Saturday, December 6, 2008


According to a new book, "The Dumbest Generation" by Mark Bauerlein of Emory University, subtitled -- "How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future" -- says it all. Generational put downs, Bauerlein's included, are typically long on attitude and short on facts. But the underlying question is worth pursuing: If the data are objectively assessed, which age-slice of today's working-age adults really does deserve to be called the dumbest generation? You may not be surprised at the answer, but as a male aged 52 (born in 1956), and a high school graduate in 1974, I am mortified to say, it is my generation, apparently.
Those born from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, compared with every other generational grouping, have performed the worst on standardized exams, acquired the fewest educational degrees and been the least attracted to professional careers. In a word, we're the dumbest.
Here's the bottom line: On both the reading and the math tests, and at all three tested ages (9, 13 and 17), the lowest-ever scores in the history of the NAEP were recorded by children born between 1961 and 1965.
The same pattern shows up in SAT scores. The SAT reached its all-time high in 1963, when it tested the 1946 birth cohort. Then it fell steeply for 17 straight years, hitting its all-time low in 1980, when it tested the 1963 cohort. Ever since, the SAT has been gradually on the rise, paralleling improvements in the NAEP. In 2005, teens born in 1988 scored better on the combined SAT than any teens born since 1956 (my personal year of birth) -- and better on the math SAT than any teens born since 1951.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans born from 1958 to 1962 have the highest share that has never completed high school among all age brackets between 25 and 60. They also have the lowest share with a four-year college degree among all age brackets between 30 and 60, and they're tied for lowest in graduate degrees. Once this generation entered the labor force in the 1980s, the Bureau of Labor Statistics noticed something else: For the first time in decades, the share of young adults entering professions such as law, medicine and accounting began to drop.
Why so? Quite simply, we were children at a uniquely unfavorable moment -- a time when the divorce rate accelerated, when the media image of children turned demonic and when the "latch key" lesson for kids stressed self reliance rather than trust in others.
By the time we entered middle and high school, classrooms were opened, we were allowed to leave campus for lunches, overall standards were lowered, and basically, all forms of supervision had disappeared. Compared with earlier- or later-born students at the same age, we were assigned less homework, watched more TV and took more drugs. I wish I could do anything other than concur for my generation here.
I remember from my adolescence, no matter what trouble I got into as a teenager, drinking, smoking, being truant from school, staying out way too late etc., my parents always said the same thing...."at least Kim is not on drugs." That was the fear of all parents in the 70's, their child may be smoking pot, or taking drugs. And to be honest, drugs were prevalent during this time, and incredibly easy to get. One of our most favorite things to do back then was to attend a rock concert, where pot smoking was the rule, and not the exception. So universally accepted at concerts, law enforcement could not control it, so they did somewhat our parents did, bury their heads in the sand and justify their non actions by thinking "at least they aren't killing each other."
Most of my generation knows the score. Most of my generation realizes they have made a huge mistake not taking their education seriously, and actually finishing. I myself attended college for four years, majoring in political science, dropping classes before I failed, and being inebriated. And today, as midlife parents, most of us have become ultra-protective of their own teenage kids and ultra-demanding of their kids' schools, as if to make double-certain it won't happen again, but the results are mixed as to whether their concerns and efforts have succeeded.
Does America need to worry that my generational group is taking over as our national leaders (Barack Obama is only 6 years younger than me......or is it I?). Probably not. My generation does have certain strengths that many more learned people lack: We are practical and resilient, we handle risk well, and we know how to improvise when even the experts don't know the answer. In short, we may not have the pigskin, but we are smart and intuitive enough to bullshit our way through. Make of that what you will.
What we should be worried about is the generation coming up. They are extremely computer savvy, if you count texting and face book entries, where a lack of capitalization and IM codes dominate online writing. They do not read, nor do they care to. Without spell check, they are toast on any school assignment.
As the author states in his book: "The ignorance is hard to believe ... It isn't enough to say that these young people are uninterested in world realities. They are actively cut off from them. ... They are encased in more immediate realities that shut out conditions beyond -- friends, work, clothes, cars, pop music, sitcoms, and Face book.''
They do use the Internet as a source of information. They "google" a question and receive the answer. They have a world of information at their fingertips, but they do not retain the information; the Internet is just a delivery system, a vehicle used to inhibit and eliminate the need for actual thought. But ask them how to operate Grand Theft Auto III, the latest video game (which sold $50 million worth seemingly over night), and they will ace the test.
Video gaming is so popular, so persuasive among our newest generation, that scientists are now studying whether or not children are actually addicted to it. Reports in South Korea have even gone so far as to indicate that video gaming children actually hear the video game sound effects in their minds even when not operating the game itself.
Do these facts scare or horrify me? To a certain extent. However given these facts, I am relieved to think in a few years it will be officially documented that they, and not my generation are now the "dumbest generation." And they will probably do OK as well, as we will give them what our parents unconsciously gave us, the ability to bullshit their way through life's dilemmas.


Jennifer said...

As a librarian, I'm compelled to elaborate on your comment about the use of Google. People (young and old alike) google a question and receive AN answer - but it's not necessarily THE answer. Most folks don't know how to find authoritative sources, nor can they tell the difference between the authoritative sources and the junk. They also don't know how to use effectively the information they find. Don't get me wrong - librarians are not Luddites - we LOVE the Internet (and some of us have even been known to play video games), but sometimes we're dismayed by what we see passing as "good" information.

As for you, don't worry - at least you know that "data" is plural!

Jennifer said...

Oh wow, I was just thinking about the last sentence of my previous comment and realized it's one of those examples of the coldness of cyberspace, where, without verbal cues or the appropriate emoticons, things can sound negative when they're not at all meant to be. Kimba, I hope my comment didn't come across badly. You are one of the smartest people I know, which is the whole reason why I read this blog.

Kim said...

Not at all. I absolutely agree. It is like Wikopedia, you have no idea who to believe on the internet.

As to my being one of the smartest people you need to get out and meet some more people. I am only "blue collar smart."

You, on the other hand are well versed in most, if not all areas, including Ned Ludd; why I have no idea, but you are.

Odd, I was giving a training class last Thursday (more of a managerial brainstorming session--I can't stand monopolizing training time, while my students fail to mentally engage with me), and the subject of sabotage came up. One of the smarter assistant managers came up with "sabotage...sabo, from the Dutch meaning shoe." Apparently workers would break machinery in protest by tossing in their shoes.

When I asked him how he happened to remember such trivia, he said he learned it from Star Trek. Now I can throw Ned Ludd back into his face.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer, I just looked over my last comment, and is it my turn to back away from what I wrote? I didn't mean to say your knowledge of the luddite movement was trivial. I was impressed. Keep it up, it forces me to (sorry) google the word or phrase and expand my horizons.

Kimba (for some odd reason blogger isn't taking my password, possibly because we hurt its parent company Google's feelings?)

Jennifer said...

No offense taken whatsoever, and I should probably admit that I didn't know the origin of "sabotage" either until I heard it in a Star Trek movie.

As for hurting Google's feelings, (and if you don't mind me plugging one of my blogs) please feel free to comment on "Google: Knowledge Gatekeeper or Evil Empire?" - or any of the posts on The KendallCat Café.