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Scholars Diverge in Assessing the Intellect of ‘Digital Kids’

By Andrew Trotter — September 30, 2008 5 min read
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Has digital overload made today’s generation of students stupid? Or, alternatively, do the “digital kids” have intellectual assets and skills that make them the smartest generation yet?

Two experts who have studied what is often called the “millennial generation”—people born from the mid-1980s to around 2000—debated those questions here last week before about a hundred journalists, lobbyists, and education policy experts and researchers.

Speaking at a Sept. 29 luncheon hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta, argued that students’ obsession with round-the-clock social networking and video games has led to a generation that is engaged only with itself, and that has abandoned serious leisure reading and in-depth understanding of important topics.

“The high school and college years, it’s a short period,” said Mr. Bauerlein, a former research director at the National Endowment for the Arts. “In spite of its brevity and dynamism, this is the most crucial intellectual stage in these young persons’ lives.”

‘Crowding Out’ Mentors

Digital Kids: Smartest or Dumbest?

The two speakers discussed their views with Education Week reporter Andrew Trotter shortly after their Sept. 29 debate hosted by the American Enterprise Institute.

Mark Bauerlein

Neil Howe

This time of life, Mr. Bauerlein said, is young people’s “precious” chance to acquire the conceptual tools and background knowledge that will become the foundation for their intellectual lives, careers, and citizenship.

“If you don’t read the ‘Divine Comedy’ and ‘Macbeth’ [then], you’re probably not going to,” he said.

Mr. Bauerlein cited a raft of statistics from, among other sources, the National Assessment of Educational Progress and college-admission tests, to back up his argument that an intellectual decline has occurred.

One such statistic, an estimate based on a 2002 National Endowment for the Arts survey on participation in the arts and use of leisure time, is that the proportion of people ages 18 to 24 who said they read literature dropped by 28 percent from 1982 to 2002.

“In 1982, 18- to 24-year-olds formed one of the most active, avid reading groups in our country, but by 2002 they had become the least active, avid reading group,” Mr. Bauerlein said.

As a consequence of young people’s immersion in technology, he said in an interview after the debate, “teen-to-teen contact is crowding out the voices of teachers, of parents, of ministers, of other mentors in their lives, and this pattern is keeping young people locked in youth concerns,” at the expense of history, foreign affairs, politics, and fine arts.

Further effects, in his view, are spelled out in the title of his new book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future—Or Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.

Taking the opposing side was Neil Howe, a historian, economist, and demographer who also has published a book on the subject—Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation—co-written by William Strauss, a demographics consultant, and published in 2000.

Mr. Howe, the president of LifeCourse Associates, a consulting firm based in Great Falls, Va., reeled off statistics to show positive trends, such as the generation’s “reversal of self-destructive behaviors” in youth pregnancy and substance abuse, and a sustained trend of rising scores on IQ tests.

Simpsons vs. Flintstones

Mr. Howe argued that young people’s leisure pursuits today are “more sophisticated” than those of his generation, the baby boomers.

“We watched ‘Gunsmoke,’ which has one plot,” while the millennials watch multilayered dramas like “Law and Order,” Mr. Howe said. Today’s animated TV show “The Simpsons” and the video game SimCity are similarly more complex than the boomer fare of “The Flintstones” and the board game Monopoly, he said.

And in school, Mr. Howe said, 21st-century students take part in much more elaborate activities than did past generations—creating robots, writing software programs, and developing entries for science fairs that, at the top end at least, sometimes result in patentable innovations.

In follow-up comments, Mr. Bauerlein conceded that the current generation has “a cohort of superkids out there pulling up the [Advanced Placement] scores,” as well as some improvement in scores at the bottom achievement levels. But those increases, he said, mask declines in areas such as literature that cause him concern.

Mr. Bauerlein said that strong sales figures for children’s literature in recent years are due solely to the Harry Potter blockbusters and are not reflected in sales of other children’s books.

Both scholars agreed that the millennials show positive trends, such as lower rates of violent crime and greater professional ambitions.

They also agreed that today’s young people have greater access to cultural resources and information than any previous generation, thanks largely to the Internet.

A ‘Corrective’ Generation?

Mr. Howe admonished those who judge millennials harshly to avoid “myths,” such as the assumption that “video games are making kids dumber.”

He suggested that Mr. Bauerlein was trying to measure the millennials by a boomer yardstick. Generations do take on characteristics that reflect their times, and the millennials may have more in common with the “GI generation” that fought in World War II, Mr. Howe said.

That generation, he said, had a new sense of optimism and collective purpose that he believes contrasted with the attitudes of the boomer generation that followed.

“We may be looking at a [millennial] generation very similar to the generation that raised us,” Mr. Howe said of his fellow baby boomers. “They might be a corrective to us, as we were a corrective to our own parents.”

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the aei, who moderated the debate, said that while the two speakers generally agreed on what the trends were, “what you heard from them are two perspectives on what is most important.”

Mr. Howe presented “very much the pragmatic view” that millennials can thrive with applied skills and problem-solving, Mr. Hess said, while Mr. Bauerlein “emphasized the traditional notion of education as central to creating the whole person” who is versed in the intellectual heritage of one’s society.

A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as Scholars Diverge in Assessing the Intellect of ‘Digital Kids’

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