Mark Bauerlein on The Adolescent Instinct & ‘The Dumbest Generation’

Andy Nash speaks with Dr. Mark Bauerlein on how modern social technology and targeted media isolate and absorb young people as often, if not more, than those technologies empower them as thinkers, as intellectuals, and as maturing adults.

Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, is author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).

Key Take-Aways

  • 2:25 – There’s a lack of scrutiny among digital natives about tech assimilation (2 mins)
  • 6:22 – Homework rates have fallen even as remedial ed has skyrocketed (30 secs)
  • 7:00 – There’s a diminishing interest in humanistic understanding (30 seconds)
  • 7:38 – In the past, youth culture wasn’t 24/7; there was more adult exposure (2 mins)
  • 11:11 – Youth culture is anti-intellectual, anti-eloquence, anti-historical. (1 min)
  • 12:47 – Their personal lives are overwhelmed by a hyper-social existence (1 min)
  • 14:36 – Peer pressure has a whole new arsenal in an always-on culture (2 mins)
  • 16:50 – Mentors need to keep pressing the message of engaging intelligent media (1 min)
  • 18:00 – One of our jobs as elders is to rebuke adolescence and narcissism (1 min)

Andy’s Show Notes

Is technology making students dumber?  Before you continue reading, shut your phone off.  In his book “The Dumbest Generation,” Mark Bauerlein argues how the constant, hyper-accelerated use of technology for social-networking and for non-stop digital social communication is inhibiting young people from spending any meaningful time engaging intelligent media and in thought.  What he refers to as the “anti-intellectual, anti-eloquence, anti-historical” youth culture has become more or less, thanks to technology, a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week continuous process, in which there is no end to the exposure and interaction with social adolescent preoccupations and distractions.

What affect is this having on academia and collegiate life?  When he was growing up, Mark explains there was a time and place for youth culture and social interaction.  But when you were at home, or among other than your peers, you were exposed to teachers, parents, and a host of others who mentored you and served to rebuke your adolescence and worked to pull you up through it.  Today, there seems to be no escaping the endless texts that come in (and replies going out) during class lecture, during homework, the family dinner, Sunday mass, even amidst working certain jobs.  Any train of thought necessary to think deeply or contemplatively is derailed by some digitally delivered instant message.  This, coupled with students’ reading of fewer books and articles, even non-academic ones, clearly doesn’t help one to develop any mental discipline nor to elongate one’s attention span.

Schoolwork, Mark argues, thus becomes mercenary, in which students only care to find out what they need to answer for the test, rather than truly learn by taking time to step out of their contemporary social world and immerse themselves into that of their studies.  In other words, there is no time left to even be exposed to such things so as to trigger the imagination, as virtually all time is devoted to social connections via digital technology.  When most break-ups are done by way of a text message, and when people sleep with their phones on to not miss the incoming 2am text, the desire becomes to stay constantly connected so as not to miss anything, because if you blink you may have missed it.

But even before the constant digital bombardment of information—most of it fleeting—in the age of mass higher education, many students, by the time they got to college were no less intellectually lazy, and no less academically mercenary in pursuing their credentialism.  But today, it would seem the digital age, predicted to supposedly make us smarter, hasn’t made young people any more contemplative, intellectually curious, nor desirous of greater ideas.  Understanding the mindset and mentality of a historical figure, such as Lincoln during the Gettysburg address, requires one to step out of the trappings of one’s own contemporary time, and think in the full breadth of humanistic terms.  Perhaps a bigger sociological point within education is that amidst this digital age we’ve reduced the very essence of human learning to trafficking, acquiring, and collecting data, as opposed to synthesizing knowledge and pursuing wisdom.  All this requires lots of reading, attention, discussion, and discipline, and exposure to older people for both intellectual ideas and for their life experience.

But today, apparently more so than before, teachers in school, and even lecturers and professors in college, seem to try to befriend their students at the level of the students, rather than to play the mentoring role.  They want to be “hip” and “with it” so they aren’t tuned out by the students who have them pegged as the “old fogies” who aren’t up with the technology.  Bauerlein argues that this is precisely what educators need to stop worrying about and get back to their traditional roles of rebuking adolescence and mentoring.  You won’t expand your vocabulary, he says, from your friends.

Nonetheless, the extent to which younger generations are too busy to interact with elders and mentors to learn from them in a challenging and robust way, and continue to remain isolated from them, will most likely only serve to prolong their adolescence—both socially and intellectually—rather than growing them out of it.  And this, for decades now before the digital age, has been a downward trend within higher education, and it’s now arguably exacerbated, if not caused, by the digital age.  If Bauerlein is correct, then we certainly have a lot to be concerned with.  How can we mentor adolescents with out being tuned out as “old fogies?”  Find out in our interview with Mark Bauerlein on Inside Academia.