- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2010

Will today’s youths be the “dumbest generation” or the next “great generation”? This unanswerable question was posed — where else — at a Washington think tank.

Bemoaning the “decline of intellectual habits” in Generation Y was Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein, who makes his case in his book “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).”

Members of Generation Y — those born between 1982 and 2000 — have mediocre scores in U.S. and international academic surveys, he told the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank.

“Every time they give the U.S. history exam to 12th-graders, more than half of them show up below basic” achievement levels, Mr. Bauerlein said. An astonishing 52 percent thought Germany, Italy and Japan were U.S. allies in World War II, and fewer than half knew what a “Colored Entrance” sign meant.

There are improvements in some areas — behavior, ambition, course time, college attendance and enrollment in Advanced Placement courses — he told the AEI event, but there’s no “corresponding improvement” in knowledge and skill levels.

Why? “My answer is that the digital age has come about,” Mr. Bauerlein said.

Young people are mesmerized by New Age tools. But instead of using these tools to discover the worlds of politics, history, fine art and knowledge, they are using them for the only thing they seem to care about — themselves, he said.

As a result, it’s getting “harder and harder for adult voices to chime in in their lives; it’s harder for the curriculum to mean anything to them outside the classroom,” Mr. Bauerlein lamented. “Character formation is all being bounced off one another instead of [developing] vertically through adults, mentors, ministers and so on. … It’s horizontal, it is social contact, and it is social life gone wild. And that is a regrettable circumstance.”

As a lifelong, insatiable reader, I share Mr. Bauerlein’s alarm about the peculiar reading habits of America’s youths. I also share his concern that the next generation doesn’t seem to value having a “contemplative mind.”

But, being an optimist, I tend to agree with Neil Howe, who argued to the AEI forum that our young people are on track to becoming the country’s smartest generation.

Generation Y — aka the “Millennial Generation” — is already turning away from the self-destructive and antisocial behaviors of the baby boomers and Generation X, said Mr. Howe, co-author of the 2000 book “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.”

Millennials have better nutrition and a less-polluted environment and “are, in fact, the smartest generation,” he said, citing rising IQ levels and long-term academic trends.

Yes, modern youths may not be scoring well in “traditional” modes of communication, but they are excelling in an “information environment” that is denser, faster, more complex and interactive, said Mr. Howe, who co-founded LifeCourse Associates, which studies generations in the marketplace.

Consider these key differences, he said. In the 1960s, baby boomers watched TV shows such as “Bonanza,” characterized by single, straightforward plot lines.

“Today’s kids watch ‘24’ and ‘Law & Order,’ which have multiple plot lines. We watched ‘The Flintstones’ — one level of meaning. They watch ‘The Simpsons’ — multiple levels of meaning. We used to play Monopoly. … They play SimCity in real time, trying to manage thousands of variables to keep the city moving.”

I asked Mr. Bauerlein and Mr. Howe what parents, mentors, teachers and other caring adults can do to influence a Millennial mind.

Mr. Howe’s advice? “Tell them there’s a very important role in America for their generation,” especially in the area of rebuilding social consensus, community and institutions.

Mr. Bauerlein’s advice? Institute a “reading hour” in the home where they log off and disconnect.

“Parents have to model this behavior as well,” he added. They “have to show that reading a book is part of being an adult.”

Cheryl Wetzstein is on medical leave. This is a reprint of a column that originally appeared Oct. 26, 2008.

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