So with the caveat that I am only halfway through Mark Bauerline’s book The Dumbest Generation, I have some early impressions to throw out there. While I think there is some merit to this side of the debate (much like Keen’s Cult of the Amateur) what really bothers me about this book so far is, as the title suggests, this sense that our kids are at fault. Let me put it plainly: our kids are not “dumb” nor is this generation “dumb” simply because they spend a lot of time in front of television screens and computers or because they haven’t worked out for themselves how to get smarter using the Read/Write Web. And to label them so is demeaning and smacks more of marketing than reality.
Here is a sampling of quotes that I think pretty accurately reflect the tenor of the book:
In an average young person’s online experience, the senses may be stimulated and the ego touched, but vocabulary doesn’t expand, memory doesn’t improve, analytic talents don’t develop, and erudition doesn’t ensue. (109)
For must young users, it is clear, the Web hasn’t made them better writers and readers, sharper interpreters and more discerning critics, more knowledgeable citizens and tasteful consumers. (110)
The major finding: “More than half the students failed to sort the information to clarify related material.” It graded the very communications skills Web 2.0, the Read/Write Web, supposedly instills, and “only a few test takers could accurately adapt material for a new audience.” (115)
And just whose fault is this?
If the argument is that these types of gains are not possible through the Web, that’s one thing. But, speaking for myself, I know that is not true. My interactions using social tools have definitely expanded my vocabulary, improved my memory, improved my analytic abilities, made me a more discerning critic and all the rest. And I would be that many reading this would agree to those shifts in their own experience. Networks push our thinking. Networks can push our kids’ thinking.
Bauerline guzzles the “Digital Native” metaphor and leverages it to the extreme, expressing genuine surprise that our kids aren’t able to figure this all out on their own and then, worse, blaming them for the failure when the failure is ours. It’s our own lack of context and practical skills for what is happening right now that is the failure, not just at school but at home. How many millions of parents have no clue what their kids are doing with their online time, have no ability to counsel or model for their own children the ways in which these technologies can facilitate new opportunities for learning? How many tens of thousands of educators?
And that really is the time challenge that we have, not so much the lack of time in the day to get our brains around this but the time it’s going to take for adults to get on some sort of more than equal footing with our kids in their uses of these technologies. We’ve always known more, been able to do more, been “smarter.” In these contexts, however, we’re not smarter any longer at a time when our kids really need us to be.
We’re the dummies, not our kids.
If Clay Shirky is right, and all us baby boomers are carrying around a boatload of “cognitive surplus“, we better start unleashing it sooner rather than later.