Why It’s So Hard to Teach Students These Days

Several years ago, Tom Brokaw wrote a best-seller, The Greatest Generation, a tribute to the Americans of the World War II era. After reading Mark Bauerlein’s new book The Dumbest Generation, you have to wonder if history wouldn’t have turned out much worse if the “Millennial Generation” – today’s youth and young adults – had been in charge during the 1940s. We might be taking orders from Berlin.

Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, has dealt with young people for years and is dismayed at what he sees: “While the world has provided them with extraordinary chances to gain knowledge and improve their reading/writing skills, not to mention offering financial incentives to do so, young Americans today are no more learned or skillful than their predecessors, no more knowledgeable, fluent, up-to-date, or inquisitive, except in materials of youth culture….”

He continues: “They read less on their own, both books and newspapers, and you would have to canvass a lot of college English instructors and employers before you would find one who said they compose better paragraphs.”

A strong indictment, but Bauerlein backs it up.

Whereas we have been progressing technologically, he believes, we’ve been retrogressing intellectually – young Americans especially. That makes life difficult for teachers and professors, but more importantly, it bodes ill for the nation’s civic health.

In fact, the technology that has revolutionized communications is a key component of the problem. The Internet and its various offspring have largely supplanted books and other traditional sources of information. Among other changes it has brought about is that for the first time in history, it’s possible for adolescents to spend nearly all of their time if they choose (and many do) in the company of other adolescents. In our wired world, kids can come home from school but remain in almost constant touch with their friends via cell phones, instant messaging and so forth. That means the ability to tune out their parents and other adults who not only have different –i.e., mature – perspectives, but who also might discourage the sloppy linguistic and mental patterns of adolescence. Sadly, many young Americans live almost entirely in a world revolving around their friends, clothes, pop music, TV, and Facebook.

Ah, but what about all the good educational material available on the Internet? Mostly, the young ignore it, Bauerlein observes. Furthermore, what good content exists is being influenced by the sorry reading habits of young people. Those habits are marked by short attention spans, a very limited vocabulary and unwillingness to look up new words, an aversion to lengthy passages, and a preference for “scanning” rather than close reading. Internet material is generally written with those habits in mind.

School textbooks have been trending toward ever-increasing simplicity for many years (lots of pictures and bullet points, less and less prose) and the Internet has thrown that trend into high gear. Consequently, when young people confront the writing in assigned books in college courses, serious magazine articles, and even newspaper editorials, they mostly shy away.

Bauerlein isn’t blaming the technology or the young people. It’s the adult world that is responsible, starting with those who have glorified “youth culture” going back to the 1960s. Many writers in effect said that it’s America’s adults who need to learn from the nation’s youth and not the other way around. That line was a political tactic in the 60s and 70s since the “youth movement” was overwhelmingly leftist.

The glorification of youth was strongly reinforced by “progressive” educational theories emanating from our leading schools of education – theories insisting that the proper role for teachers is to act simply as “facilitators” who guide students in “constructing their own knowledge.” Supposedly, active young minds would do that if they were free to follow their own natural inclinations.

That theory took hold first in the lower K-12 grades and rapidly spread upward. Many college professors resisted it and continued to assign challenging reading material, only to discover that students either wouldn’t read it or if they tried, just couldn’t grasp it. As a result, professors have widely lowered their standards to accommodate the a-literacy of their students. In turn, that means that our supposedly highly educated populace actually contains a small and declining number of people capable of functioning at a high intellectual level.

Why is it that so many young Americans now have trouble reading? Bauerlein argues that the main culprit is poor vocabulary. To be able to understand serious written material (such as true college texts), it’s necessary to have a command of English well beyond the simple vocabulary found on Internet screens and the dumbed-down school readings students are used to. He explains, “Years of consumption of low rare-word media, then, have a dire intellectual effect. A low-reading, high-viewing childhood and adolescence prevent a person from handling relatively complicated texts, not just professional discourses, but civic and cultural media such as the New York Times Review of Books and the National Review.”

To sum up, even though Americans now have more formal education than ever – more classroom time, more degrees – the young generation is quite poorly educated. It isn’t just that they don’t know much, but that they’re not much interested in acquiring knowledge and ill-equipped to comprehend anything that isn’t written in the simplest of modes. Hence the unflattering title of the book.

One implication is that college professors who want to teach the way they were taught encounter indifference and even hostility. Another Emory professor, Patrick Allitt, has written a book on the difficulty he has in getting students to engage with his subject, American history. I reviewed his I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student here.

Another, more serious implication is that we’ll have fewer people in the future who will be able to defend our culture against the inevitable attacks upon it. Bauerlein writes,

Two generations on, we see the effects of the sovereignty of youth, and one of them bears upon culture wars to come. Put bluntly, few members of the rising cohort are ready to enlist in them properly outfitted with liberal learning and good archetypes. An able culture warrior passes long hours in libraries and public debate. He knows the great arguments, and he applies them smoothly to the day’s issues….It is the rare under-30-year-old who comes close to qualifying, even as a novice. They don’t read enough books and study enough artworks or care enough to do so. They don’t ponder enough ideas or have the vocabulary to discuss them.”

Some might brush this book off as mere grumbling by a disaffected professor, but it isn’t that. Bauerlein’s point is much deeper than the common complaint about lazy students. We’ve had a national educational melt-down and are apt to suffer grievously for it.

What to do? Bauerlein doesn’t conclude with an optimistic chapter on how we can turn things around. He does suggest that colleges should stop treating students like customers to be coddled. Those who can handle serious academic work should be required to do so and those who can’t but are willing to try should be helped as much as possible. If colleges were to start raising their fallen standards, we would expand the cohort of people who are capable of serious thinking, of defending the culture, and of countering demagogues.

Perhaps because it’s so obvious, Bauerlein doesn’t also say that it would help matters greatly if parents of young children would do all they can to avoid letting them become hooked on the online, a-literate lifestyle that does so much to create mental weaklings.

The Dumbest Generation is a badly needed diagnosis of what may be America’s most serious long-run problem.