In his provocative new book The Dumbest Generation (Tarcher/Penguin), Mark Bauerlein argues that "the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future" by turning out hyper-networked kids who can track each other's every move with ease but are largely ignorant of history, economics, culture, and other subjects he believes are prerequisites for meaningful civic participation.
Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University who has written for reason, notes that only one out of 50 college students in a 2003 Foundation for Individual Rights survey could name the first right mentioned in the First Amendment. Between 1982 and 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts estimates that the share of 18-to-24-year-olds who reported reading a single poem, play, novel, or short story outside of school or work dropped from 60 percent to 43 percent. "I tell students in class all the time, ‘You guys are lazy and ignorant,' " says Bauerlein. "Don't tell me how busy you are. You watch two hours and 41 minutes of TV a day."
Bauerlein is a self-described "educational conservative," but his politics do not fit easily into existing categories. "I believe in a core knowledge, a core tradition, that everyone should learn," he explains. "Socially, I'm pretty liberal and libertarian; I think the drug war is one of the most absurd and costly government programs ever created."
Bauerlein talked with reason.tv's Nick Gillespie in June. For an expanded video version of the interview-including Bauerlein's answers to questions from the home version of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?-go to reason.tv.
Q: What's the premise of your book?
A: For most teenagers, digital culture doesn't open them up to the great big world of ideas, artwork, and politics-which is all out there on the Internet. Instead, it gives them what teenagers really care about, which is access to other teenagers. They're not going to the Smithsonian Institution's website. When Nielsen Media surveyed the most popular websites for teenagers, they found that nine out of the top 10 were for social networking. Fifty-five percent of high school students spend less than one hour a week reading and studying for class. They spend nine hours a week social networking.
The leisure reading that young people do, the visits to museums they do, the library visits that they do-those have gone down. It's just natural because the menu of leisure opportunities for young adults has gotten bigger. When you go into the average 15-year-old's bedroom, it's a multimedia center. There are a few books on the shelves; there's the laptop, the cell phone, the video game console, the Blackberry, the iPod.
Q: Why is any of that a problem?
A: All those diversions give them something a lot more compelling than the story of Antony and Cleopatra and Caesar. It gives them contact with their friends. If you're 15 years old, you care a lot more about what happened last week in the cafeteria than what happened on Normandy beach 60 years ago.
It's easier for teenagers to remain stuck in an adolescent world. The big universe of the Internet lets people go where they're already interested, and the teen ego, especially the collective teen ego, is a very powerful, strong thing.
Q: You worry that younger people who lack worldliness are more likely to fall for "inspirational" politicians.
A: Inspiration isn't a good motivation for civic participation. Inspiration is so much about you, about how you feel, about how this politician responds to your needs. Politics should be about your responsibilities. You need to guard your prerogatives. You've got to look at the First Amendment really seriously, and you've got to regard your leaders not just as figures of inspiration but as figures of danger too. They are in power, and people in government over time are going to do what human beings naturally do, which is sustain their power and expand it. You've got to be a political player to limit them.