Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Dumbest Generation(?)

Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, has written a book entitled, "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future." After TAing for upper-level, writing-intensive college courses and seeing the typewritten swill that is trying to be passed off as prose, I'm concerned that Bauerlein may actually be on to something. I haven't read this book yet, but I think I'm going to. Within the next five years, I'm going to be a college professor, so I guess it's time to figure out what I may be up against. And, according to this guy, we're all part of the dumbest generation, so I'd also like to see what crimes against intellectualism we're taking the rap for.

Here's a list of 8 reasons why people shouldn't "trust anyone under 30" taken from the book.

Which ones do people agree with? Disagree with? Any that he left out? And, is anyone else thinking of reading the book?


Michael B. Luz said...

The bitter intellectual in me is inclined to agree with the premise of this book.
However, this prejudice aside, I think the title should really be extended if it's going to be considered scientifically: "The Dumbest Generation of Middle Class Americans". Valuing education and learnedness in itself is a democratic, middle-class phenomenon that is quickly fading. In older eras, being "learned" was part of who you are or whatever class you were born into, not everyone was learned (or even could be). Often being learned was directly related to theology. And this is still true today. Most of the best schools in the world began or are still of a specific religious affiliation. And, as always, we still have people that couldn't care less (justifiably) what year the Korean War ended or who T.S. Eliot was.
So, to judge this book by its cover, the claim of Bauerlein's book is merely rhetorical provocation at best.
However, If you take his claim seriously, check out Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good For You. I have not read this either, but if we're pitting premise against premise, it seems to be the antithesis to Bauerlein's thesis.

joshua francis said...

I tend to agree with Mike's point that "the claim of Bauerlein's book is merely rhetorical provocation at best."

I'm not sure that I entirely agree that a decline in reading is necessarily a bad thing either. I think you might even be able to make an argument that, in the absence of television and the internet, people used to read only for lack of a better more efficient form of entertainment. The effect this has on writing is negligible considering that the majority of writing an average person has to do only has to be written to the level of their audience. Once they leave the classroom will it really matter all that much that most people coast through life dependent on automatic spelling and grammar checks (even this comment is auto-spell checked).

Saying that clear thought is ridiculed or that Grand Theft Auto is contributing to the intellectual decline is lazy and speculative criticism at best. I'm not saying that he's entirely off base, but these aren't especially interesting or groundbreaking ideas. It was around 200 years ago that Wordsworth lamented that the fast pace and ceaseless technological stimulus of the modern world was lulling our minds into "a state of savage torpor."

The only point I agree with is "Because They're Young." I've been thinking about this a lot recently and firsthand experience and observation have me convinced that people in their twenties (from just about any generation) just aren't very interesting. The situations we're in and the opportunities available are certainly exciting, but for all of the living and ideating* being done by people our age, we just aren't very interesting or substantial people yet; until we age into it, the only thing to do is keep on practicing and pretending.

*ideating isn't recognized as a word by the spell check but is in Merriam Webster's dictionary. I learned it from a TV commercial.

Michael B. Luz said...

If the point of his book is to show that his final reason for not trusting anyone under 30 - "Because They're Young" - is valid, he's either wasting everyone's (including his own) time or he's extremely clever.
As far as the "just aren't very interesting" idea goes - what makes us uninteresting? Does one become interesting as one ages? If so,is this a necessary connection, an empirical fact, a tendency? Are "interesting" and "substantial" really, then, just synonyms for wisdom? I guess really I'm just interested in what would make someone interesting in general. It's easy to say what something (someone) isn't, but it's trickier to say what something is, especially when the tendency of people like us is to disbelieve. If practicing and pretending make one not interesting, must an interesting person become so by reaching a point where he is no longer practicing or pretending? Although I do not outright support him, I would say that Barack Obama is an interesting person. Was he not 15 years ago? I guess another question here would be, "who is we?" Is this a question we can only answer when we are no longer lurking in our aimless 20s? This is all not to discount Josh's claims. I had a similar epiphany while at a gathering recently while talking to some people like me. However, I think what might be at stake is not what makes a person interesting, but what people like us find interesting. I think that's a more interesting question.

dave kutz said...

