Mr. Bauerlein presents a wealth of data to show that young people, with the aid of digital media, are intensely focusing on themselves, their peers and the present moment. YouTube and MySpace, he says, are revealingly named: These and other top Web destinations are "peer to peer" environments in the sense that their juvenile users have populated them with predictably juvenile content. The sites where students spend most of their time "harden adolescent styles and thoughts, amplifying the discourse of the lunchroom and keg party, not spreading the works of the Old Masters."
If the new hours in front of the computer were subtracting from television time, there might be something encouraging to say about the increasingly interactive quality of youthful diversions. The facts, at least as Mr. Bauerlein marshals them, show otherwise: TV viewing is constant. The printed word has paid a price – from 1981 to 2003, the leisure reading of 15- to 17-year-olds fell to seven minutes a day from 18. But the real action has been in multitasking. By 2003, children were cramming an average of 8½ hours of media consumption a day into just 6½ hours – watching TV while surfing the Web, reading while listening to music, composing text messages while watching a movie.
This daily media binge isn't making students smarter. The National Assessment of Educational Progress has pegged 46% of 12th-graders below the "basic" level of proficiency in science, while only 2% are qualified as "advanced." Likewise in the political arena: Participatory Web sites may give young people a "voice," but their command of the facts is shaky. Forty-six percent of high-school seniors say it's " 'very important' to be an active and informed citizen," but only 26% are rated as proficient in civics. Between 1992 and 2005, the NAEP reported, 12th-grade reading skills dropped dramatically. (As for writing, Naomi Baron, in her recent book, "Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World," cites the NAEP to note that "only 24% of twelfth-graders are 'capable of composing organized, coherent prose in clear language with correct spelling and grammar.' ") Conversation is affected, too. Mr. Bauerlein sums up part of the problem: "The verbal values of adulthood and adolescence clash, and to enter adult conditions, individuals must leave the verbal mores of high school behind. The screen blocks the ascent."
Faculty are constantly being pushed by administrators and their lackeys to incorporate more technology into their classroom "experiences." We are told to be electronically "with it," to promote online discussion, to increase opportunities to foster online communities and to use electronic interactive materials in lectures and discussions. It is implied that we should avoid circumstances where students are passive - such as during lectures (with JUST WORDS! The horror.... the horror....) or reading books. Anyone with half a brain knows that a lecture (at least a decent one) and a book (at least a decent one) is a remarkably interactive experience. However, it requires the hard work of attention and concentration, the ability to think, ponder, evaluate, criticize and incorporate even as the words continue. When we, the faculty, are told that we should liven up our classrooms with electronic bells and whistles, what we are really being told is to adjust ourselves to our students' shorter attention spans and the inability to concentrate for more than several nanoseconds on a line of thought or argument. Maybe we should meet our students more than halfway and just run our classes on Facebook. We could see which professors get "friended" the most!!
What is most alarming about the ascent of the electronic media is the utter decline of the book. Yes, our students read online, but what they mostly read is the parade of silliness on Facebook and MySpace. Few students read for the sake of reading, i.e., something that is not assigned. The passionate conversations about certain books some of us might remember having at 3 a.m. in the dormitories or on the campus lawn have given way to 24-hour glowing computer screens with entranced, solitary students in the reflected glare. If there is one thing we can do as educators, it's not to perfect our "assessment" metrics, nor to create more opportunities for "group learning," nor to jive up our class with another idiotic and mind-numbing PowerPoint presentation. No, the one thing we can do is to encourage our students to read good books and to talk about them with one another. It's an unsexy low tech option - too simple and difficult for our administrators to embrace - but the one thing needful on our campuses today.