and dive into screens in their teens are all too clear as they hit their 30s: a generation increasingly nonreligious, unpatriotic, bouncing from job to job, uninterested in marriage and kids, unhappy.

Rick: Can you say a bit more about why you think technology has harmed children and young adults?

Mark: The tools put them in a bubble of adolescence, alone in the bedroom texting and chatting, viewing and gaming, filming and talking with one another. “What have we done to them?” I ask in the first sentence of the new book. The screens we handed them didn’t provide equipment to manage ordinary woes of adulthood. They didn’t get a humanities formation that would make them feel they live in a wondrous stream of civilization, an inheritance of masterpieces, heroes and villains of epic stature, visions of transcendence, a great country, momentous events, heights of eloquence, . . . and that left them rootless and bitter and fragile, searching for purpose and meaning in the screen and in extreme ideological movements. Oh yes, the supervisors of the young failed them and damaged them, and our 30-year-old doesn’t know what to do. He has five hours of leisure time per day and he devotes seven minutes to reading.

Rick: This is obviously a passionate critique. For those who are skeptical, what’s some evidence that things are as bad as you say?

Mark: SAT writing scores dropped 15 points from 2006 to 2016, when SAT scrapped the writing requirement. ACT college readiness in reading dropped 8 points from 2009 to 2019. Majors in the humanities in higher ed. have plummeted. I wish knowledge levels were high, but NAEP U.S. history and ACT science scores aren’t reflecting that. I wish emotional and mental well-being were indicating some improvement, but depression, anxiety, narcissism, and suicide are up, while job satisfaction and optimism are down. One-third of millennial males will never have married by age 40. They are more intolerant and mistrustful than older Americans, too, and they have a vindictive outlook. When they see a microaggression, they want the culprit to pay dearly. This is the source of the cancel culture they favor.

Rick: In your new book, you talk about youth becoming “dangerous adults.” What do you mean by this?

Mark: When a person is happy to sign a petition with 2,000 others to get a stranger fired for telling a dumb racial joke on social media; when students demand that a question be added to course evaluations asking whether the teacher committed any microaggressions during the semester; when the election of Donald Trump inspires outright trauma among young Dems; when young editors in tears demand Jordan Peterson’s latest book be canceled . . . we are in the realm of danger.

Rick: You argue that technology is a big driver for the shifts that concern you. But how you do you think about unpacking the impact of technology from other social, cultural, and political changes?

Mark: The thing I focus on is how ubiquitous screens drew millennials away from, in a word, civilization. The 2008 crash was bad — and a little knowledge of the Depression would give perspective. Trump’s triumph was debilitating — and knowing of the shock in 1901 of Teddy Roosevelt taking charge would have done the same. They nurse socialist dreams — and a little Orwell and Hayek would temper those fantasies. That’s what civilization endows: a steadying force against the pressures of the moment. The iPhone only aggravated those pressures.

Rick: OK, so for readers persuaded by your critique, what are one or two things you’d urge schools and educators to do?

Mark: Boost literary curriculum. Why are the young so fractious and reactive? Because they haven’t read enough novels, performed in plays, and memorized poems. Recitation and performance get them out of their heads, force them to use better words and assume other personalities. Novels make them consider motive and imagine feelings they don’t have themselves, which builds cognitive empathy. Yes, more literary education, make them become for a moment Lady Macbeth, Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, and Jay Gatsby. That’s a very healthy thing for an adolescent to do. The phone pushes the opposite, turning what should be a time of expansion into contraction, a “Daily Me,” as it used to be called, that only promotes narcissism, and we know how Narcissus ended.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.