Trying to get my head around the affect of the digital age upon young people, I picked up The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future by Mark Bauerlein, a Professor of English at Emory. Based on my calculations the students I am teaching at this moment–born in1989, 90, or 91–are on the cutting edge–if that’s the right phrase–of Bauerlein’s dumbest. For every one kid you might read about in the Ivy League who studies him or herself into a stupor or constant panic attacks, Bauerlein argues, there are thousands who don’t study at all and don’t know diddly.
While I think Bauerlein is aiming for something deeper than a mere information deficit model of dumbness, he starts with that exactly: look at all the stupid things these kids don’t know. Like, as aired on the Jay Leno show, “Where does the Pope live?” And the young person doesn’t know. Or what was the last book you read, and the young person doesn’t know and seems even confused about what a book might is. I have taken these sorts of how-dumb-are-you-quizzes myself and I always miss a couple of them even though I do have a Ph.D. and am pretty well educated. I can’t remember the Second Law of Thermodynamics to save my ass, and I assume it’s a pretty important law. Though not as important as the First, which I also don’t know.
OK, so this is a defense of my own lousy education, but I don’t think knowing the “facts” is all that important. What does it take to know the facts–well, first you have to be around people who know the facts, or in a situation where facts appear, and usually you have to repeat a fact a couple of times to remember it, and that gets to the core of it. Information dumbness or smartness involves the old gray matter only at the level of memory. A very, very important thing–no doubt–but not the stuff of intellect (one might say). I grew up with guys who knew the name of every damn part of a car engine (because they lived for cars) and who could give a damn who John Adams was.
And this gets to another point. Who the heck gets to decide which facts are important (as an indication that one is educated). The educated? I don’t know but this seems sort of like a circular reasoning or a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s pretty easy for the educated to dream up a raft of questions that the uneducated don’t know the answers to. And really who is to say that what the “uneducated” do know is not as important as what the educated know. This is simple “classism, and let’s face it education–and whether one gets some of it–has a lot to do with which class a person is in.
Once I taught a writing class that tied to a political science class. The Professor on the first day quizzed the students about what countries belonged to the EU. After, a student came up to me, with alarm written all over her face who said she thought she should drop the class because she thought Europe was a country. OK, so how does one get to be 19 years old and not know that Europe isn’t a country. But what the heck. No big deal, I said. Don’t drop the class. Now that you know Europe is not a country, tell me the names, I said, of some of the countries in Europe. And then she named off a whole pack of them.
Facts are easy. I am not about to conclude on the basis of those that my students belong to the dumbest generation.