Monday, June 2, 2008

The Dumbest Generation

Apparently, my generation is too addled by internet pornography and XBox games to read books, so it's surprising how much attention this one seems to be getting.

A number of recent articles discuss author Mark Bauerlein's central premise, which is that internet social networking tools, the internet generally, movies, television and games are addling young people and making us dumber.

This premise is supported by odd statistics, such as a claim, cited in Newsweek, that only 31% of Americans had "adult literacy" in 2003, down from 40% in 1992. That seemed bizarre, and I googled it.

I assume the citation was to The National Association of Adult Literacy assessment, which was conducted in 1992 and in 2003, and found no significant changes in literacy rates, despite a rapid rise in that period of immigrants who are not native speakers of English, a group that makes up 44% of those lacking basic prose literacy according to the survey.

20% of those failing to meet basic literacy standards suffer from multiple disabilities. About 85% of adults have at least basic literacy in reading tasks and in navigating forms such as job applications, while around 75% can handle quantitative tasks like balancing a checkbook at a basic level or better.

It seems pretty unlikely that that MySpace and Grand Theft Auto cannibalized the time people previously spent reading the newspaper, studying history and contemplating the classics. Not much thought seems to be given to the possibility that the under-30's who are constantly online and the under 30's who can't tell you who the Axis were in World War II are largely exclusive groups.

The real story seems to be the growth of an information elite, and a widening information gap. As AP and college credit options expand for top students, the difference between the education the elite students are getting and the No Child Left Behind, test focused education the bottom half we provide to the bottom half creates a massive gulf in educational accomplishment.

The cultural ignorance that Bauerlein decries is likely less a result of the complacency of an always-connected middle class than a symptom of the increasingly disconnected underclass, who, in many cases do not have computers or internet at home and are being left behind by new technology and the opportunities it creates.

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