This, more or less, is the thesis of Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation:
Yes, young Americans are energetic, ambitious, enterprising, and good, but their talents and interests and money thrust them not into books and ideas and history and civics, but into a whole other realm and other consciousness. A different social life and a different mental life have formed among them. Technology has bred it, but the result doesn't tally with the fulsome descriptions of digital empowerment, global awareness, and virtual communities. Instead of opening young American minds to the stores of civilization and science and politics, technology has contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them.
It is tempting to say that the condition Bauerlein describes, here and in the book as a whole, has always obtained, that the majority of American youths have always found their interest in "the social scene around them" rather than in "books and ideas and history and civics." Indeed, to judge by the majority of adults who were themselves once "young Americans," this would seem to be the case since they, too, as far as I can tell, have little interest in the "stores of civilization," little knowledge of the wider world beyond their own "social scene" as it is to be found in their neighborhoods, their communities, or perhaps on network television. American democracy has produced many admirable things, but one of them is not a widely informed and curious populace motivated by a love of learning for its own sake--however much the image of the bookish youth of the tenement or farm, of the self-educated immigrant, might still linger.
But Bauerlein acknowledges that the intellectual life has never exactly beckoned to most Americans, and that the current wired generation is neither smarter not dumber than its predecessors in terms of native intelligence. The difference is precisely the one produced by that "digital empowerment" and its "virtual communities" created by Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc., and even by those websites ostensibly devoted to providing real information and knowledge. The bad habits and immature attitudes to which those in their teens and twenties are prone--the belief that the past has little to offer them, the preference for the swift and flashy over the slow and cumulative, the elevation of "social life" over the academic--have been exacerbated by widespread access to the internet, which encourages them to live in the hyper present and has coarsened their reading skills.
And Bauerlein has studies and statistics to back up his claims that the Internet encourages superficial learning and that its predicted capacity to enlarge students' access to knowledge and sharpen their academic skills hasn't manifested itself:
This is the paradox of the Dumbest Generation. For the young American, life has never been so yielding, goods so plentiful, schooling so accessible, diversion so easy, and liberties so copious. The material gains are clear, and each year the traits of worldliness and autonomy seem to trickle down into ever-younger age groups. But it's a shallow advent. As the survey research shows, knowledge and skills haven't kept pace, and the intellectual habits that complement them are slipping. The advantages of twenty-first century teen life keep expanding, the eighties and nineties economy and the digital revolution providing quick and effortless contact with information, wares, amusements, and friends. The mind should profit alongside the youthful ego, the thirst for knowledge satisfied as much as the craving for fun and status. But the enlightenment hasn't happened.
The "survey research" Bauerlein cites actually does show--or Bauerlein makes it show--that the vaunted benefits of "computers in the classroom" appear to have been greatly exaggerated. One study concludes that most high school students have poor research skills online, are unable to use the Internet effectively to find relevant sources of information. Another concludes that federal subsidies for internet access in the schools produced "no immediate impact on measured student outcomes." In general, the middle section of the book, a chapter called "Online Learning and Non-Learning" makes for sober reading and ultimately a compelling case for the view that, at the least, we should be skeptical of claims for the "revolutionary" potential of computers as a pedagogical tool. This doesn't prove that use of computers and access to the Internet is actively bad for students, and it is possible that future revisions to the way "connectivity" is integrated into the classroom will produce better results, but Bauerlein's survey of its current results certainly doesn't make one sanguine about the prospects.
If Bauerlein had stopped at establishing that young people are not making good use of online resources, and that some of the practices on the web are actively encouraging their worse habits, impeding their ability to take advantage of the information that undeniably is available online, I would say he had written a valuable book. And while I would still ultimately conclude that it is a valuable book, The Dumbest Generation in its second half unfortunately descends into an ill-disguised temper tantrum against la trahison des clercs, altered by Bauerlein to "the betrayal of the mentors" but making it no less clear that those who should be counterbalancing the enthusiasms of the "masses" now are actively adopting those enthusiasms as their own. Bauerlein joins in on the now four-decades long war against the "sixties" that conservatives continue to wage, dredging up Richard Poirier's 1968 essay "The War Against the Young" and Charles Reich's The Greening of America as putative sources of the closing of the young American mind. He writes of the former that "Poirier's essay marks a signal case of the generational romance, the transformation of youth from budding egos into attuned sensibilities. . .an approach that may have respected the students but yielded a terrible outcome," while Reich "interpreted youth lifestyle as a serious expression with deep political, social, and moral content, however flippant and ant-intellectual it appeared, and while his books comes off today like little more than a dated artifact in a time capsule, shorn of the radical, Bacchic 1960s rhetoric, the outlook he promotes carries on."
