Monday, January 05, 2009

Dumbest and Dumber

The words "attention deficit disorder" or "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder" or their equivalents do not appear in the index of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30), yet it is clearly an attempt to label the young with a sweeping pathology of cognitive dysfunction, even though Virtualpolitik pal Siva Vaidhyanathan has contested the very idea that such generational stereotypes can ever apply at all.

The irony of the very negative appraisal of The Dumbest Generation that I am about to offer is that there are a number of arguments about media culture with which I have to agree heartily. Yes, 1) not everything is a "literacy," 2) philanthropic institutions shouldn't be so in love with the digital practices of the young, and 3) Henry Jenkins doesn't always acknowledge the tensions between consumerism and civic life when it comes to participatory online culture. And personally I tend to resist the control that television and other channels for consumerism and popular culture have over child-rearing and family life, as this video and its sequel shows.

But as this Newsweek review notes, Bauerlein's complaints about the ignorance of the young are hardly novel in the literary record. Defending established culture against the ignorance of youth is a rhetorical trope that goes back to antiquity. Furthermore, not to be picky, but for a book that complains about poor vocabulary skills among digital readers and writers, I couldn't help but notice that on page sixteen he seems to misuse the word "querulous" in place of what sounds like he intended to be a synonym for "inquisitive." (If Bauerlein wants to locate every malapropism in my book, I suppose that's fair retribution, but I don't claim to be such a staunch defender of rigorously correct prose.)

Besides, how can you hate people under thirty with this much dripping bile and still work as a competent and professional faculty member? How would it be possible to teach your classes with this much misanthropy aimed at people of your students' ages? With this much contempt taking place in inner monologues that are so well-rehearsed, how can you not communicate it to the student seeking help on the other side of your desk? Well, based on his ratemyprofessor standings, it looks like he's an easier instructor than I am, ironically. So much for defending high standards of achievement for students.

I'm not sure that colleagues who are librarians would necessarily want to follow Bauerlein's recommendations either, given the disdain he shows for providing popular services, such as DVD check-out and computer access in public and university libraries. He would almost certainly find the design of my local library, which incorporates a café, objectionable. And yet, when I'm enjoying a coffee and a breakfast burrito with the copy of Harper's that I've grabbed off the rack inside, I can't help but notice that everyone around me in the crowded courtyard of the library has an open book, and so I feel like a relative illiterate in comparison.

Toward the end of the book, Bauerlein makes an argument about culture wars that praises the public intellectual, and yet his anti-Internet rhetoric seems problematic given what Daniel Drezner has said about the importance of the blogging professor in his recent essay "Public Intellectual 2.0" and many of the current conversations going on about new publishing practices in the academy, including this one about Open Access in the Humanities that I'll be moderating. (Come see! These panels tend to be very lively discussions.)

In her work on the paradoxes of institutional initiatives, Deborah H. Holdstein has argued that too much public rhetoric about educational systems ricochets between lamentations and Cassandra cries of "crisis" and giddy declarations about the wonders of an institution's or program's unmitigated "excellence." This book clearly belongs in the "crisis" camp, and it merely mocks those in the "excellence" camp -- sometimes justifiably -- without considering how to negotiate any common ground. In contrast, for a book that acknowledges the social and pedagogical risks of digital culture along with its benefits, check out Networked Publics from MIT Press.

Granted, there is a growing fissure between the informal online practices of Internet cultures of information and the academic conventions governing print cultures of knowledge in universities. I've said it on many occasions (like here and here). But why be a prohibitionist and a puritan, eager to forbid people's everyday digital practices? Politics shows us that this kind of fundamentalism can succeed, but what is the cost to the free exchange of ideas? In his section on "culture warriors," he seems to grant the importance of dissensus in universities, but he himself seems unwilling to acknowledge counterarguments, even from empirical researchers who make well reasoned cases for adopting the kinds of inquiry-based or problem-based learning paradigms that Bauerlein lampoons.

In the Obama era, his complaints about the lack of youth interest in the political process also makes the book seem dated, and the possibility that this apathy might have more to do with the workings of the electoral college and hanging chads in the 2000 election than with the availability of the Internet is never seriously explored.

