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Mark Bauerlein

author...THE DUMBEST GENERATION: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, or Don't Trust Anyone Under 30 (Tarcher/Penguin, 2008)

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein, Ph.D. has taught at Emory University since 1989, with a two-and-a-half year break in 2003-05 to serve as the Director, Office of Research and Analysis, at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Apart from his scholarly work, he publishes in popular periodicals such as The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, TLS, and Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30, (click here for more information), was published in May, 2008.

He earned his doctorate in English at UCLA in 1988.

Other selected publications by Mark Bauerlein include:
1-Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906 (Encounter Books, 2001)
2-Literary Criticism: An Autopsy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997)
3-The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief (Duke University Press, 1997)
4-Whitman and the American Idiom (Louisiana State University Press, 1991)
5-Civil Rights Chronicle: The African American Struggle for Freedom, with Clayborne Carson, Myrtle Evers-Williams, Todd Steven Burroughs, Ella Forbes, and Jim Haskins (Publications International, Ltd., 2003)
6-A Handbook of Literary Terms, with Dana Gioia and X. J. Kennedy (Longman, 2004)

For more information on Mark Bauerlein, including a video interview, additional reviews from The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The New York Times and others plus articles from The Washington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, The San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Review and Education Week, please click here.

Mark Bauerlein is available exclusively through the MasterMedia Speakers Bureau for speeches, debates and seminars.

SUGGESTED SPEECH TOPICS

“How The Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans And Jeopardizes Our Future”


"Digital Captives, Not Natives: Or, Why Facebook Won't Let Me Go"

"Online Literacy of a Lesser Kind"


Authorís commentary one year later


May 14, 2009

Cultural Illiteracy: Is technology turning our kids into ďThe Dumbest GenerationĒ?

National Review Online--Reprinted with Permission

By Mark Bauerlein

EDITORíS NOTE: A year ago, Mark Bauerlein sparked a national conversation with his book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. The paperback edition has just been published. It includes a new preface, which is excerpted below.

When The Dumbest Generation first came out in May 2008, response in the media was swift and judgmental. Feature articles appeared in Newsweek, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, London Times, Haaretz (Israel), Superinteressante (Brazil), The Weekly Telegraph (Serbia), reviews in Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, while 80 or so radio and TV hosts conducted interviews, each effort more or less deftly outlining the issue and many landing hard on ďyeaĒ or ďnayĒ. A blank and broad question lay on the table. Do the digital diversions of the young cut kids off from history, civics, literature, fine art? Does mounting screen time dumb them down?

I think yes, others say no, but I never expected to vanquish the other side and end the debate. The realistic goal was to open the issue to some sober skepticism, to blunt the techno-zeal spreading through classrooms and libraries, shopping malls and childrenís bedrooms. It was to counter the sanguine portraits of informed and agile teens at the keyboard with dismaying survey results and illustrations of youth insulation and ignorance, kids shunning books and vaunting their digital nativity. We wonít know the full intellectual impact of text messaging, Web 2.0, Facebook, and the rest for many years, and it will show up in distant measures such as the money firms spend on writing coaches for employees, the rate of students in remedial classes, popular demand that politicians elevate their rhetoric, and the vocabulary level of newspapers inching downwards or upwards.

That evidence remains to be seen, but at least we can say that the general take on digital technology has expanded and diversified. For in the last year several books have joined The Dumbest Generation to set the purpose and uses of the tools in a critical spotlight. They include works by Andrew Keen (The Cult of the Amateur: How Blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the Rest of Todayís User-Generated Media Are Destroying Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values), Susan Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason), Lee Siegel (Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob), Nicholas Carr (The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google), Maggie Jackson (Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age), and several other popular and academic studies. Together they form an imposing countervailing force, an alliance to slow the headlong rush to technologize learning, reading, writing, social and intellectual life. They have forced a better, more reflective attitude toward the future, an appreciation of the wondrous things gained, yes, but also a sensitivity to precious goods and practices lost.

