On Mark Bauerlein's "The Dumbest Generation" and Teaching to the Intellectually Challenged

So this little gem is priceless, coming from one of our last somewhat-intellectual news outlets, The New York Times: a media writer describing how he doesn’t read anymore, and seems happy (or Post-Shame, at least) to do nothing but watch TV his whole life, here. I read that with some dismay, sure, because as a writer I like to believe that we enjoy reading books, real books, right? Maybe not. As far as I can tell, actual book-reading is quickly becoming a thing of the past. I recently read (yes, a confession of sorts: I wasn’t watching Breaking Bad or True Detective when I read it) Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) and found it at least halfway convincing.
I wouldn’t have read it if not for noticing a downward spiral in my university classes that seems to have developed over the last few years. Now I’ll insert an (obvious) disclaimer: Yes, each class is different. Each semester is different. Some classes are blessed with terrific students, some with slackers. That’s the way it goes. I imagine most professors navigate the ups and downs. A good idea: Don’t freak out when one class seems weaker than another. Do your best and move on.
But when there’s a trend, why not acknowledge it? I don’t want to contribute to some kind of dumbass cover-up. In one class yesterday no student seemed to know (maybe they did and are just too shy/inarticulate to speak, which is another problem) the definition of the word “allusion.” Is that a “hard” word? A “big” word? I really don’t know anymore. The vocabulary list many of my students would stumble through is hardly GRE prep. At the beginning of each term I ask students who are some of their favorite writers, and the last few years a typical (again, we’re Post-Shame here) response has been, “I don’t really have any favorites. I don’t read that much.” Keep in mind these are writing classes. A drunken techie in Austin a few weeks back tried to convince me that people don’t need to read (or know) anything anymore, they can just be “creative” with all the technology out there. It’s a nice thought, I’m sure, but also so dim-witted it’s laughable.
Now as far as The Dumbest Generation goes, it’s a book of hits and misses. The title is too harsh and too slanted for the more nuanced and complex arguments he offers. He actually begins by praising the overachievers, then turns his attention to the underachievers. Personally, I think we’re all getting entertained to death. Death or stupidity, whichever comes first. (Guess.) But then again, a writer friend labeled me a Luddite for not spending my life on Facebook, bless her heart. I think I’m doomed (or fated) to be the digital-age contrarian, but I’m sure I’m not alone in this role. Gadgets are cool, sure. I just don’t think we should spend all our time on them. And let them make us stupid. For instance, I think we should invent a verb (Hello, People at UrbanDictionary.com? Here’s a task for you) to describe when your friends try to “teach” you something simple on your (or his/her) iphone, like using Google maps. This happened to me recently. Friends were shocked that I actually wanted them to just tell me the directions, and that I’d simply remember them. (A brain is a terrible thing to waste.) So then I had three (semi-drunk: notice a theme here?) friends poking their iphones, showing me that extremely complicated “skill” of using the map app, even though I told them I knew how to do it: Yes, you simply put in the address of where you want to go, hit return, right? What’s to learn about that? “What’s that? Did you miss the latest episode of The Walking Dead? Jeez, you’re so out of it!”

This entry was posted in Bad TV, books/film, Cormac McCarthy, The West, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *