Doubting Bauerlein’s Dumbest Generation

Mark Bauerlein—Professor of English at Emory University and one-time Director of Research at the National Endowment of the Arts—is one of today’s most vocal and visible critics of the role that technology can play in teaching and learning.

Author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, ol’ Marky-Mark churns out hyperbole like nobody’s business.  To get a sense for just how much Bauerlein doubts the learning benefits of digital tools, check out these two doozies, launched across the digital bow early in his scathing critique of students and schools:

On today’s kids:

“Whatever their other virtues, these minds know far too little, and they read and write and calculate and reflect way too poorly. However many hours they pass at the screen from age 11 to 25, however many blog comments they compose, intricate games they play, videos they create, personal profiles they craft, and gadgets they master, the transfer doesn’t happen. The Web grows, and the young adult mind stalls.”

(Bauerlein, 2008, Kindle Location 1683-85)

On today’s teachers:

“Ever optimistic, techno-cheerleaders view the digital learning experience through their own motivated eyes, and they picture something that doesn’t yet exist: classrooms illuminating the wide, wide world, teachers becoming twenty-first-century techno-facilitators, and students at screens inspired to ponder, imagine, reflect, analyze, memorize, recite and create.”

(Bauerlein, 2008, Kindle location 1900-1906)

Now, here’s the thing:  There’s a BUNCH of truth in Bauerlein’s comments Left to their own devices—-pun definitely intended.  In fact, I couldn’t resist—-our students probably WILL struggle to find ways to use digital tools to become master learners.  Instead, they’ll be drawn to the kinds of mindless activities that we all look down on.

(Can anyone over the age of 15 REALLY argue that hundreds of hours checking Facebook profiles and watching YouTube videos is a good thing?!)

But is that any different than the choices made by kids in earlier generations?  

I mean, I didn’t have access to the Internet or a thousand mobile devices when I was a kid.  I had a record player, Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting on vinyl, and a shelf full of the Hardy Boys—and I STILL found ways to waste my time on completely mindless endeavors.

I blew bottle rockets out of the end of baseball bats pretending to be hauling a bazooka through ‘Nam, I fried the slugs in my mother’s garden with salt, I started crab-apple wars with the neighbor kids, and I pressed ham against my bedroom window trying to gross out the girl who lived across the street.

No, Mark, It’s not technology that’s dumbing down today’s kids.  It’s poorly channeled hormones and an evolutionary trend towards mindlessness. (If you think about it, it’s really kind of a miracle that society evolved at all, isn’t it?) 

And it remains OUR JOB to pull our kids—kicking and screaming with their Wii remotes in hand if necessary—into the land of the learned.

(download slide and view original image credit on Flickr)

The good news is that the “land of the learned” will look familiar to us edukated types.  Our kids still need a basic understanding of governments and science.  Being able to multiply and divide is still a pretty important skill to have, too—-and I wouldn’t complain if my kids could write a complete sentence without needing too much red ink to guide them.

Collaborating with peers and being able to communicate still matters.  So does being able to solve problems, manage and judge the reliability of information and finding trends and patterns across domains.  Nothing new there.

 

But let’s not pretend that nothing hadn’t changed any in the past 20 years either now.  Technology has made EVERYTHING in “the land of the learned” easier.

Access to free digital tools means that we can communicate and collaborate across boundaries with little effort and/or expense.  RSS feeds allow users to sort through heaping mounds of content in a systematic way.  Video games and simulations provide opportunities for mental rehearsals and frequent practice in almost any domain.  And tools like Twitter—-which Bauerlein calls “Social Nitwitting“—can make anytime, anywhere learning possible for anyone.

Heck, paired with a digitally-savvy teacher, kids can work together on international problems with peers on other continents in the morning and still make it to lunch in time to chug Slurpees until frozen, icy slush bleeds through their noses.

Did you see the key:  A digitally savvy teacher is the game changer—-another pun I couldn’t resist—for today’s kid.  We’ve got to find ways to bridge what we know about good teaching with what our kids already know about new tools.

Otherwise Bauerlein’s right and we’ll be stuck living in a pop culture loving wasteland ruled by kids raised on heaping doses of Vampire Novels, Paris Hilton and the Jonas Brothers.

