This brutal takedown of Mark Baurlein's The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, or Don't Trust Anyone Under Thirty over at the Huffington Post raises some good points about the perennial efforts of older generations to sound alarms about the insufficient learning, respect, and work ethic of those darned youngsters.The reviews, Kevin Morris and Glen Altschueler, write:
Like Allan Bloom, Bauerlein yearns for an age of citizens, gentlemen, and believers, unspoiled by Freud, Dr. Spock, Mr. Spock, the Yippies, and YouTube. A time when professors could and did force students to read the "canon" of "Great Books" and regard Rembrandt with reverence. And tell them, again and again, that without these "counter-poisons to mass culture" they'd never become complete persons.
This is especially amusing to me as a GenXer who was going through college (one with a conspicuously rigorous "great books" curriculum, actually) in the era of Allan Bloom. Back in those days, it was hip-hop, 8-bit videogames, and big-budget Hollywood blockbusters that were driving teen illiteracy and the cynical, "slacker" attitude that so perturbed the elders of the moment. Now, reading Jeff Gordinier's X Saves the World, it turns out that we were the last young people to appreciate anything and find value in simple pleasures like vinyl LPs and furnishing our wardrobe from thrift stores. Indeed, Gordinier is as hostile and dismissive of the MySpace generation as Baurlein, albeit in a much more witty and ironic way.
Sitting comfortably in my own glass house, having written a book that paints in as broad strokes as any on the workstyles of different generations, I am nevertheless troubled by the trafficking in facile intellectual stereotypes of generations. Common historical experience does create some shared frames of reference that render generations distinctive, but there are smart people and stupid people of all ages. It is in no way clear to me that cultural factors, much less technology, make smart Millennials any less intellectually curious, literate, creative or knowledgeable than smart young people of any age group. And if they don't make the dumb ones any smarter, that it not a unique failing either.
The bottom line is that no one knows everything when they're 18 or 20, even if they've read good books or been to good schools. Test any population and you will find troubling gaps in knowledge, especially now that we live in an age where there's so much more to know and so many ways to get information. Anyone who writes a book like Baurlein or Gordinier necessarily represents an intellecutally elite perspective as well as an older one, and it's easy pickings to sit in judgment of people with less intellecutal experience and accomplishment. As always, it's a stupid project. In time, the cream will rise to the top, and those Millennials with the propensity and interest in defending cultural continuity (e.g., the canon of great works, or the superior audio fidelity of old vinyl) will do so, while others will discover new ideas and shape new tastes in areas that the Baurleins and Gordiniers of the world are blind to.