The Dumbest Generation also postulates an attitude toward the past, however, and several commentators picked up on it with a curt objection. Here we go again, they remarked, an aging schoolmaster knocking the kids. The old ones did it when Elvis arrived, and now they do it because of Grand Theft Auto. Weíve heard the grievance many times, the lament of graying folks, so letís not take it too seriously. A fair criticism, if an easy one, and it actually points to what may be the great social consequence of the digital advent. It turns on, precisely, the relationship of generations and the duties of elders. For, we all agree, one responsibility of adults in our society is to acquaint the rising generation to a civic and cultural inheritance. They have the experience and perspective that come with aging; the young do not. Teenagers live in the present and the immediate. What happened long ago and far away doesnít impress them. They care about what occurred last week in the cafeteria, not what took place during the Depression. They heed the words of Facebook, not the Gettysburg Address. They focus on other kids in English class, not leaders in D.C.

Maturity follows a formula: The more kids contact one another, the less they heed the tutelage of adults. When peer consciousness grows too fixed and firm, the teacherís voice counts for nothing outside the classroom. When youth identity envelopes them, parent talk at the dinner table only distracts them. The lure of school gossip, fear of ridicule, the urge to belong--kids need a reprieve and a retreat. Adult content, civic and historical stuff, makes the current events of high school less commanding. For them to grow up into mindful citizens and discerning consumers, then, adolescents must break the social circuit and think beyond the clique and the schoolyard. But they canít do it themselves-- peer pressure is too strong--and so adults must help draw them away. Mentors can provide instruction in bigger things: the op-ed page, actions of Congress, the heroism of Martin Luther King, what transpired in the Gulag, what the First Amendment says, the fate of Adam and Eve . . . They steer young minds toward deeper wisdom and young tastes toward finer consumptions. The story of heroes and villains from history sets the eminences of senior year in bracing relief. The eloquence of Emily Dickinson nicely explodes the favored patter of the hallways.

How can adults impart it, though, when peer-to-peer contact extends to every minute and every space of the day and night? Thatís the threat digital tools pose to parents and teachers. Equipped with Blackberry and laptop, sporting a flashy profile page and a blog, teenagers pass words and images back and forth 24/7. The bedroom is no longer a sanctuary, itís a command center. E-mails, text messages, blog postings and comments, phone calls, Tweets, feeds, photos, and songs pour in every evening, and if kids donít respond, they fall behind. Even when logged off and disconnected, they sense that a buddy (or nemesis) may be talking about them, passing around an image, setting a rendezvous, amplifying gossip, or leaving a message. An edifying case happens in the 2008 film ďAmerican TeenĒ, a documentary tracking five kids through senior year in high school in Warsaw, Indiana. At one point, an excitable girl sends her boyfriend a topless photo of herself, not realizing it will bounce to others in the network. Two girls grab it and with sadistic, masterful glee circulate it through every connection they know, and by the next morning when the girl comes to class every kid in school has her image downloaded and shared. The lesson strikes home: Peer contact never ends, and digital tools are as essential and ordinary as food and air and sleep.

This is the new habitus of the Digital Age. Youths undergo an intense awareness of one another, a high-pressure social feeling. The stakes are high ó is anything worse than exclusion? ó and so they have to tune in, to manage that omnipresence. They donít really enjoy it, for when they leave my class and flip open the cell they register concern, not glee. But if they donít check in, they donít know whether something big might have happened. Peer pressure long preceded the microchip, of course, but e-mail, cell phone, and the rest have cranked it up to critical levels, fostering an all-peers-all-the-time network. Communication is horizontal, centered on a narrow age-bracket, while parents and teachers hover outside the loop baffled by the immersion.

If parents and teachers donít contain it, if they donít find occasional substitutions for it, it will only get worse. The natural inclinations of the young flow toward one another, and each new tool speeds them faster on their way. Late-teens and early-twenty- somethings stand at a delicate threshold that marks the most important intellectual growth of their life. They have passed the basic skills of elementary and middle school, and now they acquire the higher knowledge and understanding requisite to good citizenship and tasteful consumption. These are the years in which they read good books, discuss great ideas, judge past events, and form moral scruples. If it doesnít happen in high school, in college, and in the home at this time, it probably never will. Once out in the workplace, raising kids, paying bills, and doing laundry, people donít have time, energy, or guidance to ponder The Federalist Papers or read The Divine Comedy. Every hour on MySpace, then, means an hour not practicing a musical instrument or learning a foreign language or watching C-SPAN. Every cell-phone call interrupts a chapter of Harry Potter or a look at the local paper. These are mind-maturing activities, and they donít have to involve Great Books and Big Ideas. They only have to cultivate habits of analysis and reflection, and implant knowledge of the world beyond.

