In yesterday's Washington Post, Neil "Millennials Rising" Howe strikes a blow against generational tirades…by attacking late baby boomers/Generation Jones/Early Gen Xers as the real "Dumbest Generation."
Howe's starting point is a broadside against Mark Bauerlein, a (very) occasional Reason contributor, a Reason.tv interview subject, and the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the digital age stupefies the young and jeopardizes our future.
Howe's basic line:
Generational putdowns, Bauerlein's included, are typically long on attitude and short on facts. But the underlying question is worth pursuing: If the data are objectively assessed, which age-slice of today's working-age adults really does deserve to be called the dumbest generation?
The answer may surprise you. No, it's not today's college-age kids, nor even today's family-starting 30-somethings. And no, it's not the 60-year-olds who once grooved at Woodstock. Instead, it's Americans in their 40s, especially their late 40s—those born from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. They straddle the boundary line between last-wave boomers and first-wave Generation Xers. The political consultant Jonathan Pontell labels them "Generation Jones."
The most interesting things about Howe's article?
First, he is wrong to argue that Bauerlein's book is short on "facts." It is chock full of data from comparable data sets about various sorts of intellectual activities (such as literary reading) and it has a lot of good things to say about the current younger generation. I don't agree overall with Bauerlein's general thesis—that those who don't know anything about history, economics, literature, etc., are likely to create an inferior society—but his book is not a rant in the same way that, say, Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason, is (to my mind, Jacoby misinterprets a shift away from LBJ-style progressivism as a sign of widespread dumbing down).
Second, Howe spends most of his time trying to explain why, despite his bold statement, Barack Obama (born 1961) is not a data point in his argument but Sarah Palin (1964) is. Well, fuck him and his thesis then. For all his supposed oratorical acumen, can anybody cite any evidence that Obama, despite his Ivy League degrees and his windy rhetoric, has ever read a book or pored over a particular period of American history? His first memoir is a great read, but his political speeches are remarkable for their lack of historical and literary allusion. And then Howe suggests that, against all reality and mind-altering chemicals currently known to mankind that the "1946 birth cohort (including such notables as Gilda Radner and Oliver Stone)" is somehow preferable to "the 1963 cohort (Mike Myers, Quentin Tarantino)." Full disclosure: I too was born in 1963. But I don't think I'm special pleading to say I'd rather be trapped in an elevator with the latter couple.
I don't believe in "generations" (if by the term we mean some tightly knit homogenous group) and have certainly spilled a good number of pixels mocking the idea that the kids today are somehow beneath previous cohorts (and that the older generations were somehow even greater or more depraved still). But what Howe does is something that I know I (and dare I say it) people about my age are overly familiar with: He simply recapitulates the long-standing animus against late-boomers by earlier boomers.
Which is more tired than Gilda Radner's corpse. And besides, we all know that the only generation worse than the Greatest Generation was the first half of the one they gave birth to.
Below, check out Dumbest Generation author Mark Bauerlein make his case to Reason.tv:
And watch him answer questions from the home version of Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? below: