What We Believe
i

Dumb and Dangerous: A Review Article

T. David Gordon

The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults, by Mark Bauerlein. Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 2022.

When I saw a notice of Mark Bauerlein’s new book I saw the title (not the subtitle) and wondered if Dr. Bauerlein had changed his opinion since he wrote The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future.[1] When I read the subtitle, I realized he had not; if anything, the circumstance he describes in the recent volume is more dire than the circumstance that prompted his writing of the earlier volume, because the rootless, screen-lobotomized teens who dwelt in what he called an “adolescent cocoon” in the earlier volume are now adults (at least by a chronological definition), who enjoy voting rights. They were “stupified” in 2008; they are “dangerous” now.

Retirement has some advantages, and I am happy that Bauerlein’s recent book appeared shortly after I retired, so I do not need to require it, as I did his earlier book, in my introductory course on media ecology. The students did not universally like the earlier volume, and I suspect they would not like the present one. In each, Bauerlein stoutly resists describing the digital generation with the usual congratulatory adulation many others have employed; to the contrary, the evidence is stronger than ever that many/most of that generation have been mis-educated, rather than educated.[2] Neil Postman had earlier observed that cultures have two curricula: the formal curriculum of the academy and the informal curriculum of their dominant cultural media; and Postman believed the former should question the latter. The academy should promote and facilitate an informed, critical perspective on the dominant media in one’s culture. Since television was the dominant medium of Postman’s day, he said, “Viewed in this way, television is not only a curriculum but constitutes the major educational enterprise now being undertaken in the United States.”[3] The dominant medium now is the cluster of digital devices (and the social media they purvey), and Bauerlein regrets that the two curricula—both the dominant cultural medium and its educational curriculum—reinforce each other in their messianic expectations of digital media.

Bauerlein is as wary of what the digital media replace (reading itself as a neurological activity, literature as reflection on the conflicted nature of the human condition, and history as reflection on human imperfection[4]) as he is of what they actually do, and some sense of his perspective can be gleaned by observing his five chapter titles: Making Unhappy—and Dangerous—Adults; They Have a Dream; An Anti-Formation; The Psychological Novel; Multiculturalism or Malcolm X?

Were Bauerlein’s voice the only one crying in the wilderness, we might conveniently dismiss it as idiosyncratic; but his voice is one in a chorus, joined to those of Christian Smith,[5] Maryanne Wolf,[6] Sherry Turkle,[7] Nellie Bowles,[8] Jaron Lanier,[9] Nicholas Carr,[10] Tim Challies,[11] Chris Hedges,[12] William Powers,[13] Tony Reinke,[14] Mari K. Swingle,[15] et al.

Chapter One: Making Unhappy—and Dangerous—Adults

One of Bauerlein’s repeated theses is that the Millennials did not make themselves who and what they are: parents, educators, and other adults failed to pass along to them any sense of cultural heritage. Parents allowed Instagram to shape their children; educators permitted Wikipedia to educate them; adults allowed digital devices and social media, informed by the natural interests of children and teenagers, to “shape” them shapelessly. Assuming the neutrality of the digital world, many adults thought what Chris Anderson (former editor of Wired magazine) did: “We thought we could control it. And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as parents to understand” (11). Many news outlets featured stories indicating that the CEOs of many of the tech companies were unwilling to abandon their own children to unrestrained digital activity: “As public schools serving poor and minority kids were pushing one-to-one laptop programs, the reporter observed, executives in Palo Alto and Los Altos were sending their children to vigilantly low-tech private campuses such as the Waldorf Schools” (11). Many such leaders of the digital industries were already aware, especially, of the addictive properties of such media, and Bill Maher said this: “The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they are friendly nerd-Gods building a better world and admit that they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children” (12).

Bauerlein, as a professor of English literature, has been interested in the question of reading; he participated in the studies that led to the National Endowment for the Arts to produce their Research Division Report #46, “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,” published in 2004. Regarding cognitive development, Bauerlein referred to Maryanne Wolf: “‘The act of learning to read added an entirely new circuit to our hominid brain’s repertoire,’ said cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf, and when we shifted from print reading to screen reading, that circuit was modified (as we shall discuss later, Wolf believes the modification causes damage)” (16).

Bauerlein’s emphasis in this chapter, and throughout the book, is that the adults who were responsible for rearing the Millennials largely failed in doing so:

To cut the young off from a living past was to deprive them of a profound and stabilizing understanding of life, of themselves. . . . to neglect the masterpieces of art and ideas, epic events and larger-than-life personages, was to level their enjoyments to the mundane. To allow their religious impulses to flicker, not to expose them to the orderly ministrations of Sunday mornings, was to leave them among the “Nones,” a label with sad undertones. (29)

Chapter Two: They Have a Dream

This disturbing chapter is titled ironically, because the Millennials do not, in fact, have a dream. Their dream is no dream at all; it is closer to a nightmare. Unlike Dr. King, who dreamt of a better possible future, they are hopeless Marxists, mired in the belief that the “privileged” wish to enjoy privilege exclusively, that therefore nothing but the entire eradication of the current “system” can provide any hope (yet they know that there are entirely too many people unwilling to permit it to be destroyed). As Bauerlien put it:

So they attached themselves to something else: a religion of sorts, a pugnacious, illiberal demand, a twenty-first-century American-youth version of, precisely, Utopia. . . . Like every Eden, though, it had a dark aspect: a fury toward anyone or anything that threatened to ruin this sacred preserve. Utopian justice is the harshest. (46–47)

When Bauerlein asked a graduate teaching assistant what protestors at Emory were so angry about:

“Well,” she answered, “they believe that everyone . . . deserves . . . to be happy.” (58)

Everyone deserves to be happy—there you go; a new rule of human existence, a binding but odd expectation—and unrealistic, too, because never, not ever, will everyone actually be happy. That occurs only in a place called heaven. (59, emphases and ellipses his)

Their utopian “beliefs,” however, are unsubstantiated parroting of their group-speak and are not intellectually serious:

The clichés certainly betray an absence of thought, but this mindlessness only makes their accusations all the harder to answer: you can’t debate with obtuse people utterly convinced of their own rectitude. They don’t want to debate, and they’re not going to. (72)

To label Millennial activists “socialists” is a mistake. It grants them way too much intellectual heft. It overlooks the deepest sources of their activism, the emotional, even anti-intellectual, side of utopianism. . . . It’s a mistake, then, to call one-third to one-half of Millennials “socialists” or to assume they have acquired real knowledge of socialism and weighed socialist ideas. No, they are utopians, and they are utopians precisely because they haven’t acquired any political knowledge or weighed any political ideas. (82)

Since their “beliefs” are not rational, they are insusceptible to rational debate or refutation, and this belief/desire for an unattainable utopia is what makes them, in Bauerlein’s language, dangerous:

Ignorance plus self-righteousness is a dangerous mix. As avid and unbending utopian desires go unfulfilled, you know what will happen next: idealism will slide into frustration, the promised happy fellowship to come veering into a merciless search for enemies who must be obstructing it; the positive will turn negative. (84)

“Cancel” culture is the product of this unfulfilled utopian longing. The unhappiness of Millennials (and their unhappiness is well-documented by Jean Twenge) is perceived to be due to those evil people who must be preventing the longed-for utopia; and such people can only be cancelled. Citing the 2020 American Worldview Inventory, Bauerlein says:

. . . findings show Millennials—by their own admission—as far less tolerant than other generations. In addition, they are more likely to want to exact revenge when wronged, are less likely to keep a promise, and overall have less respect for others and for human life in general. (95)

This Lamechian tendency toward vengeance is surely evidence of grave spiritual danger. Jesus only cited two things that were unpardonable: the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (apparently a reference to persistent resistant to his grace) and not forgiving others: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14–15). Indeed, perhaps one reason for Millennials being so notoriously unchurched is that they find the Christian teaching on forgiveness to be entirely inimical to their angry, cancelling, vindictive belief-system.

Chapter Three: An Anti-Formation

I found this less interesting and more depressing than the others, because I was familiar with its topic and depressed by it; indeed, the evidence for the non-education of American adolescents has been observed even since before Bauerlein’s earlier book in 2008. Here are some of the lowlights:

  • As of 2010, 16-to-18-year-olds spent 3.5 hours per day in “educational activities” but five hours and forty minutes in “leisure and sports” (104–105).
  • Kaiser study: 45 minutes/day talking on phone, an hour and 51 minutes texting, 2.5 hours watching television, 7 minutes/day reading (110).
  • (citing Arum and Roksa in Academically Adrift): referring to college students: “. . . we find that students are not spending a great deal of time outside of the classroom on their coursework: on average, they report spending only 12 hours per week studying” (109).
  • [Observed that 86% of HS students spend less than 6 hours/week in leisure reading] (110).

Much of the remainder of this chapter dealt with the issues raised by E. D. Hirsch’s 1987 Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. It traces the movement from a cultural canon to teaching “critical thinking skills,” so the student is trained to ask suspicious questions but not trained in discerning whether a text—ancient or modern—contains any wisdom, or any insight into human behavior.

Chapter Four: The Psychological Novel

This was perhaps the most compelling (if depressing) chapter of the book for me, as an individual who has always enjoyed reading fiction. Bauerlein argues that novel (and, perhaps especially, the modern novel) discloses the mixture of motives that constitutes the human experience, the way Harold Bloom described Shakespeare as the inventor of the human, because of the way Shakespeare represented humans as conflicted (not simple) beings. I therefore find and found Bauerlein’s argument here to be convincing. Since Millennials have not been exposed to much literature at all, they have an immature, childish understanding of the duplicitous nature of the human psyche; people are either entirely good or entirely evil, and if you make them “feel” uncomfortable, you are entirely evil and suited only for destruction (which, in their case, ordinarily takes the form of cancelling, rather than murdering).