You don’t really want that, do you?!

 

9 thoughts on “Doubting Bauerlein’s Dumbest Generation

  1. חדרי מלח

    Yes!! Absolutely, the present generation Students are not dumbest, without waiting for any help from others, they can achieve any thing using their own skills and technology,
    Please do not pretend that nothing had from the past 20years and even now, Technology has made everything in “the land of the learned” easier. Technology is really a kind of a miracle that society evolved at all, isn’t it…?

  2. MP3 Players

    “whatever their other virtues, these minds know far too little, and they read and write and calculate and reflect way too poorly.”
    it is really true.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Andrew—riffing on a theme that I’m sure probably resonated with K. Borden— wrote:
    … and I wonder if the deterioration of organizations like churches and synagogues and fraternal orders, where people learned about getting still and taking control of the voices in one’s head, and stilling the chatter, is part of what’s affecting the youth of today.
    You’re both on to something, Andrew and K. Today’s digital world CAN allow people to completely disconnect from the traditional forums for socialization that have defined our society for a long while.
    I see it happen in myself: I know few of my neighbors and I often feel a stronger connection to people that I know online than to the people I know in real life. I certainly spend more time “talking” to them in meaningful ways.
    That can’t be completely healthy—or me or for my community. It’s the “Bowling Alone” syndrome that Robert Putnam writes about:
    http://www.bowlingalone.com/
    But some of Putnam’s arguments—that community groups lead to new opportunities for social and professional advancement—don’t totally resonate with me only because my digital connections have done the same for me.
    As with anything in life, balance is important, I guess—and for adults, teaching students to set reasonable boundaries in their digital engagement is a new task that we didn’t need to be concerned about until the Net exploded!
    Good thoughts…
    Bill

  4. K. Borden

    The pressure on young people to engage 21st century tools in order to engage socially is very great. Whether one is plugged in or not is key to social acceptance, not being connected can be very isolating and lonely. The peer pressure to do so is great and emerges many years before the ages Mr. Bauerlein seemed more focused on in the interviews he gave.
    A year ago when we pulled the kiddo from “school”, at age 10 she wanted a cell phone with texting and a Facebook page. They topped gift wish lists. She was not exaggerating in the least when she described the “need” for them. A year later, removed from that pressure a puppy and a architectural building set now occupy first place on the wish lists of a soon to turn 12 year old. Social networking in the digital sense is not the priority in the community she now occupies.
    When you consider Facebook requires participants be 13 years old to register, a ten year old feeling pressure to belong because so many others do speaks volumes. Our community is connected and the teenagers do use digital social networking. Fortunately, the age bar set by the cultural standard is higher removing the pressure from the tweens.
    Mr. Bauerlein’s point, that the usage of the immense capacities/resources available for students for social purposes and not learning the skills, information and so forth also available is well made. He does not deny the beneficial potential of 21st century tools for learning, he argues they are being misused to the detriment of students. He argues they crowd out and displace the learning young people need.
    Mr. Ferriter, I don’t think Mr. Bauerlein is at all at odds with your points. I intend to read his book, but just from reviewing his interviews and online materials/interviews, it seems he is simply pointing out a real need to redirect the usage by students of the tools available and rein in the social aspects to make room for the other potential.
    Doing it would require parents pulling the plug and working hand in hand with the tech savvy teachers you describe to change the use of the tools for more productive ends.
    That may be far more difficult than it seems. While the kiddo and I are lucky to have an environment where the “needs” for access to the tools for digital social networking is not so great and pressure filled, we are not typical. For the working parent who has a whole list of reasons their child needs a cell phone at school and their children who “need” this passport to social acceptance it is hard stuff. I have talked to so many parents who converted reluctantly to the “my kid doesn’t need a cell phone in middle school” position to giving in so that their children are not left out that it seems hard to imagine how to reverse that trend.
    Being able to encourage and allow the kiddo to mine the riches of the digital age without the pressure to use the tools for time consuming social diversion that crowds out other opportunities may just be one of the best reasons supporting the decision we made. I have been careful writing this entry to designate it as “digital” social interaction because it is not a matter of whether young folks need and should be social. For us, the social world expanded greatly and time spent engaged with others increased greatly when we changed our education course. The kiddo spends vastly more time now hanging out, partnering with and socializing with others, than she did while in school. It just isn’t happening digitally so much like it would have been had she stayed in school, instead it is face to face, far more often informal/unstructured and multi-sensory.
    Your last question:
    “Otherwise Bauerlein’s right and we’ll be stuck living in a pop culture loving wasteland ruled by kids raised on heaping doses of Vampire Novels, Paris Hilton and the Jonas Brothers.
    You don’t really want that, do you?”
    No, I don’t. I just don’t think tech savvy teachers linking the tools with better uses is going to alone be enough to resolve the problem Mr. Bauerlein has revealed.

