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…