Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Y Reed Bukes?

Mark Bauerlein nails it - we're seeing the rise of "the Dumbest Generation." Will Tom Brokaw Jr. write a book about them? Will there be anyone left to read it?

A snippet:

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.


Anonymous said...

I think the university administrators you mention are dumber than the students Bauerlein's discussing.

I wonder whether Bauerlein's argument is exaggerated. I hear horror stories of students inserting IM-text into their term papers. I've never seen it in mine (though they commit numerous other grammatical and spelling errors). Are my students just intelligent Luddites?

Peter B said...

Alternatively, I think this growth of media can facilitate a more engaged participant in the world. For example, reading your blog facilitates a personal engagement with issues that I otherwise would have access to. Furthermore, there are other blogs like SSRC's The Immanent Frame allows me to listen to/ interact with some of the top social scientists and philosophers of the day, and be stretched in various directions intellectually.

Now, this shouldn't be considered a substitute for alternatives (lectures, reading, etc), but I think it can show how at best, technology can be a medium of further engagement (a supplement to other approaches). Though I acknowledge that it can be a way to watch mindless youtube videos or chat endlessly on facebook/ gchat... these aren't necessary outcomes of the increase of technology, even for those mediums in question (e.g. philosophical discussions that can happen via email, watching full presidential speeches on youtube rather than just hearing the sound bites, etc.)

Patrick Deneen said...

Peter b -
I haven't read Bauerlein's book yet (it can be pre-ordered only), but based on this and a few other reviews, he's really talking about young people and their dominant online activity. I don't doubt that there are many fine websites where one can glean much valuable information (who could deny that this is one of them?) - however, I assume that you, like I, was educated largely with books and that we approach the internet with that particular habituation in tow. When one is habituated on the internet (and television), it's a different matter altogether, and thus little surprise that students evince a range of deficiencies when it comes to reading, writing, and 'rthmatic. Unless we put their noses in books, it's far more likely that they'll be watching YouTube than reading "The Immanent Frame." At least, so I spec'late.

Peter B said...

Yeah, I think thats a fair point. I probably straddle the two generations being 24, and thus grew up in a growing (but less developed than today) online environment.

While I agree that our environment (and the current technology) shapes us greatly, the notion that online preferences are a product of birthday still seems a bit simple. For example, my beliefs on how the internet should be used are shaped by my faith, my family, my education (in books and otherwise), my interest set, etc etc. My online time usage is a product of that set of personal characteristics/ preferences. In the same way, being born 60 years ago does not mean that a person is likely to be interested in reading great novels/ authors/ ideas, and not other 'less valuable' free time activity. This person may have spent all their free reading time growing up in comic books (the paper equivalent of youtube??).

No doubt technology shapes the way we learn/ spend free time/ communicate, etc, but I would be interested in seeing Bauerline's arguments fleshed out in the book. While I don't know if I would agree with the most strong argument, I could buy a somewhat weaker argument that the current mass availability of information on the internet may make individuals less likely to engage in books, or even the intellectual high end of this medium.

The Eastvold Blog said...

Although it certainly has a profound effect on today's society, I don't think the media bombardment is solely (or even mostly) to blame for the fact that so few students read books that are not assigned to them. As an intellectually curious and fairly successful Princeton student, I barely cracked a book in my entire four years (not counting summers) that wasn't either assigned or necessary for a research paper. The reason was not that I didn't want to, but that I didn't have the time. And I didn't have the time, not because I was busy watching TV or chatting online or using Facebook (actually, I'm not sure Facebook even existed when I was in college - a mere four years ago!), but for two reasons: the volume of reading assignments for my classes, and the number of extracurricular activities I felt obliged to do.

Too often, I think, instead of trusting that most bright and motivated students will use their free time productively, professors load them up with reading assignments so long they can be completed only by staying up most of the night (leading to foggy comprehension) or fairly cursory skimming. Furthermore, both professors and administrators (especially the latter) tend to fuel the notion that if you don't participate in Model UN, newspaper, debate team, an a cappella group, and a sport, plus attend student performances and the occasional campus protest (just don't get arrested), you (A) are wasting your "college experience" and (B) won't look very interesting to a prospective employer. That pursuit of productive-looking, resume-building constant, frenetic occupation (which begins in junior high and high school but doesn't get any better in college) is, in my opinion, to blame for the decline in non-required reading by students.

