Book Review - 2008 Book "The Dumbest Generation" - The New York Times

Traditionally, each month’s “Reference Materials” section includes, inter alia, book reviews from –

The New York Times
The Wall Street Journal
The Washington Post

Neither the NY Times nor the WSJ reviewed “The Dumbest Generation Grows Up.”

However, both of them reviewed its 2008 predecessor – "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don 't Trust Anyone Under 30)” by Mark Bauerlein (Tarcher Publishing – 5/15/2008 – 272 pages).

Both are posted in this section for historical context.

The Washington Post book review takes the form of an OpEd article by the Post’s twice/week conservative columnist, George Will.

The fourth book review was written for The Federalist by a member of “The Dumbest Generation” -- Auguste Meyrat, a high-school English teacher in the Dallas area, who holds an MA in humanities and an MEd in educational leadership. He is the senior editor of The Everyman and has written essays for The Federalist, The American Conservative, and The Imaginative Conservative, as well as the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.
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Book Review - 2008 Book "The Dumbest Generation" - The New York Times

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Growing Up for Dummies

Review By Charles McGrath - the Times’ former Book Review editor, he is now a writer at large at The Times.

April 20, 2008

MILLENNIALS, Quarter-lifers, Generation Y, Twixters, Oh-Ohs — it’s hard to know what we parents of a certain age are supposed to call the young people now coming through the pipeline, the ones born after 1982. Oh, I forgot one: the Boomerangs. They’re the children of baby boomers who, after graduating from college, return to the nest and sponge off their families. In 2006, if you believe the studies, almost half of all newly minted college graduates did this.

Mark Bauerlein has a catchall term for all these young people, especially the ones now in high school: he labels them “the dumbest generation,” which is also what he calls his new book, subtitled “How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.”

Despite all the stories about über-achievers — students with near-perfect SAT scores who juggle six or seven Advanced Placement classes while also captaining the swim team, taking oboe lessons and working a couple of nights a week at the soup kitchen — most high school students, Mr. Bauerlein says, don’t really do a whole lot. They don’t read, they don’t go to museums or get involved in community life, they don’t do much homework.

And according to Mr. Bauerlein, they know next to nothing. Fewer than 30 percent know what the Reconstruction was, and practically a quarter of them cannot identify Dick Cheney as the vice president. They’re six times more likely to be able to name the current American Idol than the speaker of the House of Representatives. On tests of competence in math and science, American high-schoolers do worse than students from countries that we used to think of as backward.

In fact, that’s the great paradox of the dumbest generation, Mr. Bauerlein says: never have American students had it so easy, and never have they achieved less. Material gains and intellectual performance seem almost inversely related. Until he starts finger-pointing and hand-wringing in the last couple of chapters, which also go in for a certain amount of sermonizing, Mr. Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory, delivers this bad news in surprisingly brisk and engaging fashion, blowing holes in a lot of conventional educational wisdom. Full of stats and charts, his book is like a PowerPoint presentation you can actually stay awake for.

As you read along, it all seems pretty convincing (if depressing), especially when he gets around to naming a culprit: the digital revolution, which he says has empowered students in certain ways while also eroding their attention spans and analytical abilities. Sounds about right. But then you pick up William Damon’s book, “The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life.”

Mr. Damon, director of the Center on Adolescence at Stanford, says that students today are “working harder and learning a bit more, at least judging from the most recent test-score results.” (Not the ones Mr. Bauerlein has been reading.) But he also says that most of these students are drifting aimlessly, with no clue as to what they want to do or become in the future. The only thing they seem to know for sure is that they don’t want to run for public office. (Mr. Bauerlein also picks up on this trait, though you could argue that, given the spectacle of American political life recently, it’s actually a sign of intelligence.)

Young people are now so purposeless, Mr. Damon says, so uncertain and fearful of commitment even when it comes to finding mates, that many of them may never marry, and they’re so hesitant about picking a career that they may wind up living at home forever. (He says there are “plentiful employment opportunities for the young,” which may come as news to some recent college grads.)

“The Path to Purpose” also gets a little preachy and hand-wringy at the end, and some of the conclusions are drawn from a pretty small sample of interviews, but its diagnosis, too, is hard to quarrel with, especially when applied to the many slackers and Boomerangers who really do seem to lack a sense of direction.

According to Christine Hassler, author of “20 Something Manifesto: Quarter-Lifers Speak Out About Who They Are, What They Want and How to Get It,” they’re not just floundering, they’re often anxious and miserable, suffering from something like menu overload: there are just too many choices to make. The result is often a feeling of stasis and letdown that Ms. Hassler calls Expectation Hangover, a phrase she is so fond of she has trademarked it.

“20 Something Manifesto” is actually less a manifesto than a breathlessly optimistic self-help book designed to help its audience peel back the layers of their “identity onion” and sort out the poles of the “20s triangle”: “Who am I, what do I want, how do I get what I want?” She talks a lot about the need for the floundering to feel self-gratitude and spend “quality time” with themselves; for the lovelorn, she suggests palliative remedies, like sending yourself flowers and writing yourself a note of appreciation.

In fact, “20 Something Manifesto” is an almost perfect illustration of the kinds of things that both Mr. Bauerlein and Mr. Damon are worried about. It’s a book about purposelessness that’s written not just for dummies but for people who are practically comatose.

In its format — lots of boxes, subheads, summaries and lists — it resembles a lot of textbooks these days, and it’s written in an annoying, ingratiating style that presumes that Expectation Hangovers must also damage concentration and the attention span: “You may notice that I use a lot of analogies — it has become part of my coaching and writing style. Why? Well, it actually has to do with the way the brain works. . . . Analogies evoke the pictures we need to ‘turn on’ our right brain, which supports us in solving problems and dealing with emotions. And, hey, if you are going to take the time to delve into this book, you might as well get the full-brain-experience guarantee.”

One thing Ms. Hassler is smart about, though, is the role of parents in creating the quarter-lifers’ condition of aimlessness and anomie. Parental expectations these days can have smothering, crippling effects on their offspring, she points out.

Mr. Bauerlein and Mr. Damon see it a little differently. They both note that young people regard their families more highly, and generally get along with them better, than people the same age did a couple of generations ago. But they see this as a sort of accidental anomaly — the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal picture.

It stands to reason, though, that parents must be part of the problem. Some of us have raised dummies and the disengaged not on purpose, surely, but perhaps because we listened to Mr. Rogers and told them too often that we liked them just the way they were.

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