They mark the opportunity costs of digital diversions, and as they accumulate over the months, the costs rise higher than they seem at any one moment. The Dumbest Generation counts them up and sounds an alert. It doesnít invoke an ideal past of multitudes of studious kids preferring Shakespeare to cartoons and activist kids debating the size of government. That never existed and never will. What did exist, however, was a climate in which the voices of elders and the value of history and civics, books and ideas, exercised more pressure on the young. Teen social life had a limit, and in those other hours the forces of adulthood were felt, if resented. When I was 16, I went to school and hung out with friends, and after school I played some basketball, hung out some more, and headed home. When I crossed the threshold and sat down to dinner, social life was over. I listened to parents converse about money, work, the household, travel plans, while Walter Cronkite reported on Vietnam and Watergate. I didnít like them and didnít want to talk to them, but I couldnít reach under the table with my handheld and connect with buddies. I couldnít go up to my room, flip open the laptop, and blog about the new biology teacher. Leisure options were fewer, and without ready access to friends, books, libraries, museums, and homework enjoyed a larger presence.

Thatís what has changed. The Digital Age has embroiled the young in a swirl of social groupings and contests, and it threatens their intellectual development. This is not a benign evolution of old media into new media, traditional literacy into e-literacy. It is a displacement. Digital tools have designs on the eyes and ears of the kids, and they pursue them aggressively. Once youths enter the digital realm, the race for attention begins and it doesnít like to stop for a half-hour with a novel or a trip to the museum. Digital offerings donít like to share, and tales of Founding Fathers and ancient battles and gothic churches canít compete with a message from a boyfriend, photos from the party, and a new device in the Apple Store window. Parents and teachers have a new rival in the lives of kids, not just a circle of friends but a spreading glossy marketplace of communications technology with a certified youth meaning. Put them together--the e-tools and the collective will of teens--and they look invincible.


Comments on Mark Bauerlein

Generation Dumb? College Media Network

Published: Thursday, November 20, 2008

I attended Bauerleinís lecture fully prepared to defend my generation from the bitter ranting of an old curmudgeon...But thatís not how Bauerlein came across. He came armed with some frightening statistics:
25 percent of first-year college students had not read a single book the preceding summer.

40 percent of students never meet with their professors outside of class.

Young people are six times more likely to know who the latest American Idol is than who the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is.

Even worse, a 2006 study found that nearly two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 24 couldnít locate Iraq on a map.


Itís hard to defend such ignorance. Our generation seems to care less about retaining information than we do about knowing where to find it.

Unfortunately, having access to knowledge, instantaneous as it might be, is no substitute for real knowledge. If one thing is true, itís that we are not taking full advantage of the vast wealth of resources available to us.

Our generation has more opportunities than any other generation in history, and access to more information than we could ever digest in our lifetimes.

The knowledge is out there, but we are still learning how to harness it effectively.

To succeed weíll have to prove Bauerlein wrong. This means putting those cell phones down for a few hours each day.

When all is said and done, I think writing off our generation will turn out to be a dumb move.

Copyright The Daily Tar Heel (UNC-Chapel Hill)

Reprinted with permission

Monday, 20 July, 2009

Hi Mark,

Trust you are well.

Just thought Iíd let you know the SAPOA Convention delegates rated you as follows:

General rating = 85%
Content and presentation = 83%
Delivery of presentation = 89%

Well done...this was the highest score of all keynote speakers.

You were very well received!

Regards,

Neil

Neil Gopal
Chief Executive Officer
South African Property Owners Association



September 22, 2009

Dear Tony,

I am working on a letter to Mark telling him how much we appreciated his contributions. The conference was a success and we were thrilled that he was able to be part of it.

It has been a pleasure working with you.

Sincerely,

Gay Rawson, Associate Professor of French & Russian, Concordia (MN) College


October 7, 2009

Dear Tony,

We had a packed auditorium for Markís performance. The students asked tough questions. We certainly enjoyed having him at the AHI and I think he enjoyed his stay.

Best wishes,

Bob Paquette

Robert L. Paquette, Ph.D., Charter Fellow, The Alexander Hamilton Institute (NY)


October 19, 2009

Thanks, Tony.

Everything went very well for Mark Bauerlein's visit. Unfortunately I had to be out of town for an unexpected trip. But Mark and I kept in contact, and my colleague back on campus was able to pick up where I left off. Since it was Family Weekend at Carleton College, we not only had our usual audience of students and faculty, but also several visitors. I have heard consistently positive comments about his presentation, his response to questions, and the discussions in which he engaged our students informally. It was a great visit! Thanks for making this all possible.

