PHDs in Googling?


I picked up Mark Bauerlein’s new book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, a while back and have at long last (barely) cracked the cover. There’s a decent, if not problematic review and reaction to the book and the issues Bauerlein raises in The New Atlantis:

…Professor Bauerlein, who teaches English at Emory University and is a former director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, is not always sure just how much a matter of mirth “the dumbest generation” is, or isn’t. After all, it is not really their fault if, as he says, they have been “betrayed” by the mentors who should have taught them better. Yet he seems to agree with Nicholas Carr that what we are witnessing is not just an educational breakdown but a deformation of the very idea of intelligence..As The Dumbest Generation rightly notes, “the model is information retrieval, not knowledge formation, and the material passes from Web to homework paper without lodging in the minds of the students.” Generally speaking, even those who are most gung-ho about new ways of learning probably tend to cling to a belief that education has, or ought to have, at least something to do with making things lodge in the minds of students—this even though the disparagement of the role of memory in education by professional educators now goes back at least three generations, long before computers were ever thought of as educational tools. That, by the way, should lessen our astonishment, if not our dismay, at the extent to which the educational establishment, instead of viewing these developments with alarm, is adapting its understanding of what education is to the new realities of how the new generation of “netizens” actually learn (and don’t learn) rather than trying to adapt the kids to unchanging standards of scholarship and learning.

The review continues

Obviously, as all we inveterate googlers already know, it’s much easier that way. So what if the kids aren’t reading properly (by their grandparents’ lights) or learning the more difficult skills of logic and analysis that come from that kind of reading? The answer is to downgrade verbal and numerical abilities to “lower-order skills” in comparison with the spatial, information-gathering, and pattern-recognition skills fostered by hours at the computer screen. That will doubtless be just the first step in a series of dumbings-down that will follow our youthful cybernauts all the way through high school, college, and graduate school until, in the future, everybody will come out at the end of the educational process with a Ph.D. in googling. Why should we necessarily suppose that they need anything more?

Ok. So far so good. The reviewer writes:

Bauerlein quotes a professor of Renaissance literature who once told him: “Look, I don’t care if everybody stops reading literature…. Yeah, it’s my bread and butter, but cultures change. People do different things.” He is appropriately outraged at such unashamed philistinism:

What to say about a hypereducated, highly paid teacher, a steward of literary tradition entrusted to impart the value of literature to students, who shows so little regard for her field? I can’t imagine a mathematician saying the same thing about math, or a biologist about biology, yet, sad to say, scholars, journalists, and other guardians of culture accept the deterioration of their province without much regret.

Now, the reviewer decides that the refusal of the tradition and the refusal of the idea that the teacher is in some ways a “guardian of culure,” is more of a political problem, having more to do with course politics and hipness than computers:

Most of his fellow professors have no interest in the “great” works of the Western tradition—indeed, they reject the very idea of “greatness”—except to “deconstruct” it, along with the works to which it has been attributed, showing how their unexamined political assumptions have tended to reinforce the patriarchal, imperialist, racist, and homophobic foundation on which traditional societies have been built. Only now, in the work of our most advanced theorists, have these assumptions finally been brought to light and exposed for what they are.

In other words, the “mentors” have not only betrayed their pupils, they have denounced the very idea of mentorship in anything but the tools of deconstruction which allow them to set themselves up as superior to—rather than the humble acolytes of—the culture they study. So far from being invited to contemplate “the best that has been said and thought in the world,” knowledge of which is what that Victorian patriarchal apologist, Matthew Arnold, once called culture, students today are taught to sneer at its implicit racism, sexism, and so on. They learn about the past only to confirm their natural contempt for it. Like redefining education as the acquisition of information-retrieval skills, this is to go with the flow of youth culture, which begins by throwing off the yoke of the past and rejecting the sort of self-denial necessary to acquire the more difficult sort of educational accomplishments.

It’s not computers and googling, it’s deconstruction that’s making us stupid!

The New Atlantis reviewer tells us that we (and Bauerlein) shouldn’t be surprised that students don’t read:

No one has ever taught them that books can be read for pleasure or enlightenment—or for any other purpose than to be exposed as the coded rationalization for the illegitimate powers of the ruling classes that they really are. Why would you willingly read a single line of literature if that is all you supposed it to consist of?

I see the point (I’m even vaguely symptathetic) the reviewer is trying to draw about the denigration of the tradition and the problem of new technology:

The bad habits engendered by an over-reliance on computers and Internet search engines may be another matter, but it is hard to regard it as merely coincidental if we find that American education is being hollowed out from within by social and cultural forces that appear to many to be benign or harmless—or, in some cases, actually philo-educational. Surely he is right to stress the importance among these forces of an unthinking technophilia of the kind that leads Steven Johnson, author of the 2005 book provocatively titled Everything Bad is Good for You, to an uncritical admiration of the amusements of the information age. But while Bauerlein takes Johnson to task on several points, he seems to suggest that all our educators have to do is expose their charges to some superior alternative to “the ordinary stuff of youth culture”—that is, “puerile dramas, verbal clichés, and screen psychodelia,” not to mention “MySpace, YouTube, teen blogs, and Xbox added to Tupac and Britney, Titanic and Idol.”

Ok, good. Yet, it’s hard for me to buy that the denigration of the tradition “is part of a larger ahistoricism that not only denies the relevance of the past but, effectively, teaches that the past never existed except as an imperfect version of the present.” I think this tends to misunderstand deconstruction as simple destruction for one, and gestures to a type of perceived backlash that “oh well, deconstruction has wrecked everything for us by revealing systems of oppression embedded in the literary tradition so why bother.”

While I think that the reviewer (and Buauerlein) is right to point out the problems with the “self-esteem” generation and the move to make everyone comfortable (esp mentoring/coddling) in the classrom and it’s relation to information retrieval models of learning/testing etc., to blame the denigration of the tradition vis a vis the ahistoricism that arises in “deconstruction” (mentors don’t mentor because they don’t beleive in a tradition) is rather overblown.

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