The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)

September 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yes, that's actually the title

OH MY HEAVENS, THE YOUTH. ALL THEY DO IS SWAP TUNES ON TEEN BLOGS AND INCH DOWN BOULEVARDS RATTLING STORE WINDOWS WITH THE BOOM-BOOM OF A HIP-HOP BEAT. YOU CAN QUOTE ME ON THAT. NO REALLY, ON PAGE 8.

WHAT WAS I SAYING AGAIN? OH YES, I AM VERY UPSET ABOUT ALL THE HIP-HOP, AND OTHER THINGS. FOR EXAMPLE ONE FINE MORN WHILST EXAMINING THE INVENTORY OF AN APPLE STORE (MIND YOU, NOT A PURVEYOR OF FRUIT! INITIALLY I WAS QUITE CONFUSED! FOR I DESIRED A HEALTHFUL SNACK), I ESPIED AN ADVERTISEMENT POSTER FEATURING A VISUAL REPRESENTATION OF A PERSONAL COMPUTING DEVICE. WRITTEN UNDERNEATH WAS THE OMINOUS PROMISE THAT THE AFOREMENTIONED DEVICE WAS “THE ONLY BOOK YOU’LL EVER NEED.” FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE I WAS GRATEFUL THAT THE VAST MAJORITY OF THE EMPLOYEES AND CUSTOMERS IN YE OLDE COMPUTER SHOPPE WOULDN’T KNOW WHAT THE DREADFUL WORDS SIGNIFIED, DUE TO PERVASIVE ILLITERACY. AFTER ALL, TIME SPENT READING BOOKS TAKES AWAY FROM TIME KEEPING UP WITH YOUTH VOGUES, ANOTHER LINE I ACTUALLY WROTE.

VERILY IT IS A QUANDARY, AND BEFUDDLES YOUR HUMBLE GUIDE LIKE THE DICKENS. FOR ALTHOUGH TECHNOLOGY SURROUNDS US, GENERATION DOT NET ISN’T ALL THAT GREAT. ALTHOUGH IT SHOULD BE, BECAUSE OF COMPUTERS. INDEED, DUE TO THE SORRY FACT THAT HARDLY ANY YOUTHS HAVE EVOLVED INTO ROBOTS, THE ONLY REASONABLE CONCLUSION TO DRAW IS THAT EVERYONE UNDER THE AGE OF 30 IS RETARDED.

Yeah yeah, low hanging fruit. And yeah yeah, it should go without saying that I find these kinds of arguments annoying and mostly comical (except for the parts that are actually damaging to the discourse). Not that there aren’t questions to ask, not that technologies haven’t significantly impacted the learning process both in school and out. On account of the world has this funny tendency to change, and while shaking your fist at every approaching cloud because that’s not how you did things is indeed a valid lifestyle choice, it’s also a stupid lifestyle choice. Best case, the world keeps doing that pesky turning thing and people ignore you. But worst case, the conversations we could have with “the youth” (although WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN) are headed off at the pass because why the hell would anyone, young or old, waste their time trying to explain themselves to an audience already convinced of their idiocy?

Oddly I am reminded of cell phones, specifically the ones beeping like little baby iBombs in my Composition classroom. A wee bit of background: the first fifteen minutes of the first class I ever taught (oh my god nearly 5 years ago? christ) I think I was probably a hard-ass, at least was trying very hard to be a hard-ass. But that’s just not me, man. I like telling other people what to do as much as I like being told what to do, which is to say not at all, goddamn, get off my nuts. So although I started out with the standard angerbear OH MY DEAR BABY GOD AND JESUS NO PHONES OR LAPTOPS ALLOWED IN CLASS HAVE SOME RESPECT YOU FACEBOOK DELINQUENTS (which by the way is almost always followed by a quick check of the ol’ celly to make sure that shit’s on vibrate, because what-in-the-composition-instructor-fuck, I’m not turning my phone off), my attitude towards technology in the classroom began to shift pretty quickly. For one thing, I was just beginning my own dumb journey down the rabbit hole, and was suddenly aware of and increasingly interested in the ways in which technologies figure into social interaction. For another, I realized that being an asshole in the classroom doesn’t actually work.

