Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Review: The Dumbest Generation

The basic thesis of The Dumbest Generation is spelled out in its subtitle: “How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.” Mark Bauerlein’s argument is that the under-30 generation (sometimes called the “Millennials”) have more information and technology at their fingertips than any other generation in history, but ironically this digital revolution has contracted rather than expanded their knowledge.

Why is this the case? Part of it according to Bauerlein is the intrinsic nature of digital media. The under-30s rarely read books (Bauerlein calls them “bibliophobes”). Instead, they prefer the computer screen. While in theory lots of reading could be done on the web, the fact is that the inherent design of web pages discourages deep and thoughtful reading. As Nielsen Norman (an expert in web page development) said in response to a question on how web users read, “They don’t” (p. 143).

As a result, the under-30 generation lags behind other nations in intellectual development. Almost a quarter of them need remedial reading and writing classes once they reach college, and even the National Association of Manufacturers complains that one of its major problems is finding workers with adequate reading comprehension skills (p. 63). Under-30 kids rank poorly in comparison to kids in other industrial countries in math (although they rank far ahead in how good they think they are!), indicating that we are setting this generation up for demoralizing failure – convincing them they are much better prepared for college and work than they really are (pp. 192-195).

Another major factor in the stunted intellectual development of the millennials is the “peer absorption” texting, instant messaging, and social networking foster (p. 133). Previous generations of kids were just as concerned about their peers, but once they got home from school, they were no longer immersed in the world of their peers, aside from talking on a landline. But the under-30s can remain in constant contact with peers by virtue of texting, cell phones, instant messaging, and the web. Thus a millennial can remain in a cocoon of teenage culture.

As a result, under-30 kids are deprived of a vital component of the transition from adolescence to adulthood – the vertical modeling of older, more mature mentors like parents, teachers, employers, ministers, and so on (pp. 136). This vertical modeling enables teens to see what the real world is like, and reinforces how trivial so many of the concerns of their own peer group is contrast to the authentic issues of life. Even worse, the digital technology allows teens to construct a “reflexive surrounding” of blogs, games, videos, music, messages that “mirror their woes and fantasies” rather than challenging them to move beyond the limited horizon of their friends to experience adult realities (pp. 137-138).

Bauerlein’s concerns are for the future of American democracy. How can we survive without a well-informed electorate that can reason and debate the great issues? But as I read this book I could not help but fear for the future of God’s people in our culture. After all, the Bible is a book – and if the millennials are uninterested in books and therefore becoming incapable of the deep and reflective focus needed to understand the Scriptures.

Here is what I often see. I see families who use DVD players to babysit their kids or to pacify them in trips in the van, completely missing out on the opportunity for cross-generational interaction. I remember road trips when I was a little boy (partly because I often got carsick!), but mainly because I remember how much fun it was to listen to Mom and Granny and Pop (and later, to argue with them about things like politics!). Once kids outgrow watching DVDs they have iPods and handheld video games to occupy them, and when they are older cellphones with unlimited texting. For some kids, even the short 20 minute drive to church is impossible to survive without being plugged into the lives of their peers at every moment.

So is it any wonder that we have a generation of kids that knows each other’s list of “25 unusual facts about me,” but does not know the most basic facts about Jesus. Kids who are lagging in spiritual maturity because it is rare for an older mentor to penetrate the bubble of peer consciousness and help them grow wiser than their years. And kids who are so used to creating a digital environment tailored to their likes and interests that they resist doing anything they don’t find fun or interesting.

The other day I was talking with one of my friends who is around 30, and I made the comment that the push for gay marriage is a clear example of the generation gap. My point was that people my age and older listen to the arguments for gay marriage, and our response is very simple – if no culture in human history (included the cultures that openly tolerated homosexuality) ever thought it was a good idea to define marriage as between a man and man or woman and woman, why should we suddenly redefine marriage now? But the problem is that a generation submerged in itself is “disassociated from tradition, with nobody telling them that sometimes they must mute the voices inside them and heed instead the voices of distant greatness” (p. 190).

This review probably makes me sound like an old fogey! But my thoughts – like this book – are prompted by nothing but love and concern for my friends under 30. This is not an issue of innate intelligence (in fact, the IQ scores of kids continue to rise). It is the frustration at seeing so much potential for good squandered. And so, I urge all of you who are above 30 to embrace the role of curmudgeon, to challenge, prod, provoke the kids you have contact with. If you are a parent, restrict their access to the digital wasteland. And to whatever extent you have influence, help them be ready for the day to come when it is time to “put away childish things.”

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