Sure, there are many ways that Facebook and MySpace spread the mindless banality of high school into the broader culture. Anyone who's gotten a friend request from a former school tormentor knows that the pointless popularity contests of adolescence can continue in such social network sites, even if the tables might seem turned in adulthood. Mimi Ito admits as much in the recent report completed for the MacArthur Foundation with the colloquial title Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. Ito describes two kinds of youthful Internet users: 1) those who use social computing technologies to facilitate high school affinity practices such as gossip and status-checking and 2) those who seek out more advanced forms of expertise in specialized knowledge communities. Bauerlein totally dismisses the latter group in his attack on the former, but -- speaking as the parent of a teenager who has used the Internet to learn about film noir, contemporary French drama, traditional printmaking, and the ethnomusicology of the blues -- I don't think the existence of this demographic should be completely discounted without any critical reflection.

This "geeking out" is also very important in the essay (later a book) "Hackers and Painters" in which Paul Graham claims that the problem with high school is not the cultural power of the young but rather their impotence. Graham argues that without the apprenticeship systems of old teenagers are locked out of meaningful participation in adult culture, and those who try to earn membership among the grown-ups by showing off their intellectual gifts or trying to be productive individuals are tormented as nerds.

Bauerlein talks about how Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, John Stuart Mill, and Walt Whitman were liberated by books, but strangely Bauerlein does not seem to realize that for some liberation from the cruelties of bias and the mental poverty of lowest-common-denominator culture came from access to the computer not to the printed page. Speaking autobiographically, this was true for those of us in middle school computer labs who were not conventionally attractive or graceful in face-to-face interactions or who struggled with poor handwriting and organization. When I read novels from the past about accomplished heroines with beautiful penmanship, dexterity with the needle, and competence at piano playing, I am often grateful that I live in the digital age where I am not an unmarriageable failure living as an outcast in penury.

Certainly danah boyd has written about the importance of the Internet for gay teenagers in the poisonously homophobic atmosphere of high school in which the ultra-masculine jock and the ultra-feminine homecoming queen and/or cheerleader rule as the royalty on campus. The possibility that the Internet could facilitate potentialities for genuine -- as opposed to fatuous -- "resistance identities" in Manuel Castells' terms to teen conformity and consumerism is never seriously entertained in Bauerlein's book.

Which brings me to the subtle heterosexism of Bauerlein's text that actually contains a line about how "father fights the traffic" while "mother must prepare dinner." In my household, I'm the one driving from UC Irvine to Santa Monica while my husband does wonders in the kitchen. Geez! How can someone assume this Ozzie and Harriet lifestyle still persists among a dual-income readership?

Finally, I have to say something about all the cheap shots that Bauerlein takes that are aimed at the brain-stultifying din of crappy pop music that no one is defending, and precisely the kind of music that teens are rejecting through Internet radio and other online alternatives to what he not very carefully considers to be the ubiquitous pap of "Tupac and Britney."

So I'd close my diatribe against Bauerlein by referring readers to this DJ Earworm mash-up of Billboard's top twenty-five chart-topping pop hits that was created first for a very non Ozzie and Harriet gay audience of San Francisco clubgoers to mark the end of 2008 with the dizzying spectacle of racial and sexual stereotypes, romantic melodrama, consumerism, instant gratification, and commodity fetishism emptied of its destructive social directives and turned into a clever musical soup that is danceable and evocative of guilty nostalgias and heterogeneous pleasures that Bauerlein would have us condemn.

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Anonymous Jonathan E. Tarr said...

Well put, Liz. Before the book was released I wrote a blog entry about online activism and social change that mentioned Bauerlein's flawed argument here:

It sounds as though his tune has not changed since then, while much about the networked, online world of youth has, especially the election of Barack Obama with a lot of help from young folks and the power of the social web.

I must also mention that I love the DJ Earworm mashup, only one among many examples of not passively accepting the popular cultural output directed at youth, but remaking it and making it one's own.

2:44 PM  

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