Best wishes, Kerry

Kerry Raadt, Director of Events, Office of College Relations, Carleton (MN) College


October 26, 2009

Hi Tony:

We loved Dr. Mark Bauerlein! He was gracious, intelligent, and easy to talk to. The faculty who ate lunch with him were so pleased for the opportunity and experience. The talk he did was engaging and lively and brought the biggest crowds we have had in our big lecture room. There were at least 150 people there. It was great to see students and faculty sitting shoulder to shoulder to listen to Dr. Bauerlein. He was great with questions and stayed until all the questions were asked and answered.

The next few days, people were still (and are still) talking about his presentation. It is not that we all agreed but he really increased our dialogue.

thanks! -Kim Davies

Kimberly Ann Davies, Ph.D., Chair, Department of Sociology, Augusta (GA) State University


October 28, 2009

Tony,

Mark was terrific. He is a good man and the students liked him much more than they thought they would. All was great. Good crowd of about 125 people at his public event. 30 at his small event at lunch and about the same at a book signing and reception.

I do think, and I will mention this to him, that his public talk would be even more effective if he dug into the statistics and arguments that are at the core of the book. But, he is probably tired of that and trying to find ways to make it interesting.

All in all, a successful day in Louisville and a personal delight for me.

GLG

Gary L. Gregg, Ph.D., Director, McConnell Center for Political Leadership, University of Louisville


Friday, October 30, 2009

Tony,

It was absolutely, wonderful. Everyone really enjoyed Mark, students and faculty. It was really important for our symposium to be academic in nature and provoke thought. Mark definitely did that! Mark's presentation really got many students thinking and asking questions.

He was so great to have here at Hastings College. I know he enjoyed collaborating with our other speakers while he was here. Thanks again for accommodating his trip out to Nebraska. He was a fabulous addition to our symposium.

Thanks again for everything, Tony.

Morgan Peters, ALS Student Symposium Committee, Hastings College (NE)


September 28, 2010

Dear Tony,

The event was a big success! Dr. Bauerlein drew a bigger crowd than we had planned for, so at the last minute, we changed to a bigger room. His lecture was interesting, and he was very engaging in the question and answer time. I believe he sold all of the books he brought. Our student fellows really enjoyed dinner with him afterwards.

Best regards,

Tara

Tara Jackson, Program Coordinator, The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy, Georgetown University


SELECTED REVIEWS OF THE DUMBEST GENERATION

#1-The Dumbest Generation-The Los Angeles Times-Lee Drutman

How dumb are we? Thanks to the Internet, dumb and dumber, this author writes.

July 5, 2008

In the four minutes it probably takes to read this review, you will have logged exactly half the time the average 15- to 24-year-old now spends reading each day. That is, if you even bother to finish. If you are perusing this on the Internet, the big block of text below probably seems daunting, maybe even boring. Who has the time? Besides, one of your Facebook friends might have just posted a status update!

Such is the kind of recklessly distracted impatience that makes Mark Bauerlein fear for his country. "As of 2008," the 49-year-old professor of English at Emory University writes in The Dumbest Generation, "the intellectual future of the United States looks dim."

The way Bauerlein sees it, something new and disastrous has happened to America's youth with the arrival of the instant gratification go-go-go digital age. The result is, essentially, a collective loss of context and history, a neglect of "enduring ideas and conflicts." Survey after painstakingly recounted survey reveals what most of us already suspect: that America's youth know virtually nothing about history and politics. And no wonder. They have developed a "brazen disregard of books and reading."

Things were not supposed to be this way. After all, "never have the opportunities for education, learning, political action, and cultural activity been greater," writes Bauerlein, a former director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. But somehow, he contends, the much-ballyhooed advances of this brave new world have not only failed to materialize--they've actually made us dumber.

The problem is that instead of using the Web to learn about the wide world, young people instead mostly use it to gossip about each other and follow pop culture, relentlessly keeping up with the ever-shifting lingua franca of being cool in school. The two most popular websites by far among students are Facebook and MySpace. "Social life is a powerful temptation," Bauerlein explains, "and most teenagers feel the pain of missing out."

This ceaseless pipeline of peer-to-peer activity is worrisome, he argues, not only because it crowds out the more serious stuff but also because it strengthens what he calls the "pull of immaturity." Instead of connecting them with parents, teachers and other adult figures, "[the web . . . encourages more horizontal modeling, more raillery and mimicry of people the same age."

When Bauerlein tells an audience of college students, "You are six times more likely to know who the latest American Idol is than you are to know who the speaker of the U.S. House is," a voice in the crowd tells him: " 'American Idol' IS more important."

Bauerlein also frets about the nature of the Internet itself, where people "seek out what they already hope to find, and they want it fast and free, with a minimum of effort." In entering a world where nobody ever has to stick with anything that bores or challenges them, "going online habituates them to juvenile mental habits."

And all this feeds on itself. Increasingly disconnected from the "adult" world of tradition, culture, history, context and the ability to sit down for more than five minutes with a book, today's digital generation is becoming insulated in its own stultifying cocoon of bad spelling, civic illiteracy and endless postings that hopelessly confuse triviality with transcendence. Two-thirds of U.S. undergraduates now score above average on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, up 30% since 1982, he reports.

At fault is not just technology but also a newly indulgent attitude among parents, educators and other mentors, who, Bauerlein argues, lack the courage to risk "being labeled a curmudgeon and a reactionary."

But is he? The natural (and anticipated) response would indeed be to dismiss him as your archetypal cranky old professor who just can't understand why "kids these days" don't find Shakespeare as timeless as he always has. Such alarmism ignores the context and history he accuses the youth of lacking--the fact that mass ignorance and apathy have always been widespread in anti-intellectual America, especially among the youth. Maybe something is different this time. But, of course. Something is different every time.

The book's ultimate doomsday scenario--of a dull and self-absorbed new generation of citizens falling prey to demagoguery and brazen power grabs--seems at once overblown (witness, for example, this election season's youth reengagement in politics) and also yesterday's news (haven't we always been perilously close to this, if not already suffering from it?). But amid the sometimes annoyingly frantic warning bells that ding throughout The Dumbest Generation, there are also some keen insights into how the new digital world really is changing the way young people engage with information and the obstacles they face in integrating any of it meaningfully. These are insights that educators, parents and other adults ignore at their peril.

Lee Drutman is co-author of The People's Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy.

Reprinted with permission.

#2-Casting a wide 'net-CHICAGO SUN-TIMES-Lewis Lazare

Author argues convincingly that the digital generation has grown up without the ability to reason properly.

June 24, 2008

At first glance, author Mark Bauerlein's well-argued new book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Tarcher/Penguin, 265 pgs., $24.95), might appear to have little or nothing to do with the world of advertising. But in fact, the book should be required reading for anyone involved in the advertising world for two reasons. First, the ad industry is obsessed with the Internet. Second, and perhaps most important, advertising is now dominated by hordes of young people, whom industry elders believe are best equipped to create advertising that speaks to a younger demographic.

But as Bauerlein's compelling book makes abundantly clear, the young people to whom the ad industry has been turned over are increasingly not equipped to do the job. The Dumbest Generation is, in truth, the depressing answer to why the ad industry, especially in the United States, has declined so much in creative quality in recent years. No interest in history, news in a nutshell, Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, insists America is raising a generation of intellectual idiots who troll the Internet incessantly not to enrich themselves with knowledge, but rather as an "instrument of peer contact." Among the vast amount (too much really) of research Bauerlein has put in his book -- no doubt to help counteract those who would say he is merely indulging in a curmudgeonly rant -- is the findings of a 2006 poll conducted by Northwestern University communications professor Esther Hargittai. She polled 1,300 students at the University of Illinois-Chicago about their favorite Web destinations. At No. 1 was Facebook (78.1 percent) followed by MySpace (50.7 percent). Only 5 percent of those polled regularly checked a blog or forum on politics, economics, law or policy. And so it goes.

The Dumbest Generation paints a portrait of young Americans who are overwhelmingly self-absorbed and narcissistic. Can such a generation of young people under 30--and no doubt generations that will follow--be expected to have the intellectual wherewithal to create advertising that is more than a collection of juvenile punch lines? Highly doubtful. So it will be up to those now in positions of power at ad agencies to keep the business from losing all connection with creativity and intelligence by insisting new hires meet a very high standard indeed. It won't be easy to find able recruits. Bauerlein knows why: "The Dumbest Generation” cares little for history books, civic principles, foreign affairs, comparative religion, and serious media and art, and it knows less. They are latter-day Rip Van Winkles, sleeping through the movements of culture and events of history, preferring the company of peers to great books and powerful ideas and momentous happenings. Take note, all who genuinely worry about the future of advertising. You have been warned.

