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Scolds in the Agora

The Dumbest Generation:
How the Digital Age Stupefies our Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future

by Mark Bauerlein
Tarcher/Penguin, 2008

Just How Stupid Are We?
Facing the Truth About the American Voter

by Richard Shenkman
Basic Books, 2008

In 1923, a man named Earl Hudelson published a book for the National Society for the Study of Education entitled English Composition: Its Aims, Methods, and Measurement. Upset about the lack of uniform standards used to judge the writing of high school students, he developed a rating scale for essays written in response to short prompts.

The sample essays he published, cited by the writing teacher and scholar David Bartholomae, make for fascinating reading. Here is an essay written in 15 minutes on the topic of “How I Learned a Lesson” that fell to the bottom of Hudelson’s scale:

When I chewed tobacco and they found it owt they whipped me for about fifteen minutes with pop bush. They broke ten switches out on me. but I kept on chewing. They found it out and my papa and Mamma whipped me for abowt twenty minutes and learned me a lesson.

So much for the lost golden age of grammar instruction. Here is the last paragraph of a much longer essay about a visit to the homes of poor students that ranked at the top. Eighty-some years later the style, with its fake self-criticism, self-conscious metaphors, and overly dramatic epiphany, is unmistakably that of the A student well-versed in what he or she thinks the teacher wants to hear:

On our way home Miss Marxon was strangely silent, and, child that I was, tears stood in my eyes. I had heard ‘the still sad music of humanity,’ and it had given me a new understanding. Never again did I feel haughtily towards those children; and all through life that experience has modified my judgment of human conduct.

As Bartholomae argues, the value a teacher would likely assign this essay reflects judgments far beyond the grammatical: the teacher and the system she represents value “lessons learned from sympathetic participation in the lives of others (like the poor) more than [they do] lessons learned from experiences of overeating [the topic of another low-rated essay] or of being beaten.” Today of course, no mere visit to the wrong side of the tracks would do: the essay writer would have to spend the summer in a refugee camp to make the common application personal statement really sing.

Of course, the difficulty of such assessments, and the ways they inevitably mix questions of ability, engagement and the values of the assessors, has never stopped polemicists from wholesale proclamations about the relative intellectual merits of millions of people. Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies our Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future is the latest entry in the seemingly endless parade of jeremiads about what young Americans don’t know. The genre is especially familiar to educators: from the Cold War-driven panic over science education in the wake of Sputnik to the 1983 Nation at Risk report to the standardized test results that have become a staple of the Metro section in the era since No Child Left Behind, those looking for lamentable statistics and anecdotes have never been at a loss. (The NCLB Act, passed by Congress in 2001 with overwhelming support from both parties and signed into law in 2002, may well stand as the most concrete legacy of President Bush’s foray into domestic social policy prior to his administration’s turn to a steady diet of war. The act mandated state-created assessments for public school students in reading and math; standardized testing became ubiquitous as the least expensive way to create these assessments. Public schools failing to show improvement in test scores risked a loss of funding. While much has been written about the way the law encouraged schools to teach to the test and game the numbers when necessary, there has been less recognition of the law as a political move – one made to deflect any call for more equitable systems of school funding. Although Bauerlein mentions the act in passing, his polemic framework doesn’t allow an analysis of how what actually goes on in classrooms may have affected the kids he’s writing about.)

Polemics like Bauerlein’s flourish in a political climate that gives schools the impossible task of compensating for overwhelming and growing inequality. Education policies direct resources in such a way as to increase that inequality, and then turn around and use the unequal results of schooling as a justification for why those at the top have achieved their status through merit. Bauerlein at least takes a somewhat different tack: rather than kicking those at the bottom, he argues that affluent and outwardly successful students are overwhelmingly ignorant and, worse, content with their ignorance. As for the widespread concerns about stressed-out, medicated fast-track students, Bauerlein isn’t buying it: it’s the relaxed, seemingly happy ones that have him worried. As a result, while he arrays a good deal of compelling data, his argument, under the guise of telling uncomfortable truths, is fundamentally a moralistic one. More accurately, like the essay writer’s position that one shouldn’t look down on the poor, it’s barely an argument at all.

His provocative title aside, Bauerlein, an English professor who worked at the National Endowment for the Arts when it released its 2004 Reading at Risk report, isn’t actually talking about intelligence. In an interview with the Minnesota Review, he notes, “Kids are just as smart as they were before; it’s not an intelligence decline.” Upset by the claims surrounding the cognitive and pedagogical benefits of new technologies, which have obviously been put forth with more than their share of hype, he pulls together some striking information. With regard to the use of technology in education in particular, he synthesizes a range of evidence that shows that too many schools, under political pressure to not fall behind, have thrown money into computers with little concern for the results, and he makes a persuasive case that technology has changed reading habits in ways we have yet to understand. Some of the data he reports, such as the National Survey of Student Engagement, which uses such unconventional measures as how often students discuss course ideas with faculty outside class, deserve wider attention from educators.