I agree with some of what both of you are saying. I don't think the drop in reading or the lack of proper spelling is bad in itself. With different media (films / internet) comes both the privilege of a variety of ways to learn and be entertained and also the obligation to understand how to read these different media. Suffice to say, we may not be able to navigate a sonnet as well as older generations but we also don't run away from the screen when we see a train approach on our televisions (as early cinema-goers did). You can hold it against us if we randomly pass on information (as the author suggests is true in some cases) but you can't hold it against us for gravitating toward new media and reading it appropriately. I was intrigued by the point he made about myspace versus wikipedia writing and think it begs a larger question - What place does sincerity have in our generation? Beyond our intellects, where are our hearts/balls? AIM can muddle our communication skills but more importantly the abuse of this kind of technology and the effects of sensory overload can muddle the connection between sincere thought and sincere action. It's again a question of the use of this technology and of adapting to a new environment. Can we handle our respective facebook/myspace profiles and still retain valid and sincere lives? I think we can, but as much as these databases and social networking tools are positive resources, they are also potential traps and drags on any kind of true and fulfilling existence (case in point - I've spent way too much time writing this comment to a post on a blog). And I think there were similar traps in previous generations (in all generations) but of a different and not necessarily technological character.

joshua francis said...

Mike – I think that what makes someone in their twenties uninteresting is the empirical fact that almost all of us are drawing on a very shallow pool of experiences and knowledge. This isn’t to say that someone in their twenties is necessarily boring but that given the very limited scope of their actual experience there is a very fixed level of interest that their lives to this point can inspire (unless you find speculative potential and ambition intriguing). I would argue that yes, a person only becomes interesting when they reach a point where they are no longer practicing or pretending. Going on complete speculation here to answer your question, yes I do think that someone like Barack Obama is probably far more interesting now than he was 15 years ago based almost entirely on expanded perspective and experience. Of course, like any rule, there are exceptions and I would hardly contend that this is a necessary condition.

Who is “we?” For the purpose of this post let’s assume that “we” is the average Dinner on the Molly reader and/or contributor, a college educated adult in their early to mid twenties. I entirely agree that the more interesting question to consider here is not what makes a person interesting but what they find interesting. Look back over the 100+ posts that have gone up since late March and you will find that that is exactly what almost all of them are about. At this point our identities are closely tied to what it is we enjoy and even what passes as “original content’ here typically parrots the style and subject matter of more established thinkers (who of course went through the same process of synthesizing influences in their own youth I’m sure). A blog about peoples' day to day experiences and thoughts written by someone in their twenties just isn’t very interesting unless you are intimately involved with the subject – paging through random blogs and journals has led me to believe that this is indeed an empirical fact.

The entire reason that I find Dinner on the Molly enjoyable to read is that, rather than indulging in the shallow, self-centered analysis that dominates most web content generated by our peers, it focuses on sharing and examining the people, ideas, and products that we find interesting. I would argue that most work generated by people our age (and I fully include myself here) lacks personality and the ideas at the center are too tentative and unformed to hold any long term interest except as a retrospective tool for understanding future developments. I think back to Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a novel written by a grad student about post college life, and his admission in the final lines that the appeal of his glowing memories of the period is contingent upon exaggeration. I think you can argue that people go through a similar process of absorption and exaggeration to start forming a strong personality. If this is true, then the effort put into pursuing and understanding your interests leads directly to the formation of a stronger – and consequently more interesting and engaging – adult personality. If people in their twenties are indeed uninteresting then the best way to become interesting isn’t a passive progression towards wisdom but through actively absorbing if not outright stealing whatever grabs our interest.

Maureen Gillespie said...

I picked up, and I am half-way through, Suze Rotolo's memoir mentioned in Josh's "I'm Not There" post. (I'll write a review when I'm done)

She writes a lot about what is being discussed here. This was a passage that I read on the T this morning that seems to sum up her view of what is now regarded as such an interesting time to be young and in NYC.

"...we reveled in the joy of discovering something we had never heard before. And this wasn't just for music; it was about books and movies, too. We were a young and curious lot, but we all acted cool and hip and knowing."

Michael B. Luz said...

It's nice to see one of us is reading the books we're talking about. It gives me a warm feeling.

Josh - How does the claim that we are uninteresting, insubstantial, and without personality escape the fact that it is coming from someone uninteresting, insubstantial, and without personality? Is it perhaps that humans are dual beings (cogito/persona)? This is a tedious claim. Can we analyze, describe, map, and anticipate without actually being interesting? Or is it just that these aren't interesting analyses? Or is the subject matter inherently uninteresting so any analysis is doomed? This is what, for me, is sickening me about "The Dumbest Generation." We spend so much time thinking and analyzing and worrying about taking a wrong step that we take none at all, unaware that the apparent lack of taking a step, or reserve about stepping, is itself a step. And this is undoubtedly tethered to the idea that we each take only a certain number of steps.