Reprinted with permission.

#3-Dummy 'drumbeat' goes on for U.S. students-USATODAY.com - Greg Toppo

February 26, 2008

Seventy-four percent of students knew Christopher Columbus sailed for the New World before 1750.

In her new book, The Age of American Unreason, cultural critic Susan Jacoby tells of a dinner conversation with a student who was about to graduate with honors from Michigan State University in 2006. After Jacoby dropped a reference to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "fireside chats," she watched as the student "looked absolutely blank" in response. Shocking, but these days, par for the course. A slew of new books, studies and films all tell a similar tale: Americans--especially young Americans-- don't know much about much. Overfed on self-esteem, pop culture and digital entertainment, students are starved for genuine literary, historical, scientific and mathematical knowledge, critics say.

QUIZ: Are you smarter than a 17-year-old?
STUDY RESULTS: Teens losing touch with common historical references But others say teens are working as hard as ever, tackling course work their parents only dreamed of. Each time researchers and think tank types attack, the response from educators gets a bit wearier.

For lack of a better term, call it Dummy Fatigue.
"There is this kind of Aren't We Stupid? industry," researcher Rick Hess says. "It's a drumbeat: 'Don't we keep getting dumber?' " In addition to Jacoby's best seller, the latest evidence is the upcoming book, The Dumbest Generation, by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein and a study by Hess, out today, that finds nearly six in 10 17-year-olds can't place the Civil War in the second half of the 19th century.

It all drives Leslie Edwards nuts. "I get tired of hearing it," says the Rochester, N.Y., high school English teacher. "I look at my kids' faces, and it's not really an accurate portrayal of what exists."

But numbers don't lie, do they?
Then what to make of the huge growth in the number of teens taking college-level Advanced Placement courses? Enrollment is growing at 10% annually. According to the College Board, which owns the AP program, 63% of college-bound seniors took four or more years of social sciences and history in 2007, up from 39% in 1987. The number passing AP U.S. history tests has risen nearly 200% since 1992.

"Students are coming in and are being held to a higher standard than they were 10 and 20 years ago," says Trevor Packer, who oversees AP for the College Board. And yet the percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds with high school diplomas has barely budged in nearly 20 years. Actually, says economist James Heckman, if you take a closer look, it peaked about 40 years ago and has dropped about five percentage points with no change in the gap between diplomas earned by white and minority students.

All this data suggest it is both the best of times and the worst of times. While the top students are exceeding expectations, the remainder are dragging the team down. "At the high end, our best 5% to 15% of high school kids are pretty well-educated," says Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank. "Those are the ones who go on to college and keep America the successful nation that it's been." But we're "still doing a pretty crummy job" with the rest. Author E.D. Hirsch, who for decades has championed a "core knowledge" curriculum heavy in history and literature, says the problem began far earlier than most people suspect. "I've come to realize that this was a slow march from the beginning of the 20th century," he says. He blames a K-12 education system that values "critical thinking" above content. It has led to "total incoherence" for most students from early on.

The education system also is focused less on facts and memorization than on analysis, says Wayne Camara, the College Board's director of research. He graduated from high school in 1974 and recalls memorizing Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. "I don't think my kids have," he says. "Rather than memorize it, they've had to learn to analyze it." Researcher Hess blames the poor results on a system that has largely forgotten the humanities. Jacoby, who recounted the "fireside chat" encounter in her new book, says part of the problem is an inability of educators to agree on solid national standards.

"If there is any reason to hope, it has to be that ordinary people, parents of ordinary children, are getting disturbed about this," she says. Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, due in May, blames digital technology, which distracts kids in ways their parents could never imagine. "When we were 17 years old, social life stopped at the front door," says Bauerlein, 49. Now teens can continue their conversations online, on Facebook, by instant messaging or on cellphones in their bedrooms--all night. "Peer-to-peer contact … has no limitation in space or time." No wonder teenagers know less about the world, he says. Their focus on one another "won't let the adult realities of history and civics through. What the mayor does with a city council meeting is not going to penetrate into what so-and-so did last week with his girlfriend."

Reprinted with permission.

 

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