But whenever Bauerlien turns from debunking to analysis, things quickly get strange. He laments the loss of a reading culture but suggests that the Harry Potter craze doesn’t count as a sign of that culture’s vitality because it was a primarily social phenomenon. To bolster the argument that young people have plenty of time and money to pursue intellectual endeavors, he cites the amount of credit card debt they’ve rung up. He takes it as self-evident that technologies that allow new forms of communication between teenagers are a negative development on the evidence of a few instant messages. Yet this ignores the wider implications of specific ways such tools might be used, such as the enormous and life-saving benefits to gay teenagers isolated in their schools, which Jennifer Egan documented in The New York Times. Most importantly, he rejects any discussion of context that is not technological to explain why young people make the decisions that they do.

When Bauerlein really gets going, we move from the strange to the purple: discussing the results of the National Survey of Student Engagement, he laments “Compare their attitude with that of young Frederick Douglass.” For good measure, we get citations from John Stuart Mill, Whitman and DuBois about their early reading. Shockingly, the kids look shabby next to this crew. He strolls around a mall and despairs:

Three doors away, Abercrombie & Fitch lures young shoppers with a 10-by-12 foot black-and-white photo of a shirtless male seen from the rear, his jeans sliding down his hips as he peers into a turbulent sky. Two floors below, the music/video shop f.y.e. stocks compact discs and movies in the standard layout, and a single bored employee nods behind the cash register. Farther down, the theaters have closed, but in the food court diners gobble pizza and cashew chicken while watching Entertainment Tonight on eight plasma screens hanging from the ceiling.

The Apple store particularly upsets him, leading him to conclude that “To replace the book with the screen is to remove a 2,500-year-old cornerstone of civilization and insert an altogether dissimilar building block” – as if mass literacy were not a relatively recent phenomenon. Can “the sad still music of humanity” be far behind?

Bauerlein likely intends passages like this one as a bit of narrative color and perhaps it’s unfair to judge his argument on their basis. But anyone who evaluates the intelligence of a group and then expresses his aesthetic and moral distaste for that group is on shaky ground. The thing that really seems to upset Bauerlein is not kids stuck in bad schools or our outrageous dropout rate, but that the well-credentialed might be able to succeed despite their lack of intellectual curiosity. Most teachers and other bookish types are likely to sympathize. The problem is that to explain this phenomenon is to acknowledge the limits of meritocracy. That would mean dealing with the economic and political issues he wants to sidestep, and it would also mean defeating the pragmatic argument he wants intellectuals to make about their own worth in the public sphere and through organizations like the NEA. So instead of analysis, we get invective, all of which leads to his final chapters where, right on schedule, the real villains make their appearance.

But you probably already knew where this was going. Facebook gets plenty of ink, but there’s only so much decline one can lay at the feet of the folks who allow you to get back in touch with your junior high band mates and lose to them at Scrabble. Better to stick with the classics: liberal professors, and, of course, that decade. We get a condemnation of a documentary about a successful program promoting art in schools because one of the mentors said that he didn’t want to be Rembrandt, and we get a long discussion of a 1968 Atlantic Monthly article by Richard Poirier, a renowned English professor who defamed those hallowed pages with a defense of student radicalism and an indictment of the liberal high-handedness of the professoriate. What the grave sin of suggesting that indecorous anger might be a justified response to an unjust war has to do with the plague of MySpace – or how this loss of authority led to lowered reading rates forty years later – is beside the point. His real concern is that the guardians of tradition – people like him – have lost their authority:

The radical youth argument did its work all too well. From the 1960s to the 1980s, with movies, music television and fashion drifting steadily down the age ladder, the college campus stood as one of the last ties to tradition, where canonical knowledge prevailed over youth concerns. . . And once a distinguished scholar writing in an eminent intellectual magazine interpreted the presiding civilization as a factitious social fabric accountable to the disordered, exigent scrutiny of teenagers, lesser academics could hardly hold back.

Bauerlein’s purpose is to shore up the moral and cultural authority of “the custodians of culture, the people who serve as stewards of civilization and mentors to the next generation…[who] maintain the pathways into knowledge and taste” – an exercise that is supposed to somehow result in popular support for these elites and their goals. Of course, the actual elite has been doing just fine during this period, but this new elite is too culturally crude for Bauerlein’s taste. He longs for the days of Alcove 1 and regrets the “premature polarization” of today’s College Republicans: “I urge them to read John Dewey’s Democracy and Education and the opening chapters in Marx’s Capital on ‘commodity fetishism.’ But I don’t know how many comply.” One could certainly hazard a reasonable guess.