If in our practice and pretense we are able to be spoken of and understood, aren't we interesting? I would say something is interesting if it's worth the time to talk about. Aren't we interesting to ourselves? Isn't that the whole problem? We are so self-interested and at the same time critical, that the felt need to step in a bold new direction is at once trounced by the inner critical eye that dismisses each considered step as unoriginal. I think it's an empirical fact that we take ourselves so seriously that we can't take ourselves seriously. We take the wind out of our own sails before anyone or anything else can. Of course, every Great Artist is a lover and a thief, but what does this effectively have to do with us? Goethe lived in a completely different time. A constant eye (and ear) to the past is valuable, but only if it is supplementary, not constitutive. There has to be a will at work; not something to say, but to do.

As Toni Basil reminds us, Angst and self-glorification-through-abasement is old and boring. Of course, she herself is pretending when she tells us this, which is delicious.

To find ourselves in a seemingly inescapable state of either looking backward or forward, anxiously caught between nostalgia and impotent dreaming, is only a state of mind and does not define us. Does it make us interesting or not? Who am I to say.

joshua francis said...

Mike – my claim that people in their twenties aren’t interesting DOESN’T escape the fact that it’s coming from someone lacking in substance and personality. As such, it is suspect and should be taken with a rather large grain of salt.

Assuming that humans are indeed split into cogito/persona and that the person we think about and the person we appear to be aren’t necessarily the same entity then I think it’s equally reasonable to assume that anybody, regardless of substance (this being an entirely subjective quality) can come up with interesting ideas and do interesting things. If anything, the most fun thing about people our age is our LACK of interesting qualities combined with the compulsion to exhibit some kind of personality even if that personality is being elaborately contrived and assembled on the fly. It seems to me that anyone curious enough to spend any time thinking seriously and critically about themselves must come to the conclusion that being relatively new people there is a limited benefit to be gained from introspection. In lieu of substance, cling to style and hope that in the long run if you try hard enough substance will develop.

I agree that an eye to the past is valuable in a supplementary not constitutive capacity, and think that an eye to our own past (even the recent) almost needs to be heavily critical and willing to be as dismissive as it is nostalgic. In a way it’s liberating to accept that the majority of steps being taken are at least partly the wrong step and that in the absence of certainty there’s nothing wrong with pretending to know what you’re doing and talking about. It’s unfortunate that people let the fear of unoriginality ‘take the wind out of their sails;’ I don’t find anything wrong with being unoriginal as long as someone is being actively, willfully, and enthusiastically unoriginal.

If personality is cumulative, then the only way not to become more interesting as time goes on is to remain static; not pretending and practicing is the only surefire way to really be boring. Ultimately, deciding where or when a person becomes interesting depends entirely on whether you are more intrigued by the process or the end result of something. I can only assume that in retrospect this opinion, like others I’ve held, will seem incomplete if not outright wrong in light of expanded experience and perspective, but, nothing ventured nothing gained.

Tyler James said...

Mike -

I have read "Everything Bad is Good For You" and its basic premise was that because of the complexity of the entertainment that we have today (RP video games, multi-layered crime shows) that we are more complex individuals. What Johnson fails to report is anything that we keep ourselves occupied with that is out of the realm of "entertainment."

Its also a thing I have been thinking about lately. Maybe it is a unique case, but both of my parents take immense pride in their kids being able to be entertained 24-7. They have worked incredibly hard to afford my little brother the ability to play XBox all the time -- and have only passing caution about limiting it.

But Bauersteins reasons are similarly half-baked:

'On MySpace, if you write clearly and compose coherent paragraphs with informed observations on history and current events, 'buddies' will make fun of you,'' Bauerlein says.'

I'm on myspace, as is Dave, Jess, Mike...etc., and I view it as a perfectly valid form of communication, albeit in a short anecdotal way.

It is an easy argument to get behind, and it is certainly something that we all think from time to time, but I think this thread stands in opposition of the theory that all 20-somethings are slacker gamers.

Michael B. Luz said...

"An eye to our own past (even the recent) almost needs to be heavily critical and willing to be as dismissive as it is nostalgic." This is completely accurate. Willing is the key word.

"I don’t find anything wrong with being unoriginal as long as someone is being actively, willfully, and enthusiastically unoriginal." An excellent point that I tend at this age to agree with.

The defining characteristic, I think, of "we" is an intuitive grasp of subjective irony, which this exchange has, I hope, made evident. Here's to being interestingly uninteresting!

Jess said...

Revisiting an old book, I came across a quote that I thought pertained to the idea of becoming as well as coming to a point where we "recognize" who we "truly" are: "Sometimes I have the impression that the moment we discover something new about a person it stops being true." ("The Left Handed Woman" by Peter Handke)