While I would agree that The Greening of America seems today a "dated artifact," I find it hard to see how at the same time a book describing the efforts of a generation attempting to save the world from itself, to transform it utterly, could still account for a generation wholly at ease with the circumscribed world it inhabits. Bauerlein probably intends some version of the argument that "les clercs," specifically those associated with American universities, are themselves, directly and indirectly, the products of the sixties and are now in positions of intellectual authority, from which they continue to promote anarchy and People Power. They have denigrated the value of tradition and thus "the guideposts are now unmanned, and the pushback of mentors has dwindled to the sober objections of a faithful few who don't mind sounding unfashionable and insensitive." But, the sanctimoniousess of the invocation of the "faithful few" aside, the time when "the stern shadow of moral and cultural canons at home and in class" intimidated students isn't coming back, mostly because the assumptions about "tradition" underlying them were untenable in a culture where the concept of "democracy" is now so entwined with the unfettered practices of a capitalism that privileges change in its own right, and that is finally more responsible for the growth of digital technology than any professors, intellectuals, or education theorists. Conservatives will have to come up with a better explanation of why American youth are becoming dumber than the bogeyman of the '60s radical.
To his credit, Bauerlein does not entirely fall back on static notions of "tradition" in defending its value. He looks favorably on "culture wars" in the form of "direct and open ideological combat" that makes sectarian groups "face the arguments and strategies of outsiders." What is being lost in the cyberspheric fog, in this view, is an intellectual tradition grounded in "great books" but that uses their ideas to formulate new ideas and provide answers for current questions. While I don't think that this tradition is being lost at all--and do think that blogs and internet publications in general might actually come to enhance this tradition--Bauerlein thinks it needs to be dispersed more widely among those not self-motivated to join it: "A healthy society needs a pipeline of intellectuals, and not just the famous ones. An abiding atmosphere of reflection and forensic should touch many more that the gifted and politically disposed students. Democracy thrives on a knowledgeable citizenry, not just an elite team of thinkers and theorists, and the broader knowledge extends among the populace the more intellectuals it will train."
Frankly, this seems to me a utopian fantasy, just as attached to a sentimentalized vision of the way things could be as The Greening of America. Teens and twenty-somethings are resisting "an abiding atmosphere of reflection and forensic" because they find it boring, as do most older people as well. The alternatives to "reflection and forensic" are only going to become gaudier and more widely available. No amount of "mentoring" on the part of intellectuals browbeaten into doing their "duty" is going to compete with them. Perhaps theoretically "Democracy thrives on a knowledgeable citizenry," but in practice American democracy has thrived only as licensed consumerism, and I see very little evidence that this will change any time soon. Certainly Mark Bauerlein, if he does claim allegiance to conservatism in its current configuration, can offer few real solutions to the problem he accurately diagnoses, since conservatism has embraced capitalism as its own. It's unthinkable that, given a choice between allowing capitalism its sovereignty and encouraging more intellectualism among young people, most conservatives would choose the latter.
An equally serious problem with Bauerlein's argument, at least for me, is the way in which he largely equates "reading" with acquiring "knowledge" as usable information. Although he occasionally puts in a word for the value of reading imaginative literature, by and large he focuses on the utility of reading in forming both individual character and a "knowledgeable citizenry." There's little in the book about reading as a good in and of itself, as the cumulative sharpening of sensibility, as, specifically where literature is concerned, a respite from the ceaseless acquisition of "information." Given that Bauerlein has elsewhere expressed a belief in "the positive and independent value of literary experience and literary tradition," it's rather disappointing that he doesn't find a place in his book for elucidating the "independent value" of fiction and poetry, apart from their place in the "great ideas" approach to education.
Ultimately, however, I have to say that The Dumbest Generation did make me think through the implications of our ongoing transition from print to screen more critically and more thoroughly. I still think that critical-intellectual discourse can be conducted online, and that, used the right way, the Internet can encourage serious reading and provide knowledge that goes more than skin deep, but that "used the right way" is everything, of course.
ADDENDUM One has to wonder what Bauerlein makes of the new NEA report on reading that shows "literary reading" has increased substantially over the past several years. Especially of the finding that "Eighty-four percent of adults who read literature (fiction, poetry, or drama) on or downloaded from the Internet also read books."