Mark Bauerlein is an English professor at Emory, and he speaks like one -- calmly and confidently, like conversation is just another lecture on late Romantic poetry. In his 2008 bestseller The Dumbest Generation, Bauerlein made a name for himself by arguing that "the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future," as he says.
His new book, The Digital Divide, debuted this week and places Internet optimists and pessimists from the past 15 years in a conversation about how the web affects society. As editor, he wanted to "give a little mini-history, a series of statements about digital technology and social networking, and deliver it to people so they can read what the most trenchant and powerful voices have said on both sides of the issue."
We recently spoke with Bauerlein about his books and who's to blame for this whole Internet thing.
What do you see as the worst consequence of the Internet?
What I find most worrisome are the cases in which we see not extreme or overtly damaging things but the more subtle changes taking place. For instance, the number of texts that a 17-year-old with a cell phone makes -- about 3,500 a month, sending or receiving. Now, maybe there's nothing wrong with that, but when you look at the "opportunity cost" -- or, when they do all that texting, what are they not doing?
This is where I agree with the traditionalist, or maybe the curmudgeonly, approach -- we're losing the reading of books, we're losing intellectual activities that might support a more mature individual, a more knowledgeable citizen, a more discerning consumer. The more time you spend on these tools contacting your friends -- and let's face it, that's what the tools mean most of all to teenagers, contact with other teenagers -- the less they're going to pay attention to domestic affairs, to world affairs, to the fine arts, to history, to politics. We are losing the intellectual and civic awareness of young people.
The more time they spend talking with one another, taking pictures of one another, blogging about their own social experiences and their boyfriends and girlfriends and so on, the less they are growing up. One of the worst things that these tools do is extend social life into a 24/7 activity. This is something that pulls them away from their encounter with grown-up culture, adult issues, and intellectual life.
Do you see socializing as inherently juvenile behavior that counteracts mature engagement in society?
Adolescent socializing is adolescent. It is anti-intellectual. This is the general cultural point for me. This is a premise: Youth culture is anti-intellectual. Youth culture does not favor historical knowledge. Youth culture does not welcome eloquent speech. Youth culture does not accept a 16-year-old who gets on the school bus in the morning and says, "Hey, did you guys read that op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle this morning on school funding?" No, the other kids will look at that person and say, "What kind of weirdo is this?"
We need to have vertical role modeling -- young people relating to older people and learning how to behave. It could be parents, aunts and uncles, older siblings, teachers, ministers -- people who display adult characteristics that provide a counterweight to peer pressure, peer absorption. Peer pressure is excruciatingly powerful to young people. Even if they hate it, they can't get out of it. Life is a matter of trying to wear the right clothes and have the right hair and know the right songs and not have blemishes on your nose. It's a deeply insecure period of time, and if they're going without a reprieve from youth culture, from peer pressure, then they're stuck in this youth culture, and it holds them back. You can't grow up if you're only relating to people your own age. You need to get out of that network.
What separates you from finger-wagging adults 40 years ago?
Look: Older generations have been complaining about younger generations ever since caveman times, no doubt. What makes this not just grumpiness and complaining? In The Dumbest Generation, I focus on the intellectual attributes of young people. Young people have many strong measures -- they're going to college in bigger numbers than ever, they're taking AP courses like crazy, they have professional ambitions, they get along with their parents and other authority figures better than they did in the 1960s. So we have to appreciate a lot of positive movement for young people.
But here is the difference, and here's where I turn the blame. Whose fault is it that 17-year-olds don't have enough appreciation of civic awareness? It's my generation's fault. It's the baby boomers' fault. We have not played our proper role as the stern elders. Too many people my age just don't like the idea of criticizing young people for their cultural values and their leisure choices. They feel uncomfortable with that.
For one thing, when they were that age, they got mad at the old people, the establishment, and the last thing they want to do is grow into conservative, grumpy old people complaining about the young. The problem is that this makes them avoid their responsibility for criticizing young people. This is part of our job as older people, to remind 17-year-olds, "Look, a lot of things happened before you got your driver's license. There are more important heroes in the world than Mr. and Mrs. Popular in high school. You've got to realize that what happens in your social life really isn't of very much importance to anybody else. Get over your narcissism." That's what we're supposed to do. That helps young people grow up.
Something happened with the baby boomers, with my generation -- we started indulging youth. We regarded youth itself as having some kind of integrity. We started saying things like "Don't trust anyone over 30." We haven't been critical enough of the young. It is right for old people to criticize the young, and it is also right for the young to resent it and argue back. I would never say, "Well the young should just shut their mouths and be obedient." No no. They need to argue back. They need to say, "You're wrong, you're getting too narrow-minded, your ideas are too caught in the past, and here's why." And ideally we have a critical exchange. We have an engagement in which both sides argue against one another. And out of that process, young people mature. They grow, they develop.
I wrote this harsh book. The best thing that can happen is for young people to grow up and prove every negative judgment in that book flat wrong. I do not want to be right about this. This book is really a provocation, and the provocation works by making young people write e-mails to me. I write back, and we go back and forth, and I have to say at one point, "Okay, you got me there, I concede, you're right." That is the ideal solution here. So I'm hoping that this isn't just a rant by an old guy but instead is a challenge that young people take up and overcome.
Have you seen young people answering your challenge?
I've gotten more than 1,000 e-mails from young people over the years. Sometimes they begin with some four-letter words and various insults, but I respond to every one. When I do respond, it's interesting how the tone changes. They don't give up on their contentions, but suddenly they feel like, "Well, this is a genuine exchange, and this is someone who's going to listen to me. He may not agree with me, but he will listen to me and respond." And I hope they come out of that with a more seasoned forensic, that they've learned something.
In the education world, the ideology is "Let's be supportive, let's be child-centered." And sometimes encouragement and support are the best way to go. Other times, we do need a hard edge. It's a judgment call for a teacher. You look at the student and what the student needs, and you make yourself available for that student, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't be critical, that you shouldn't be tough. And from what I see, we don't have nearly enough of the hard approach.