When Mark Bauerlein joined the ranks of such thinkers as Maureen Stout, Jane Healy and Charles Sykes (among many others) by seeming to attack the younger generation in his book The Dumbest Generation he was both praised and pilloried. One of his critics sounded one of the most hackneyed mantras around by attacking the author in a familiar ad hominem: “Here we go again, an aging schoolmaster knocking the kids. The old ones did it when Elvis arrived and now they do it because of Grand Theft Auto. We’ve heard the grievance many times, the lament of graying folks, so let’s not take it too seriously.” Well, as one of the graying folks who has added his shrill, small voice to the chorus, I take offense at the ad hominem and would simply say: look at the evidence. Today’s kids are generally wasting their time in school — when they even bother to attend. They are learning very little and the emphasis on job preparation and the love affair the teaching establishment has with technical gizmos is depriving the kids of the chance to expand their minds and become vital participants in our failing democratic system. More than anything else, a democracy requires an educated electorate — or at least one that knows how many Senators each state has and how many Supreme Court justices there are. Today’s kids do not: civics is seldom even taught in the schools any more. Worse yet, the kids simply don’t care.
I do wonder how many of Bauerlein’s critics have actually spent time in the trenches — in the classroom with the kids they glorify and defend as tomorrow’s answer to today’s problems. It certainly makes sense in this youth-worshipping culture where aging is regarded as a certain sign of senility that there would be fierce defenders of the kids, defenders like James Glassman and William Strauss (authors of The Next Great Generation) who are convinced the kids are under immense pressure these days and are being unfairly attacked by people like Bauerlein and Stout and the rest. But as one who spent 42 years teaching kids from 9 years of age through graduate courses I can say I have seen first hand what all the data reflect: the kids in fact experience very little academic pressure and they spend precious little effort on things academic — the average college student spending 3 hours and 41 minutes a day watching television and enjoying seemingly endless weekend parties. There is a serious problem in the classrooms of this country as the kids are taking advantage of a system that asks very little of them. Please note that I do not fault the kids, so those who defend them can save their pet ad hominems. I fault the system, of which I was a part for so long, because it is defrauding the kids and their parents who are spending large sums of money to pay for something that isn’t worth much in the final analysis.
I kept examples of my many of tests and syllabi that I passed out during my years of teaching at the college level and I saw first hand the deterioration of the education process: I simply could not assign difficult reading assignments or ask complex questions on tests toward the end. The students weren’t able to understand what the authors wrote or what I was asking – with notable exceptions, thank Heavens! If Bauerlein meant by “dumb” what the word literally means, he was perfectly justified in ascribing that quality to today’s youngsters. They are dumb: they cannot speak. Nor can they read or write or add. They are, for all intents and purposes, illiterate, and recent studies show they are defiant and even proud of that fact. They regard reading as a waste of time. It’s not surprising that their vocabulary has shrunk by 72% since the 50s when it was already shrinking. They cannot grasp such things as hypothetical sentences where consequences are dependent on antecedents for their full meaning. They cannot understand what authors are saying in books that have been read and understood for centuries. Many cannot grasp the “cheaters” that are written down to the ill-equipped in order to explain what the books say. Worse yet, in a recent N.A.E.P. civics exam a full 45% could not understand basic information on a sample ballot. They cannot calculate a tip in a restaurant — even if it’s only 10%. And they cannot write complete sentences, though, I am given to understand they tweet endlessly in a kind of newspeak which we must assume they do understand. The data are overwhelming and it makes perfect sense since very few of them read even the backs of cereal boxes any more and they are allowed to use calculators in math class. They have traded their books (which, admittedly, many of us read only grudgingly lo those many years ago) for their electronic toys. These toys are rotting their brains, from all reports. And this is what has people like Bauerlein and Jane Healy worried. They have collected the data which so many others choose to ignore and it stares them in the face. As educators themselves, they know what those data mean and it disturbs them deeply.
So those who fault the “graying folks” for merely turning over the cold ashes of past worries about the younger generation should take notice. There really are new and serious problems and they cannot be dismissed with a toss of the hand and smart remarks about the age and character of those who point them out. It’s time to stop shooting the messenger. To be sure, there may be some exaggeration amid the reams of criticisms of today’s youth. But in both education and in the general culture as well what we’re seeing is a descending spiral in which many of those who should be addressing the problem are part of the problem itself, simply because they refuse to admit it is there.