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Mark Bauerlain hopes he’s wrong at Convo

<r the sake of our future, Mark Bauerlain hopes he’s wrong.

Giving last Friday’s convocation on the effects of technology on adolescents, or “digital natives,” he opened by telling the students and Family Weekend visitors in the audience about the criticism he’s received on his book, “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.”

“Frankly, I like nothing better than to be proven wrong by a bright 18 year old,” he said.

Subtitled, “Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30,” his presentation drew laughs from parents as he mused about “the old days” before turning to a more serious subject matter, focusing on the role of technological overload in stunting intellectual growth.

“First off, it’s not an intelligence thing,” said Bauerlain, a Professor of English at Emory University and former Director for the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. More young people today are going to college than ever before; more are taking AP classes than ever before.

“On a lot of behavioral measures” including improved attitudes toward parents, lowered rates of teenage pregnancy and high civic engagement and voting rates, Bauerlain said, “we do find young people doing quite well.”

What, then, seems to be the problem? Bauerlain pointed out at least two things— the cell phone and the Internet, via social networking sites— though he largely ignored the positive sides of these advancements.

When students leave his classes at Emory, he said, checking their cell phones is the first thing they do.

“It’s so much a part of your lives that it’s very easy to take it for granted,” he said. “Whenever something new acquires that trait of ‘just being there,’ you have to register its impact.”

To do this, he suggested keeping in mind life without a cell phone. Playing off the parents in the audience, Bauerlain reminisced about arriving home from school thirty-five years ago, talking with his parents and listening to Walter Cronkite.

“At 6:00, social life was over,” he said. “That old, powerful force of peer pressure had some relief.”

Today, according to Bauerlain, students are missing that relief. Their bedrooms have become “social hubs,” where phones, Facebook and iPods constantly connect them to peers and the stress of “managing” a social life.

“Even when you’re disconnected, things could be going on,” he said. “You can’t withdraw from this world just by turning it off.”

To demonstrate this point, Bauerlain showed a clip from the 2008 documentary American Teen, which follows a group of high school students in Warsaw, Ind. for ten months. In the clip, a girl sends an inappropriate picture to a friend before she goes to sleep, and by the next morning, the photo has spread to several other friends and classmates.

In this situation and others, Bauerlain said, the touted positive aspects of constant communication become the opposite.

For example, “look at the faces of your friends when they’re checking for texts or phone calls,” he said. “It’s not joy. It’s anxiety.”

Bauerlain believes that the pressures of hyper-connection steer young people away from intellectual growth and maturation. He generalizes their heroes as “the popular crowd or the athletes, not Abraham Lincoln.”

“You need to have an adult bring that in,” he continued. “If peer pressure never ceases, it doesn’t leave a moment for adult voices to come into their lives.”

In an attempt to make his argument more concrete, Bauerlain cited two test questions—one from a 2001 National History Exam regarding the Allied Powers in World War Two and one from a 2006 National Civics Exam regarding the identification of a “Colored Entrance” sign in a 1950s photograph—that only half of students were able to answer correctly.

“When leisure life is so separate from school, when young people are taking a course in Government and see no parallel with their lives, when class is over, they forget it,” he said. “It indicates there’s something more going on than students just not learning these things. What’s going on is other pressures are pushing these things out of the picture.”

In the question and answer session following Bauerlain’s presentation, students addressed this generalization.

“I get the sense that you’re not giving us the whole picture,” James Hannaway ’10 said, pointing out the intellectual possibilities of social networking, including political uses.

“Why isn’t [your book] called ‘It’s Complicated?’” he asked. “You’re advancing an intellectually dishonest narrative.”

Bauerlain called “dishonest” a “strong word” but agreed that the technological issues he discussed were far more complicated than presented.

“If you want to get into a public discussion, you have to talk in strong terms,” he said. “You often end up simplifying the message, and when people criticize you, you have to admit the simplification.”

Responding to a comment by Drew Chambers ’10 challenging the notion of the uninterested student that Bauerlain describes, Bauerlain admitted, “I think we are going to see in the coming years a sort of withdrawal from the [constant technological] connection.”

For the sake of our future, in this case, he hopes he’s right.

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