Bauerlein recounts an interesting 2020 conversation he had with an old friend (now deceased), in which Bauerlein asked why the rioters seemed so angry:

“Why are they so emotional, Bob? Why does a joke set them off?” . . . “Well,” he drawled, “they haven’t read enough literature.” (168)

But that was Bob’s point, and it was easy to follow. Literature helps you get to know what people are like. Novels get you out of your own thoughts and into other people’s heads. The fiction needn’t be terribly profound nor the experience of reading earthshaking. . . . Follow a lot of these characters, enter vicariously into their circumstances, do it consistently for a few years, and you find that you’ve received a psychological coaching. (172)

Each art-form has its distinct merits and demerits. Novel (and short story) naturally does something that is entirely un-natural to film; the narrator takes the reader into the inner workings of another human’s mind; and skilled authors display therein the conflicted nature of our present human condition, giving us insight to our own flaws and empathy for some of the flaws of others.

Too many hours of their adolescence were spent on a screen and not enough hours with fiction—that’s the genesis of our closed-minded Millennials. They haven’t undergone the literary formation that teaches one to interpret people cautiously, to withhold judgment until all the facts are in, to understand personality as multifaceted, a mix of positive and negative. . . . Miss Betsey in David Copperfield, for example, appears at first to be a brusque, cold woman, but later she is revealed to be a staunch and loving aunt, though her manner doesn’t really improve. Literary readers learn to expect such variation, and it carries over to their actual lives. The stories they read encourage a more hesitant and careful reading of real-life characters. The young adult who doesn’t read is more impatient, likes the snap judgment, and arrives early at a full verdict with full confidence. (189)

In Bauerlein’s words, many/most film characters are “flat,” whereas novel easily presents “round” characters: “It’s a problem of depth. To our nonreading Millennial, everyone is a ‘flat character.’ That’s all the youth-oriented screen gives him, surface beings with overt designs and words with no resonance” (190).

Chapter Five: Multiculturalism or Malcolm X?

The basic thesis of this chapter is that history and literature connect us to our predecessors and thereby connect us to them and define us by them. He mentioned Ezra Pound’s statement about Walt Whitman, “He is America” (206). The consequences of no past are no future; the individual is not at a place in a flowing river that has both past and future; the individual is in a mere puddle, and a small, disconnected one at that.

The chapter includes an interesting mini-biography of Malcolm X, who learned to read while he was in prison (for burglary), who took correspondence courses, and even a course in Latin. He also copied in his own hand an entire dictionary. “‘I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life, . . . As I see it today, the ability to read awoke some long dormant craving to be mentally alive’” (242).[16] Reading connected Malcolm to more than his immediate circle of fellow burglars and caused him to raise broader issues of culture and cultural justice.

This chapter is similar to the third chapter on anti-formation:

You can’t leave nineteen-year-olds with no anchors. They need aged things that stabilize and ennoble them, such as American youth used to find in The Columbian Orator, the collection of ancient and modern writing and speeches used in nineteenth-century classrooms and which served teenage slave Frederick Douglass as a treasured (and secret) intellectual roadmap to freedom. (238)

This “dangerous” group of young adults is so because it is unmoored, unanchored, and uninformed, doomed with Narcissus to attempt to know the self only self-referentially, exhibiting the traits anticipated in George W. S. Trow’s 1980 Within the Context of No Context.

Bauerlein’s readers will form varying opinions about just how “dangerous” this generation is; but few will escape reading him without both concern and compassion for a generation that expects a utopia that cannot be found here and now. In the penultimate paragraph of the book, Bauerlein says: “Social progress requires not just indictments of injustices, but positive inspirations as well—from the very past that utopians condemn in toto. Without them, young people lose their balance, fall sway to ressentiment” (252).

Neil Postman was right in observing that widespread cultural media are a curriculum in their own right, a shaper of humans that ought to be critically inspected by the academic curriculum. It is unlikely that the financially-entrenched digital industries will encourage (or even permit) such inspection of their activities by the academic curriculum; the best we can realistically hope for is insights from individuals such as Mark Bauerlein.

Endnotes

[1] Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone under Thirty) (New York: Tarcher, 2008).

[2] A claim that is substantiated by interviews and the General Social Survey by Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—And What That Means for the Rest of Us (New York: Atria, 2018).

[3] Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity (New York: Delacourte, 1979), 50, emphasis his.

[4] Let us not forget that one of America’s better-known popular historians, Barbara Tuchman, entitled her last book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1985).

[5] Christian Smith, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford: University Press, 2011).

[6] Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: Harper, 2007); Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (New York: HarperCollins, 2018).

[7] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together:  Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic, 2011); Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin, 2015).

[8] Nellie Bowles, “A Dark Consensus about Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley,” New York Times 26 (October 2018).

[9] Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Knopf, 2010); Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (New York: Holt, 2018).

[10] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2010).

[11] Tim Challies, The Next Story: Faith, Friends, Family and the Digital World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[12] Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and The Triumph of Spectacle (New York: Nation, 2009).

[13] William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).

[14] Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017).

[15] Mari K. Swingle, i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media Are Changing Our Brains, Our Behavior, and the Evolution of Our Species (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 2016).

[16] Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine, 2015), 182.

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is a retired professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2022.

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