Friday, April 30, 2010

Are We Enabling a Generation of über-dumpkopfs?




Well, according to author Mark Bauerlein (The Dumbest Generation), we are. In his book he depressingly documents how the under-30 crowd are foregoing knowledge-based maturity to wallow in a self-confected, solipsistic, social mirror world of their own egos and selves. The fallout includes their not even meeting basic standards of knowledge for employment, far less earning a degree that actually means anything. (A recent survey found a majority of Harvard grads flunked a basic test on American History. Given many of these may well become future leaders, we're really in trouble!)

According to one polling of University of Illinois-Chicago students by Northwestern University communications professor Esther Hargatti (op. cit., p. 135) the students’ choices were all too predictable. As Bauerlein puts it:

“At number one stood Facebook (78.1%) followed by MySpace (50.7%). Only 5% checked a blog or forum on politics, economics, law or policy”

As he adds, the “acclaimed empowerment” of the Web has gone entirely to “social stuff”.

Are these proportions surprising? Not really. As Bauerlein observes, 18-20 year olds love digital media because it “allows them to construct a reflexive surrounding.” While their boring job tires them and the classroom irks them, their twittering, facebooking, myspacing and video gaming “mirrors their own woes and fantasies, a pre-packaged representation of the world- a ‘Daily ME’”

Thus, the digital media used, whether Facebook,Twitter or just dumb cell messages all contribute to an artificial solipsistic world filtered by the egocentric dispositions of the users. Instead of being a channel of information and knowledge consolidation, the monitor screen becomes a mirror of the young users’ own limited selves and under-developed psyches.

Bauerlein (p. 137) underscores this by citing a quote from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, purporting to reveal the secret of his site in terms of never having to “hear a dissenting word’:

“ That’s kind of what we are doing here, but with ‘what’s going on in the world with these people I care about’. “

So, all the things that bother and bore them are blocked out. The people they don’t know and don’t want to know they can exclude at the touch of key. A new bomb may have been developed by Iran, and an earthquake may have killed thousands in China, but in the case of Facebook users it’s the old monkey show: “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” .

A delimited reality is confected which deliberately excludes the harsh outside world, and confines the personalized reality to chirpy “how r ya’s”, or gossip, mainly in deformed English which Bauerlein ranks just above the reading level of pre-school children’s books (determined by the median frequency of rare or difficult words per 1000 – with print newspapers at the top with 68.3 and pre-school books at 16.3)

The entire mental superstructure was revealed in the words of one 16 year old girl quoted (p. 137-38) when asked by a journalist if she wasn’t worried that she was denied a broader picture. Her illuminating retort:

I’m not trying to get a broader picture, I’m trying to get what I want”.

Out of the mouths of “babes”!

But are we really helping to engender a generation of über-dumpkopfs? Maybe, maybe not. At the very least we may be contributing to the emergence of a generation of pseudo-intellectual Babbits governed by their own opinions, supported by very little factual basis. How can they assimilate a factual basis when the language to describe much of what is happening in the world’s most critical domains exceeds the language difficulty level to which they’re accustomed?

Just take what is happening in the world of global finance right now, with events in Greece, Spain and Portugal that could affect all of Europe and even the U.S. I am talking about the degradation of their respective bond ratings (an assessment of how much debt they have and how likely they are to be able to deal with it). In the case of Greece, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s ratings have reduced the country’s bond quality to being ineligible for any loans other than via the International Monetary Fund(IMF). As anyone who’s seen the IMF act before (I did, in Barbados in 1990-91) you know it means the loans come at great cost and some suffering – with many public services cut or privatized and civil servants’ wages cut. Meanwhile, the news in the financial press yesterday was that the rating agency Standard & Poor reduced Spain's bond rating to A-minus and set off much panic. Would Spain become another Greece? Will the "contagion spread"? Who knows, but certainly not most electronic media addicts, blissfully unaware that a Greek-style bond crash might see them pawning their laptops at the nearest pawn shop just to buy a few Mickey D burgers and fries!

How many of the Twitter-Facebook generation are aware of any of this? How many even think it’s relevant to their lives? (Well, maybe they will when their college loans are affected, new conditions applied- e.g. higher interest rates, or college tuition, room and board etc. are increased 50% or more).

I reckon not many Gen Y’ers care because their little digital world of tweets, Facebook “friending” and video gaming is what defines their limited universe. But as author Bauerlein notes (p. 138):

“For education to happen, people must encounter worthwhile things outside their sphere of interest and brainpower. Knowledge grows, skills improve, tastes refine and conscience ripens only if the experiences bear a degree of unfamiliarity.”

