Last March, I was involved in the planning of a musical event on our campus to mark the UN Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. We had lined up some students to do the introductions to the day’s performances. A few minutes before showtime, I handed one of the volunteers the text on the background for the day he was to incorporate into his intro. He quickly reviewed it aloud and stopped at the word “apartheid”, stared at it for a moment, and asked, “How do I pronounce this word?” I told him and he dutifully practiced it a couple of times, as if it were his first encounter with the term.
I had a “How can this be?” moment but quickly wrote it off to a range of possible reasonable explanations: a learning disability, nerves, familiarity with the concept but just not the word in written form. He executed his duties smoothly and I applauded his commitment to the issues.
But perhaps I was witnessing part of what author Mark Bauerlein describes as a generational cocoon. “The insulated mindset of individuals who know precious little history and civics and never read a book or visit a museum is fast-becoming a common, shame-free condition,” writes the Emory University English professor in his provocatively titled “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.” Considering South African apartheid ended when this was student was a toddler, is it possible he had never exposed himself to that piece world history?
Quite possible, according to Bauerlein, whose central claim is that the promise of the information age has failed us. The “peurile banter” of the digital natives — those born and raised with technology at their disposal — has given us an intellectually-stunted generation that eschews books, has a limited vocabulary, and an even more limited attention span.
All well-intentioned student affairs professionals have learned to treat generational literature with caution for three reasons: (1) It is almost always American, (2) it rarely takes into account any racial or cultural diversity or the effects of migration and (3) it doesn’t really help us do our jobs any better. In a profession that tries to value every student for who they are and where they’re at, generalizations too often lead to assumptions.
That said, we also tend to seek out explanations for our daily experiences. And if you’ve ever met a student who doesn’t read books, doesn’t vote, or can’t engage in a conversation with you about anything other than pop culture, you might find your explanation in Bauerlein’s thesis. He digs up scores and scores of studies and evidence to back up his claim that today’s youth, despite more wealth, education and access to information than any generation before, are also the most self-absorbed and disengaged.
As I closed the cover on the last pages of The Dumbest Generation, I thought I’d get a second opinion. I entered the room where my 16-year-old son sat parked, as he is most often, in front of the computer. “Is the internet making you dumber or smarter?” I asked. He stared at me, slack-jawed. “I dunno,” he said. I think I got my answer.
Next up on my reading list, in stark contrast to Bauerlein, Don Tapscott’s brand new book Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, which I suspect will offer a much more positive outlook on the promise of the next generation.
— Deanne Fisher