Smartphones and Stupid Kids

(photo: CNSCartoons)

Here’s a fact: The current generation of American youth enjoys unprecedented technological access to the cultural legacy of humanity and to information in general.

And here’s a question: Given this unprecedented access to knowledge about important things, why are today’s kids so preoccupied with trivialities?

Emory professor Mark Bauerlein takes a stab at answering this question in his recent book, “Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.”

In a commentary in the November 2008 issue of First Things, Sally Thomas analyzes Bauerlein’s argument that the Internet is dumbing down America. And indeed, Bauerlein has at hand a mountain of empirical evidence along with a host of amusing and depressing anecdotes about feckless Facebookers. But anyone who spends much time talking with today’s teens hardly needs such corroboration of the social networking generation’s stultifying self-absorption.

Neither Bauerlein nor Thomas is willing to end the story there, however. Both stress that it’s not fair to assign the blame to contemporary communications technology itself, especially when that technology also affords extraordinary opportunities to elevate the intellect.

“Bauerlein recognizes that we live in a world where anyone with online access can read the Bill of Rights, dissect a virtual frog, take an online math quiz, tour the Metropolitan Museum of Art, watch a 1959 film of the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Franz Schubert’s Erlking, and read Plato’s Crito, any time of the day or night, for free,” Thomas writes.

So who is at fault? Bauerlein and Thomas, a North Carolina poet and homeschooling mom, point the finger at the adults who collectively have failed in their responsibility to educate young people properly.

“But are the machines themselves the villains in this story?” asks Thomas. “Could technology, on its own, spawn an entire mindless culture of flirting, gossiping, photo-uploading, and virtual navel-gazing — all in service of flipping off the phonies out there who don’t get that every passing emotion experienced by Tarquin D. Pebbleface and set down in textspeak is, like, ‘wry and hilarious,’ dude? If, as Bauerlein claims, ‘the genuine significance of the Web to a seventeen-year-old mind’ is ‘not the universe of knowledge brought to their fingertips, but an instrument of non-stop peer contact’ — well, how did we get here?”

According to Thomas, “The answer lies in the same dismal territory already traversed by Diana West in her recent book The Death of the Grownup: the wholesale abdication of adults, not only parents but teachers, in favor of adolescent self-government—a culture that nurtures its present at the expense of its past.”

Says Thomas, “At its heart, Bauerlein’s book is not about machines at all but about what he calls ‘The Betrayal of the Mentors.’ Simply put, the educational and cultural establishments have sold out tradition and authority in favor of ‘collaborative-learning’ models and objectives like ‘working with every young person’s sense of self.’ The average teenager, not surprisingly, views himself not as a student in need of enlightenment but as a kind of automatic savant.”

There’s a lot more worthwhile wisdom contained in Thomas’s article, “iPhones Have Consequences.” First Things subscribers can read it here.

— Tom McFeely