What that means, as he further observes, is one must move through and beyond the initial knee-jerk reaction: “I don’t get it! That’s not for me, not my cup of tea!”

because the intellectual effort in making it your ‘cup of tea’ will then be intellectually rewarding. Bauerlein again (ibid.):

“Nobody savors the process, but mature adults realize the benefits. Adolescents don’t and digital connections save them the labor of self-improvement…..the screen and cell bombard adolescents with youth trifles and the sporadic brush with challenging subjects that recall their shortcomings are quickly offset by a few minutes back in virtual comfort zones”

And – as the author warns, the “opportunity costs are high”. Imagine instead of wasting hours and days on pseudo-socializing (which I define in terms of digital contacts-communication, rather than face-to-face or the famous “bull sessions” such as we used to partake of in the 60s) the young adult pursued actual knowledge aims – learning the conjugation of Russian verbs, or Latin, or how to integrate around a pole using residue calculus, or …just learning about what’s transpiring now at the interface of politics and finance in terms of financial regulations and reform.

‘AWWWWWW……BOOOOOOOOORRRRRING!’

Well, yes, to the undeveloped and raw mind. But getting beyond that reaction is what molds and defines the adult. It is, if you will, the sine qua non rite of passage to adulthood in a civilization which generally foregoes such rites.

Neil Postman in his book, ‘The Disappearance of Childhood’ (1994) noted at that time how television was infantilizing children and many adults, and the more hours they viewed (without also being exposed to difficult reading) essentially kept them at the level of a child. Postman’s main contention (so germane today with the digital youth generation) was that only adults are privy to the secrets locked into the printed word. If a supposed adult wanted to emphatically separate himself from the world and concerns of the child, he had to demonstrate it by his reading fare. That meant accessing a realm in printed material that the child mind wasn't equipped to process or understand. Twitter all you want and "friend" a million buddies on Facebook, you're still a de facto, intellectual child. Now, go read the first chapter of Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness or Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, or even William Shakespeare's King Lear, we will reconsider your status. (University degrees may or may not count given how inflated most grades are today, because of the teacher evaluation system).

Any person can basically access an electronic medium if they apply even minimal effort, that includes cell phones, tv, video games and twitter. Any person can also employ those media to blab nonsense, gossip or indulge in aimless chatter. But what defines the adult mind is whether it can tackle a serious print work such as Being and Nothingness, The Origin of Species, The Origins of the Federal Reserve System, or ‘Relativity’ – the popular rendering of special and general relativity by Albert Einstein. Thus, the barrier to adult intellectual capacity is breached once one proves he or she can handle the latter. (And no, the content isn't necessarily supposed to be such that it "synchs" with you!) Socializing on Facebook is accessible to any child, so is watching network TV (perhaps not cable TV special programs such as the recent ones on Discovery featuring physicist Stephen Hawking)

This blog, by the way, has as one of its aims the intention of putting up lots of material that may be unfamiliar to readers. The idea is to challenge blog readers to move beyond their intellectual comfort zones and stretch. That’s why so many blog pieces are on mathematics, as well as finance, and even philosophy (e.g. the blogs on The Truth Hurdle, Pts. 1 and 2)

In this way, I try to do my part to spur readers, hopefully older and YOUNGER to read more widely, think more deeply and formulate more opinions based on fact, as opposed to just childish, subjective feelings or immature impressions.

2 comments:

janidebar said...

"But are we really helping to engender a generation of über-dumpkopfs? Maybe, maybe not. At the very least we may be contributing to the emergence of a generation of pseudo-intellectual Babbits governed by their own opinions, supported by very little factual basis"


I think that's the more likely outcome: too many opinionated sprats and brats who *think* they know what they are talking about (or more often keypunching in some forum) but haven't done the intense spade work to show anything for it.

Facebook and Myspace are the supremo media of self-absorption. Think what those youngsters could do to change the world if they used even one fourth of that time gossiping online about nothing to volunteer instead, or learn something new which would make their opinions worth more than flatus.

Btw, the reason for the proportions you cited may not be grasped by some readers, i.e. the 78.1% for Facebook and over 50% for Myspace. They may not understand how you can get such percentages and may believe they must add up to 100% and no more.

In fact, the surveys were done using 3-way preference voting, e.g.

1. Facebbok
2. Myspace
3. Video games

and the proportions made by way of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd percentages. Thus the total won't be 100% (which would only occur if only one choice was permitted, no preferential selections), but more.

Just thought I'd add my 0.02!

Copernicus said...

janidebar wrote:

Btw, the reason for the proportions you cited may not be grasped by some readers, i.e. the 78.1% for Facebook and over 50% for Myspace. They may not understand how you can get such percentages and may believe they must add up to 100% and no more.

In fact, the surveys were done using 3-way preference voting, e.g.

1. Facebbok
2. Myspace
3. Video games

and the proportions made by way of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd percentages. Thus the total won't be 100% (which would only occur if only one choice was permitted, no preferential selections), but more.
--

Thanks for pointing that out, you're quite correct. In a 3-way preferential voting system we wouldn't expect the total % to equal 100.