The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein, Penguin

Book cover

The book came out first in May 2008

As I walked around in the UWF Bookstore a couple of days ago, I fell on this book with the provocative title “The Dumbest Generation, How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, don’t trust anyone under 30)“. Labelled national bestseller and praised by renown newspapers all over the front & back covers, I wanted to find out more. Not only that I’m curious and that I want to discover what American academics think about my peers, but also because that stuff certainly applies to us Europeans ! By the way, the title “The Dumbest Generation” comes from Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, published in 2000.

Public lecture

Mark Bauerlein at Augusta State University in November 2009 - Retrieved from on February 2010

The author is Mark Bauerlein, English professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he lives with his family. He was appointed director of Research & Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2004, which is a cultural federal agency promoting fine arts and litterature among Americans. He also writes for various newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other periodicals like The Yale Review or the Publications of the Modern Language Association (PMLA). He seems to be highly engaged in education and litterature research as I figured out while reading his book (see here, here or there).

The message that Bauerlein wants to deliver is the following : how come that the youth has so little knowledge while surrounded by so much information ? Based on a lot of survey & study results like Reading at Risk (which he oversaw while at the NEA), the statement basically says that young Americans “don’t know any more history or civics, economics or science, litterature or current events“. According to the book, Generation Y spends stunning $172 billion a year while saving only $39 billion… “marketers had better be ready for it“, it says – regretting that material possessions matter more than intellectual possessions.

“What do you think of student ignorance and apathy ? the interviewer asks the sophomore. “I dunno and I don’t care”

American universities still have the world’s best engineering programs, he says, but more than half of all the doctorates come from abroad, and it’s no secret that in a couple of decades knowledge will shift to the Asian continent. The XIXth century was European and the XXth century was American, the XXIst will be the Asian century. The knowledge deficits cover various disciplines like history, civics, science and fine arts according to Bauerlein. The 2006 National Survey of Student Engagement reported that 27% of first-year college students “never” attended an art exhibit, gallery, play, dance or other theater performance.


"The sole book event, qualifies more as a social happening than a reading trend" (about the Harry Potter phenomenon) - Picture retrieved from on February 2010

Generation Y is the first one to ever trumpet what Mark Bauerlein calls a-literacy : knowing how to read, but choosing not to ! It is proven that regular readers score better at knowledge tests and learn at a faster pace than those who don’t – it’s also called the “Matthew Effect” – and young Americans seem to disregard reading today. The question is : does this generation have other, maybe more valuable skills, like some kind of digital literacy or “E-literacy” ?

Some say that nowaday’s youth has a particular mental flexibility, a “general deployment capacity” acquired by multi-tasking and regular handling of information and technology. The author supports that we may be “mentally agile“, but also “culturally ignorant” ! I may not totally agree with that one, at least I think that he underestimates these skills – or overestimates the importance of academic knowledge…


Laptops (ond now the iPad) to replace books ? - Photo from an Apple Store retrieved from in February 2010

Is Apple‘s “decisive lifestyle choice” awkward or even damageable for uorselves ? They designed a whole new way of approaching information by making it more visual and pleasurable, and I think that’s not were the problem lies. As Bauerlein implies, the problem is the freedom of choice that we all have (and claim!). Hence, our web-based environment has become “a consumer habitat, not an educational one“, where peer-pressure and peer-judgement matters more than “vertical modeling” such as relations with teachers, parents, employers which is so crucial to gain maturity. The youth downplays tradition, history and experience in favor of short-sightened social interactions, which leads a kind of Peter Principle (“by proceeding in school and social circles without receiving correctives requisite to adult duties and citizenship. They reach a level of incompetence, hit a wall in college or the workplace, and never understand what happened“).

Mark Bauerlein concludes his book by refering to the youth movements of the 60’s and 70’s who “denounced the legacy of their elders […] but at least they knew them well“, which he calls informed rejection of the past. Today, we are facing an “uninformed rejection of the past, and then complete and unworried ignorance of it“. Not that he wants a generation of elite intellectuals, but he highlights the importance of lesser intellectuals whose general knowledge is so important to educate the coming generations – what kind of parents will we be in 20 years ? “If social life has no intellectual content, traditions wither and die“.

A very pleasant book which highlights a worrying evolution of a part of the youth. Sometimes a bit loaded in survey results but well-written and interesting. I definitely recommend it. If you want to find out more, visit .

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