By contrast, Richard Shenkman, a journalist as well as an historian and the creator of the influential History News Network website, presents an actual argument in response to a real and pressing question: doesn’t the public bear some responsibility for the horrors of the Bush years? In Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, he’s concerned with actual ideas rather than simply genuflecting before the idea of ideas. Unlike Bauerlein’s Republicans, Shenkman has read his Dewey, along with his Walter Lippmann, and their fear of the public’s susceptibility to demagogues and the temptations of mass culture serves as his touchstone. Lippmann especially provides a useful reminder that, despite thirty or more years of conservative rhetoric about a liberal elite, suspicion of the people has long been at the core of American conservatism. He quotes the late William Buckley in his highest-Buckley fashion: “The commitment by liberals to democracy has proved obsessive, even fetishistic.” Such sentiments have waned, Shenkman argues, largely because too many people were voting for Republicans; they start poking up whenever significant numbers fail to do so. Meanwhile, he suggests, the worries of liberals like Dewey have also been swept under the rug, as liberals’ core beliefs prevented them from faulting the public even when it rejected their ideas. Thus Shenkman notes what many accounts of liberalism’s woes have skirted: that they were punished for doing the right thing on Civil Rights and women’s rights. Moreover, Shenkman makes a convincing case that the old party machines and union officials played an important role as popular political educators, something the consultants, pollsters, and television personalities that have replaced them have neither the time nor inclination to do.

Yet when Shenkman considers actual people and their motivations, his analysis falters. At times he’s hemmed in by broad and sloppy writing that relies on the same media shortcuts he decries, such as a reference to “Howard ‘I Have a Scream Speech’ Dean.” Like Bauerlein, he’s dependent on the results of surveys and polls, the same tools he denounces as driving the stupidity of political discourse. Moreover, his account of the Bush era is familiar but partial: swayed by fear and patriotism, the public was easily deceived and compliant, driving Shenkman towards the same frustrated overstatements and nostalgia as Bauerlein:

I myself am ready to declare a war on slogans, using “War on Slogans” as my slogan. I want the last slogan anybody ever uses to be my war on slogans. If we must have them, and I suppose we must, can we please stop slapping them on battleships and presidential sets? It is hard to remember now, but there was once a quaint time when presidents stood before empty backdrops and spoke to us, just plain damn spoke to us, without the help of a sea of helpful slogans behind them, in front of them, and to the side of them.

From his account of the lead-up to the Iraq War, we’d never know about the unprecedented mass demonstrations that took place in spite of that climate, and that throughout the war the public has been consistently more skeptical than either the media or their elected officials, only to have their views dismissed as marginal. Yet Shenkman is unimpressed with the argument that many choose to be ignorant of politics because they feel powerless or removed from it.

Like Bauerlein, Shenkman, despite paying homage to knowledge, writes about it as if it were a neutral commodity. For example, he cites the work of Bryan Caplan, who has written that voters misjudge economic matters because of their ignorance: for example, they have an irrational focus on employment versus an economist’s rational focus on productivity. What’s missing here, and throughout the book, is any sense that democracy might be a struggle between competing interests, not just competing ideas. Bauerlein wants students engaged in the pure pursuit of knowledge, and Shenkman wants pure citizens. Both see appeals to self-interest as a part of the problem, as more consumer-driven demand for entertainment. But political and intellectual engagement thrive when they are connected to the reality of people’s lives – something understood by both the most idealistic organizers and the crudest of the old party bosses.

All this leads Shenkman to offer remedies that involve not more democracy but less. Aside from an extremely welcome call for more civics education, he says that an honest discussion “might lead” to such proposals as making voting dependent on civic tests, returning the election of senators to the state legislature, and giving more power to the Electoral College. Of course, President Bush’s original election and all the subsequent events that frame Shenkman’s argument would never have occurred without the Electoral College, the disenfranchisement of a range of voters, and a Supreme Court run around the election process, which makes Shenkman’s casual proposal more than a little stunning. (It’s unclear the extent to which he intends this to be provocative: on a recent Daily Show appearance he claims he’s calling for more democracy, not less, and that he doesn’t support civics tests.) The political disengagement he describes is a real concern to anyone who hopes to repair the damage of the Bush era. But moralizing about the ways people choose to spend their time has about as much a chance of getting us there as the generational scolding Bauerlein calls for. And it has the additional unfortunate consequence of making books by professors with the noble desire of speaking to a wide audience read like the most polished but hollow of student essays.

___
Laura Tanenbaum is an Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, in New York. Her fiction has recently appeared in failbetter and Steel City Review, and she is a founding editor of the on-line literary journal Vibrant Gray.

2 Comments »

  • Mark says:

    Mass literacy “is a recent phenomenon”? In fact, in vast portions of the United States, mass literacy has been the case since the 18th c. And to call NCLB a way to deflect “more equitable school funding” requires a bit of conspiracy thinking.

  • Laura Tanenbaum says:

    Thanks for the comment, Mark. I wrote “relatively recent” because the 18th century is relatively recent as compared to the “2500 year cornerstone” that was referred to in the book.

    As for NCLB, it’s obviously a very complex story. But the inequities in school funding, as documented by Jonathan Kozol and others, are a very real issue that have a difficult time getting traction within the framework of debates about standards and tests that NCLB has given us.

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