I agree with peter b that the availability of online interaction can (and does) lead to greater learning opportunities. I thoroughly enjoyed the classes I took that had an online discussion component, because it allowed discussion to continue between precepts and lectures. I found most of the comments to be quite intelligent - especially when the professor remained active in guiding the discussion. Online courses are, of course, a great opportunity for the democratization of learning - allowing non-traditional students who would otherwise never be able to go back to school or finish an abandoned degree to enjoy many (though certainly not all) of the benefits of higher education.

My roommates and friends and I did have plenty of those famed 3am discussions of philosophy, political theory, etc. But we also carried on conversations over chat and e-mail, at a pretty high level of discourse (if I may say so), with students on our campus and elsewhere. One of my roommates kept up an e-mail exchange near-worthy of publication with another student during his year abroad in Egypt; another roommate was constantly sharing what she was learning with (and getting feedback from) her high school friends back in China.

Just another perspective...

(I agree, by the way, that the vast majority of Powerpoint lectures are simply abominable - and actually quite boring.)


Patrick Deneen said...

Mrs. Eastvold, I'm not sure just how representative you are. In 12 years teaching I've only given two A+'s, and you received one of them. So, if you WERE representative, we'd probably be in much better shape.

You DO indeed put your finger on another major problem, namely, resume padding activities that now dominate much of the leisure time of "the organization kid." What free time is not spent on Facebook is often used running from activity to activity. Again, what's likely to be lost amid all this is the art of sitting still and reading, or of talking about ideas. I'm glad you had the 3 a.m. experience - I would that it were more common than it now appears to be.

Richard Y Chappell said...

Blaming technology for juvenile culture seems rather silly. If teenagers weren't engaging in idle chatter over Facebook, they'd be doing so down at the mall instead. They can text 'OMG!', or use a phone's old-fashioned voice capabilities to talk about how, "like, you'll never guess, like, what Sally got up to over the weekend."

I fail to see how low-tech idiocy is any more desirable. (Do you really believe there were fewer idiots in past generations? What percentage of the population even went to college?)

Intellectuals have always been a minority. At least technology increases options, so that the rare non-idiot adolescent can escape their peers and instead seek out an online community of scholars. The best and brightest of today's youth can (and do) take advantage of opportunities that simply weren't available to previous generations.

So, you'll excuse me for eyeing your "good old days" warily. If anything, I'm much more encouraged by the rise of participatory media (which certainly beats TV). And now that I can carry a whole library around in my backpack, I think the future of reading is looking just fine.

Patrick Deneen said...

Richard -
I'm pretty sure most people knew the Bible better in "the good old days." It's possible to carry a library around in your backpack and lack understanding nonetheless.

Richard Y Chappell said...

Um, okay. You must realize that's hardly a serious response to my criticisms. But if you don't welcome the input, that's fine; I won't return.

Patrick Deneen said...

I thought it was pretty serious... I was referring to a culture that took books - or the Book - seriously - so seriously that the fate of one's soul rested on its proper understanding. This was not limited to the intelligensia. Read letters from ordinary soldiers during the Civil War - extraordinary how learned "ordinary folk" were. Ours is an age awash in information yet relatively little knowledge.

But you're right, it would be wrong to BLAME technology for today's youth culture. I suspect that this may be a weakness of Bauerlein's book, which I have not yet read. Such technology enables its deepening and widening, but it was already around, much having to do with the way modern economic and cultural arrangements have made teenagers irrelevant, lost between childhood and adulthood. High School is bad enough - college is perhaps worse, a four year pleasure romp punctuated by some all-nighters of classwork, for the tune of upwards of 100K or more, at the end of which you get a ticket to a job and upward mobility. Our culture has nothing useful for these young people to do, failing to integrate them throughout their childhood and adolescence in an adult world - I dare say the first culture for which this is true.

Anonymous said...

Your citation of Civil War soldiers is valid, but it also ignores the fact that the nineteenth century was a period at which mass literacy reached a peak greater than it had ever reached before, not a tail end of a long history of mass literacy.

If one goes back much farther back before the eighteenth century, one encounters millennia upon millennia in which true and complete illiteracy (i.e., not writing ungrammatically and using phrases like LOL, but actually being unable to recite the alphabet or sign one's own name) is dominant. Antiquity had its virtues and the Middle Ages even more of them (certainly I will always treasure it as the age of dominant Catholicism), but mass literacy was not a feature of either age. Maybe we're seeing a regrettable but inevitable reversion to the mean.