A few weeks into the term, I decided to conduct a little experiment. A wee more background: this was an extremely boring class. I mean the students themselves, they were painfully quiet and sullen and while they didn’t give Mother any trouble, they weren’t any fun. So it was with some trepidation that I decided to address the technology issue head-on. Half the time I was enforcing the policy on my syllabus, half the time I wasn’t, and that was frustrating for everyone. I asked them what they thought I should do, and although at first their response was one of suspicion (“is this…a trap?”), the entire class soon came alive and actually started talking.

It really was quite a thing, students who hadn’t made a peep all term were suddenly like “bitch let me tell you!” (minus the bitch part) and then would actually tell me. As one student explained (I took notes on this, which I’m peeking at now), she grew up writing all her papers and doing most of her schoolwork on computers. Because of this, she isn’t comfortable writing with pens and paper, and when she does have to write manually, she doesn’t absorb the information nearly as well. She went on to explain that she was taking this psychology class, which at first she really enjoyed — the subject matter was interesting, the teacher was nice, and she was having fun. Along with many other students in the class, she took her notes on her laptop. And while yeah, ok, maybe she did some light Facebooking during lecture, she insisted she was learning, and was paying attention, and that having the background application actually seemed to help keep her focused.

Then during midterms, the professor probably read Bauerlein’s book and/or learned the word “Facebook,” and promptly banned all computers from the classroom. Since then, my student explained, she hasn’t taken a single note, hates the class, and is struggling to keep up. A second student piped up, agreeing with the first and adding that for her –and this is where shit gets relevant– the issue is trust and respect. Or in the case of instructors’ attitudes towards their students, mistrust and disrespect. The assumption, she continued, is that students are bound to abuse technology, because students are dumb and don’t know how to read and are shitty writers and are bad. So when teachers ban laptops or cellphones from the classroom, students feel misunderstood and, more importantly, judged. The student went on to say that she’s not being disrespectful when she texts in class, at least she isn’t trying to be. But teachers assume it’s because she’s a snotty little ne’er-do-well, just like the rest. And then she figures hey, if you already think I’m an asshole, I might as well keep texting. At which point she did something sort of amazing, and which to date is one of my favorite teaching moments ever — she admitted that she’d texted in my class, but that she did it on top of her desk because she doesn’t think I’m stupid. “If I wanted to be disrespectful,” she said, “I’d try to hide it.”

Suddenly everyone had something to say. A male student added that texting is no more disrespectful than zoning out for a few seconds, or brainstorming for a project in another class — making a short text not unlike a quick glance out the window. The problem, the student continued, is that students and teachers don’t agree on what texting signifies. As far as (these) students were concerned, checking Facebook or scanning a website while taking notes or sending a message to a friend doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of interest, and in some cases doesn’t even compromise the student’s focus — especially if the website or text or whatever is relevant to the classroom discussion. The fact that instructors frame these behaviors with value-laden language and forbid ALL uses of technology, benign or otherwise, only confuses students, and, in a move I can understand all too well, merely encourages them to ratchet up the behavior. At which point it does became disrespectful, because suddenly the student has something to fight against. Imagine that, instead of calling them ingrate dumbasses I just asked them what they thought! And they told me, because they have things to say. It’s a revelation.

TL;DR yeah kids think differently than adults do. Just like college students act differently than college instructors act (well publicly). Of course they do, we grew up in different worlds. These differences give us much to think about, and maybe even much to worry about. But the solution to the problem of “THE YOUTH” isn’t to bray for 200 pages about how dumb everyone under 30 is. In fact I can’t think of a less effective approach. Especially considering. That the target demographic. Is under the age of 30. #LEARNHOW2RHETORIC

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