I just finished a book by an author not so enamored with the effects of technology on the “net generation.” Entitled, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, (Penguin, 2008), it mounts massive data from various surveys and organizations to argue that, for all their tech savviness, most young people use the internet for entertainment and social networking and not for (the author’s main concern) “expanding knowledge.” Hence, the claims made for the educational benefit of the internet are badly exaggerated, even dishonest.
Mark Bauerlein, the author, is not “anti-young.” He acknowledges regularly throughout the book how curmudgeonly he sounds, but his point is not to run down young people. It is, rather, to sound the alarm about the myth-making by educators about the educational benefits of various forms of computer and internet-based entertainment. Worse, he’s concerned about the way some of these educators are talking about plain, old fashioned paper-based books, as if we don’t need them any more.
Perhaps the most damming chapter is “The Betrayal of t he Mentors.” Here he uses the term “Twixters” to refer basically to the same age period that Jeffrey Arnett calls “emerging adulthood.” Bauerlein mentions an article from Time magazine (24 January 2005) that describes this demographic category: “22 to 30 years old, have a college degree or substantial college coursework; come from middle-class families and reside in cities and large urban centers.”
There’s the demographic. Now the problem. Bauerlein continues: “What makes Twixters different from other people with the same demographics from the past is the lifestyle they pursue after college. [ ] Instead of seeking out jobs or graduate studies…they pass through a series of service jobs as waiters, clerks, nannies and assistants. Instead of moving into a place of their own…they move back home with their parents or into a house or large apartment with several Twixter peers. Instead of forming a long-term relationship to marriage, they engage in serial dating. [ ] They have achieved little but feel good about themselves,” (170).
And the betrayal of the mentors? Here we turn to Bauerlein’s deep concern: teachers who jump on the bandwagon of disdain with their own toward books and more traditional forms of learning. Bauerlein again: “In casting Twixter lifestyle as genuine exploration and struggle, neither the author nor the researchers nor the Twixters themselves whisper a single word about intellectual labor. Not one of the Twixters or youth observers mentions an idea that stirs them, a book that influenced them, a class that inspired them, or a mentor who guides them,” (172).
I still don’t know what I think about this book, but I’m inclined to share Bauerlein’s concern. As he says, there is no question that this generation is bright and full of talent. But they seem more achievement-driven than thoughtful and they’re (generally) impatient with intellectual struggle. And the thoughtful ones turn too easily to dismissive sarcasm for ideas that don’t seem immediately to match their beliefs.
The internet isn’t going away. We need to learn how to use it educationally, with good means of assessing learning without buying the hype of vendors. At the same time, I’m solicitous for the leisure of slow, thoughtful reflection, for young people. How else will they become wise?