This morning’s Washington Post features an interesting op-ed from Neil Howe, co-author (with the late William Strauss) of Generations: A History of America’s Future, 1584-2069 (1991). That book falls into the oft-derided “pop history” category, but I have nonetheless found it to be insightful and creative.
In today’s piece Howe takes aim at Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation. I have not read this book, but must admit that my experience with students–who have to be constantly monitored for text-messaging during class but often do not change the font on a plagiarized Wikipedia paragraph in order to match the rest of their text–has left me sympathetic to its argument that early exposure to technology does not necessarily mean that young people are well-prepared for the world. Howe, however, labels the work merely the latest in a long line of “jeremiads” in which the current crop of elders “look down the age ladder and accuse today’s young of sloth, greed, selfishness–and stupidity,” calling it “long on attitude and short on facts.”
Once Bauerlein has opened the door, however, Howe is willing to walk through it. If the category of a “dumbest generation” has any meaning at all, would it apply to the current crop of “Millenials”? Not according to Howe. Instead, this dishonor would belong to a segment of my own “Generation X,” specifically its oldest group, who are today in their mid-to-late 40s. In that sense, then, the thoughtful and articulate Barack Obama is not terribly representative of his age cohort. “Like it or not, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (born in 1964), who stumbled over basic civics facts during her vice presidential run, is more representative of this group.” Standardized test scores, attainment of high school diplomas and college degrees, and even a decline in professional career tracks all single out this group as the least “book smart” generation currently living.