The Dumbest Generation – Part 1

Is the Millennial Generation the smartest or dumbest in history?

I recently decided to read Mark Bauerlein‘s “The Dumbest Generation” just to see what the author had to say about the Millennial Generation (born 1982-200?). I certainly don’t conceal the fact that I am a fan of Neil Howe and William Strauss‘ theory about generations, and they have always maintained that the Millennial Generation is one of the smartest to date. So where is Bauerlein coming from in his critique of the generation?

The sound-bite version of the book is that Millennials don’t read books and their knowledge of history and politics is worse than older folks. You can hear Bauerlein talk about this thesis in this ReasonTV episode:

The book, of course, goes much further than just saying they don’t read. And although I have to say that I found some of the arguments compelling (I’ll get to that later) the overall tone of the book is just so, well, Baby Boomer. In my opinion it’s mainly a diatribe against young people who just don’t agree with the Boomer cultural values. Not that Bauerlein is wrong about all his accusations, it’s just the approach is an ideological tirade.

Each chapter of the book follows a fairly standard format: describing the opposing viewpoint in simplistic terms and then tearing down that viewpoint through the use of somewhat flimsy statistics. This “straw man” approach weakens Bauerlein’s points because it comes across as so black and white. As a parent of two children (Millennials) who attend Waldorf Schools I have a bias towards reading and away from digital media. Waldorf education stresses the importance of a well-rounded education with an emphasis on arts, handwork, movement, reading and writing. Waldorf pedagogy states that children should not be exposed to electronic media (computers, television, etc…) until as late as possible, and even then the media use should be restricted. I agree with this philosophy, so one would think that the chapters on the problems with “online learning” would be agreeable. But Bauerlein’s apparent desire to draw the battle lines (“Kids who don’t read are stupid!”) rather than understand the social shifts going on reduced the power of his argument.

Before I get to the portions of the book that I agree with, I want to offer some advice to Mr. Bauerlein. Mr. Bauerlein, if you are reading this post I would suggest you purchase Neil Howe and William Strauss’ book, “The Fourth Turning“. It’s a fairly long and relatively dense text, but it is worth the effort. I know you cited some of Strauss and Howe’s later works in your book, but that book is the one to read to fully understand the shift happening right now and various generations roles in it. Unlike their more recent books on the Millennial Generation (such as “Millennials Rising” which you mention in your book) I think you might find some surprising predictions in the book that would fit more with your ideas than you realize.

One of the things in “The Dumbest Generation” that I agree with is that digital media makes thinking more shallow. As Marshall Macluhan said “The medium is the message” and the digital medium is a particularly flat one. I agree with Bauerlein that much of the excitement about “digital learning” is nothing more than hyperbole from tech enthusiasts.

The book has a lot of points to make, so I am going to split this post up into several chunks. But as Bauerlein says in his book, young people just skim information anyway, so they wouldn’t even read this entire first post. If you were born in 1982 or later (meaning you are a Millennial) leave a comment to prove him wrong…

11 thoughts on “The Dumbest Generation – Part 1”

  1. I am a millenial from Sacramento Waldorf School, and I am commenting for three different reasons. One, it was a homework assignment for the History of Consciousness Main Lesson. Two, I am proving Bauerlein wrong, because I read the entire post. And Three, I actually have something to say that is related to the article.

    I agree with both Bauerlein and Mr. Sohigian that media does affect the way we read and focus. Media, most notably the internet, leads the mind to jump rapidly from one topic to another. It is a change from the past, where one could become completely absorbed in a book, to the point where one's surrounding melted away, to be replaced by the colorful word-landscapes of the book.

  2. (My comment was too long, and had to be split into two comments. This is the second part.)

    I have always been an avid reader, so I do not see this problem in myself. However, I do see it in other millenials. I have noticed an increasing number of individuals who claim to dislike reading, or even to hate it, on the grounds that it is "boring," "too hard," and "takes too long." These self-same individuals, after complaining about the length and content of a book, will then proceed to spend many hours in a row on the internet, doing nothing but flitting from one site to another. First MySpace, then Facebook, maybe on to an online game, a brief glance at Wikipedia, back to Facebook, and so on. If only they knew the joys of reading.

    1. @Heather – Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I am glad to hear you are an avid reader and I do think you stand out from your peers in that regard. Reading a book does use different faculties than reading online where distraction reigns. This is not to say that online reading/browsing has no value, but like all things it should be used in moderation. You give yourself a distinct advantage over your peers by being willing and able to focus on book-length topics.

  3. I have mixed feelings about Waldorf education. While I certainly don't think it is cult-like, it is dogmatic to be sure. Once I was teaching a millennial student jazz piano and, because his parents sent him to a Waldorf school, he was FORBIDDEN to watch very important and inspirational videos of pianists Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson performing. There is nothing harmful in watching them. This is a kind of technological fetishism or essentialism on the part of Waldorf, as if the fact that it a photographed copy of Oscar Peterson makes it harmful that it is not the man in the flesh or concert hall. The medium does matter but then so does content and context. And in the arts, the visual is as valuable and the written. And what of the thousands of works of moving images that are easily comparable to the novels of previous centuries? Any response on this?

  4. i have watched the comments Mark made about my generation saying we dont read and when we do its Harry Potter. He is correct with fact a lot of my generation was reading this but not all. When i was surrounded by my generation in class and they were all reading Harry Potter i was sitting there writing my own novel. I read the classics, 'Jane Eyre, Dracula, Little Women, Pride + Prejudice etc) 19th century goodness, and im a published poet. I dont just read the books i WRITE too. I despise the fact he has placed us in a box that he calls the dumbest. I think ignorence is a sign of idiosy, and he sure is full of that. I like how he calls us the dumbest generation then he states there is a cohort that is getting smarter. lol wtf. I am also a follower of Neil Howe and William Strauss's work. I like how they show we all have a place, we all have our strengths and weaknesses and show what we can contribute to society in a POSITIVE tone rather than negatively and unfairly comparing us to previous generations who are so different to us.

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