I do not feel obliged to believe that the same Lord who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use. (Galileo Galilei)
As I watch my digital native children swarming over their Nintendo DS and Wii machines, without any recourse to the instruction manuals, I feel so very old and so very stupid. But then I sit reading a pile of CVs from recent graduates, or better yet, I interview a bunch of them, and I start to feel very smart indeed. Smug almost.
So when I came across Emory Professor, Mark Bauerlein’s analysis of his despair when it comes to the young people of today, I smiled a rueful smile. Bauerlein’s book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future is very worrying indeed. It seems there are eight reasons why you can’t rely on anyone under the age of 30:

  • They actively cut themselves off from the realities of the world. Bauerlein contends that this is full-fledged wilful ignorance. In conversation with my 21 year-old nephew, his response to that was, “I delight in the fact that I can find anything out any time I want.” My 9 year-old daughter’s take on this was, “Why should I learn all the rivers in Ireland off by heart daddy? If I ever need to know that, I’ll just Google it.”
  • They have no interest in books. They’re not illiterate (although a significant minority, sadly, have become so) – they’re aliterate. The web is a monsoon downpour from the heavens of the greatest knowledge, the best thinkers and the brightest ideas on the planet, but this generation seems to navigate their way around in galoshes carrying a big umbrella. The exceptions? MySpace and Facebook. They’re all happy to dive in there. And the content there? 99% mindless gossip, celeb-watching and pop ‘culture.’ Deep sigh.
The Hills – where people’s teeth are more animated than their minds.
  • Writing or expressing yourself well is ridiculed among this generation. As a result, the writing on Facebook and MySpace is largely incoherent and disorganised. These kids have the opportunity to express their ideas and get feedback on those ideas like no preceding generation – but they seem to be racing toward a lowest common denominator approach for fear of being seen to align themselves with previous generations. Being online in this way “habituates them to juvenile mental habits.”
  • Console games. Bauerlein avoids the obvious correlation between the rise of the console and the rise of obesity levels; rather he focuses on the fact that universities are having to offer remedial reading and writing classes to high school graduates and that these self-same freshmen are the gurus of Grand Theft Auto.* (A 2003 survey in the US found that employers were spending $1.3 billion to teach basic writing skills.)
  • RAM, not hard disk storage. Even when they do ferret out information, they don’t hold onto it. It’s the copy-and-paste project phenomenon. They zoom around the internet to find the information they need, they find the article (with pictures) about wallabies and they copy and paste it into their Word document. One quick scan-read to change a bit of the language and they hit the print button. There’s no storage of the information in the mind – they “retrieve material and pass it along. The internet is just a delivery system.”
  • No-one is reining them in, so they can immerse themselves in SMS, IM, and the lowest common denominator of the web 24/7. On a recent hiring exercise, I was instructed to lower the entry standard to allow for up to three errors on the application form; because otherwise we would have had no candidates at all to interview. People who can’t read or write at an adult level are graduating from second level education. Why? Because apparently it’s bad for a young person’s self esteem to be labelled a failure – even when they fail. Maybe I’m a bit curmudgeonly, but it seems to me that lying to a young person about their abilities is far more damaging. At some point that deluded young person is going to run headlong up against reality in the uncaring, unfeeling world of work. Wouldn’t it be better to equip them with the necessary skills to compete and some insight as to where they rate on the bell curve?
  • They absolutely cannot spell. Full stop, end of sentence, ’nuff said.
  • Because they are young. We now know that the frontal cortex of the brain does not achieve physical maturity until the early 20s. So prior to that, decision-making and judgement are based pretty much on sticking a wet finger in the air. And I don’t know about you, but when I came out of college in my early 20s, I barely had enough common sense to come indoors from a rainstorm unless a grown-up told me to. That being said, I could write, spell and punctuate, and my degree had equipped my inquisitive brain with the ability to assimilate large amounts of information and to quickly and critically evaluate that information. Overall, Bauerlein argues, this generation suffer from the same vagaries of youth, but without the critical faculties to progress much beyond that.
My take on this? I inevitably found myself nodding a lot as I read the Professor’s findings and thoughts. And, if I am being honest with myself, I would readily admit that I had very little political or social context when I was in my early 20s, rather I just saw politicians as a shower of corrupt, brainless weasels. Now that I have a great deal of political context and I am a user of many government-provided services, I can see that the hard-working politicians who lead us really are corrupt, brainless weasels, so maybe my ignorance back then wasn’t such a bad thing.

And that’s the fundamental problem. These kids aren’t stupid, they’re ignorant. Are they more ignorant than previous generations? It would seem so, and that is a shame. I have long held the view that stupidity is an unfortunate consequence of a bad roll of the genetic dice, whereas ignorance is a choice. As Frank Zappa said, “Stupidity has a certain charm; ignorance does not.”

So how does this affect you in your career? Let’s just take the microcosm of a job-hunt. There are certain things in life you can cram and swot up for the night before and there are certain things you can’t. If an employer expects you to have certain knowledge; if some of your competitors for the job have that knowledge, and understand the background and context that has put that employer in whatever situation they find themselves in today – then you’d better have that knowledge and context and you’d better be able to express it all cogently and coherently – both verbally and in writing. If you find you can cram all that knowledge into your head the night before an interview, well and good. If not, you’ve probably been getting more than a few ‘Dear John’ phone calls from recruiters. Knowledge is power. Always has been, always will be. Has anyone ever written a pithy aphorism about the advantages of wilful ignorance? I certainly haven’t found one, and I think I may know why …

Remember this exchange from West Wing?:

“I can’t make up my mind. Are you ignorant or are you just apathetic?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care.”

* I used to instruct a traditional Chinese martial arts school in my old College. In the first class of every academic year, we would teach the freshmen how to stand up straight with lung-expanding posture and how to breathe properly. And every year, some poor soul would faint, just from breathing. I well remember the first year the ‘console generation’ arrived in UCD. They were a lot heavier and a lot softer than the kids we normally taught. A lot of them had those ‘water wings’ under their arms. And when it came to standing up straight and breathing properly, we lost eight of them. Eight out of about 90 kids keeled over as a result of breathing slowly and deeply for a few minutes. If the Martians ever attack, we’ll be fine for the space war, but if they manage to land, we’re going to be in deep trouble in the hand-to-hand battles.

[By the way, in case you hadn’t guessed, the reason for the length of this post is so that anyone under the age of 30 will give up after a few lines and the only commenters will be like-minded ranting curmudgeonly types. Bwu-ha-ha-ha-ha!]