  5. Andrew B. Watt

    “As I mentioned in a response to a different blog Northrup Grummann Shipbuilding, one of the places that builds aircraft carriers for the Navy, has an apprentice school where the apprentices are required to take math courses. To build ships. Would that have happened 30 years ago?”
    Mark, my father believes this is evidence for the genuine failure of American schools — if companies have to waste their money retraining employees in basic skills like math, then why spend public money on education at all?? I don’t agree with him, of course, but it is deeply saddening that we have essentially private adult education for remedial skills in America, and these programs are on the decline because of the decline of American manufacturing and the minimal-education-required but decent-paying jobs one used to be able to take.
    But Bill… Mark Bauerlein raises excellent points too, which is that I’ve seen the amount of obvious cheating go up quite a lot lately. The tools that students have to plagiarize are at their fingertips all the time, and thinking and writing is hard. I’m committed to tech use in the classroom, but I’m not keen on the results I’m seeing by having students with their laptops open every day. I’m not seeing a shift toward more productive, creative students yet… does it take multiple years?
    It would be so easy to close down my class wiki and go back to paper assignments done out of the textbook. Checking every single change to the wiki every day is a massive change in how I use and distribute time. I have to hope that it will prove valuable in the end. But right now it’s still too new for me to know if it’s working. I’m still seeing a lot of time-wasting behaviors…
    … and I wonder if the deterioration of organizations like churches and synagogues and fraternal orders, where people learned about getting still and taking control of the voices in one’s head, and stilling the chatter, is part of what’s affecting the youth of today. There’s this massive increase in the number of distractions, and a massive decrease in the number of sources of calm and centeredness. And schools are less and less the place of calm centeredness for children, and families even less so.
    Hmm.

  6. K. Borden

    You asked: “But is that any different than the choices made by kids in earlier generations?”
    Answer: Yes! Time remains a finite resource. Time spent online, plugged in is time not spent outdoors, face to face with others and/or involved in physical activities. It is time not spent using all the senses to process and transmit information. It is time not spent learning to transmit and receive nonverbal communication (emoticons don’t cut the type of thing I am talking about).
    The sum total of all of the above amounts to an immense amount of learning that is not taking place, skills that are not being practiced and exploration that is not occurring. The mindless endeavors of your youth you described were not also motionless, tasteless, and void of smell so forth. Finite time requires choices and balancing learning that engages 21st century tools with learning that engages all the tools nature provided us.
    On the other hand, the 21st century tools us to instantly access information that took time in previous generations to collect, organize and make presentable. The time saved on these processes certainly benefits learning if it is otherwise used well. It also opens opportunities former generations did not have to participate in a global network, instantly.
    Information access is enhanced, expedited and easy today. Digitally savvy teachers can certainly help students learn to employ tools, but they also need to be taught when to shut them off and engage the world directly. Hopefully parents will do that.

  7. Mark Clemente

    Bill,
    When you talked about how you wasted time as a kid it made me think. Maybe the problem isn’t that technology is making kids dumber, maybe it’s that technology is exposing the true “learning level” of America. Think about it. 30 years ago, if you didn’t get math and science or reading and writing you could always go work at a manufacturing plant and make a decent living. Because there was little technology no one would ever really know how well you were able to read or write or solve math problems. I think about the number of middle aged adults who proudly claim that they can’t do math or never understood their chemistry class. The difference today is that you can’t get away with it. As I mentioned in a response to a different blog Northrup Grummann Shipbuilding, one of the places that builds aircraft carriers for the Navy, has an apprentice school where the apprentices are required to take math courses. To build ships. Would that have happened 30 years ago?

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