Tuesday, August 19, 2008

digital is not to blame

I just read a Wired essay entitled "The Critics Need a Reboot. The Internet Hasn't Led Us Into a New Dark Age." In one of those great moments in synchronicity, over the weekend I started reading a blog written by the daughter of a colleague: Generation Underrated. She was spurred to blog as a reaction to Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30), which is also mentioned in the Wired essay. I haven't read the book, but I am reasonably sure that it would make me crazy to do so. From Janna Brancolini's blog, referring to studies noted in the first chapter of Bauerlein's book:

A test was given to high school seniors in 1955. The same questions appeared on a Gallup survey given to college seniors in 2002. The college seniors in 2002 scored no better than the high school seniors had in 1955. (29)

In other words, the first chapter doesn’t given a single statistic that demonstrates that people under 30 know less than previous generations, either now or when the members of those generations themselves were under 30.

Bauerlein acknowledges this lack of empirical comparisons by saying, “Even if we grant the point that on some measure today’s teenagers and 20-year-olds perform no worse than yesterday’s, the implication critics make seems like a concession to inferiority. Just because sophomores 50 years ago couldn’t explain the Monroe Doctrine or identify a play by Sophocles any more than today’s sophomores doesn’t mean that today’s shouldn’t do better, far better.”

Janna greatly simplifies Bauerlein's argument thusly:
In a nutshell: we’re dumb because we don’t know anything, we’re dumb because we’re letting the Internet and cell phones be used for evil instead of good, and we shouldn’t be dumb since we have so much technology available to combat our overwhelming dumb-ness.
From the Wired essay:
But the latest crop of curmudgeons fail to acknowledge that there is not much new in this parade of the preposterous. The US has a long and colorful history of being taken in by the erroneous and irrational: Salem witches, the "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast, phrenology, and eugenics are just a few choice examples. The truth is that Americans often approach information — online and off — with a particular mindset. "Antirational junk thought has gained social respectability in the United States during the past half century," notes Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason. "It has proved resistant to the vast expansion of scientific knowledge that has taken place during the same period." Jacoby argues that long-standing American values like rugged individualism and the need to question authority have metastasized into reflexive anti-intellectualism and disdain for "eggheads," "elites," and pretty much anyone who might be described as credentialed. This cancerous irrationalism isn't pretty, but it isn't technology's fault, either.
Readers of this blog know that I have a very negative reaction to generalizations like "digital generation" and "digital natives." In the same vein, blaming technology and saying that this generation is the dumbest seems ludicrous to me. IF we accept that this is the dumbest generation (and I don't), there are other places to identify causation/lay blame. Underfunded school systems with a focus on standardized testing rather than critical thinking. The self-esteem movement, which, when taken to extremes, does away with competition and realistic assessment. But technology? Please. There is increased ubiquitousness of technology and media access (and increased media targeting of younger consumers), but its use or lack of use hasn't made an entire generation less educated.

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