Published May 19, 2022
There is a sense abroad that generational change has placed the essentials of our constitutional system and its supporting culture at risk. Many Millennials — the generation now in their 20s and 30s — have soured, not only on fundamentals like freedom of speech, but on the American story as such. Various writers have tried to make sense of this disturbing cultural shift. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt highlight a certain style of parenting. Mary Eberstadt explores the implications of family decline. Now, Mark Bauerlein, in his new book, The Dumbest Generation Grows Up, adds some crucial missing pieces to the puzzle. His focus — social media and education — may seem well-worn, but you’ve never seen them approached like this.
I’ll get to substance, but first I want to address the striking tone of the book. Although the work is well-documented and thoughtfully argued, the overall feel is singular and unconventional. There is something “prophetic” about this book. I don’t mean “prophetic” in the sense of “predicting the future,” although Bauerlein’s 2008 book, The Dumbest Generation, to which this is a follow-up, did in fact foresee, against the then-reigning idealization of the Millennials, many of the problems they’re experiencing today.
No, I mean that Bauerlein’s willingness to openly and uncompromisingly confront, and in a sense denounce face to face, America’s young — as well as the boomer mentors who failed them — has the ring of the Biblical prophets about it. After publishing The Dumbest Generation, Bauerlein was invited by many colleges and universities to address their students (and professors) in person. After taking his audiences to task for devoting more attention to selfies and “likes” than to serious history and art, Bauerlein would often find himself booed.
The teachers in those crowds denounced him for giving short shrift to the powers conferred on this new generation by their superior technological tools. The kids weren’t reading less, or spending less time on assignments, because they’d been seduced by the superficialities of the web. No, they were simply smarter and more efficient than their boomer elders, masters of thought-ways far beyond those offered by the pedestrian low-tech education of yore. That’s how Bauerlein’s many face-to-face confrontations went — until today, when ardor for social media has cooled and the social and psychological costs of technology have become more apparent.
Another point of style and tone: Bauerlein often conveys his argument in almost novelistic fashion. Instead of privately puzzling through an issue and then offering the reader a smooth and finished intellectual product, Bauerlein explains how he came to his conclusions in the first place. We’re introduced to the friends and colleagues with whom he’s hashed out his ideas, after which he recounts how his convictions grew out of various personal encounters with students, friends, and strangers. I’ve seen Bauerlein transfix a conference audience while explaining what turned him conservative, or by detailing what colleagues at faculty meetings said when he first confronted them with misgivings about the drift of his discipline (English Literature, one of the craziest). These personal themes, and the controlled passion they generate, add to that “prophetic” feel. (I consider Bauerlein a friend, by the way, having seen him in action at conferences though the years. Note also that his book cites my work on Western Civ.)
As I said, education is a core theme of The Dumbest Generation Grows Up, although not in the conventional sense. Bauerlein doesn’t focus on leftist indoctrination as a source of the new woke sensibility. In fact, he plays down the importance of intentional politicization, a bit more than he should, in my view. That hardly matters, however, because Bauerlein has got something new and more interesting to say.
Bauerlein explains the left-utopianism of young Americans more by what they are not learning than by what they’re actually taught. I don’t mean that he highlights the lack of traditional American history or civics — although that does concern him. Instead, he explains that it’s the loss of great literature — or even not-so-great literature and film that is nevertheless rich and serious about human motivation — that has made many Millennials shallow. Social media has drawn young people away from serious reading, and in general has dumbed down the culture. In the absence of the literature, religion, music, and art that once conveyed the range, depth, tragedy, and complexity of life, says Bauerlein, young people become susceptible to utopian illusions. What illusions? Well, the illusion that everyone can be happy, for example, or that people are either wholly innocent or guilty, or that the world can be made whole by casting the guilty out.
The great Victorian English poet and culture critic Matthew Arnold is famous for having advocated, “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” Bauerlein certainly favors that “great books” approach. He is more interested, however, in a different passage from Arnold:
I know not how it is, but their commerce with the ancients appears to me to produce, in those who constantly practice it, a steadying and composing effect upon their judgment, not of literary works only, but of men and events in general.”
This is the central premise of Bauerlein’s argument. Notice, however, that Arnold begins, “I know not how it is.” Arnold never explains precisely how it is that the serious engagement with great writing lends depth and maturity to personal judgment. Bauerlein, in contrast, does try to show just how and why this is so. And he does so successfully, in my view.
My favorite chapter in the book is the one on “the psychological novel.” Using an Orson Wells film, novels by Graham Green and Sherwood Anderson, and other resources, Bauerlein explains in powerful and illuminating ways how cultural treasures at once deepen the soul and shatter utopian illusions. It’s a rich and fascinating way of understanding the link between literature and politics, and well worth your time.
Another entertaining technique is Bauerlein’s penchant for making his argument through the mouths of iconic leftists — reinforcing his point that today’s naïve utopianism has deeper sources than overt leftist indoctrination. Early on, The Dumbest Generation Grows Up presents the surprising case of Herbert Marcuse, the intellectual father of 1960s radicalism in general — and woke intolerance in particular — facing down an audience of leftist students outraged at his rejection of identity politics and his advocacy for the great books. The book ends in an encounter with Malcolm X, whose near-miraculous self-education under the most desperate of circumstances was, Bauerlein shows, the ultimate antithesis of woke education today. In between, we learn that Steve Jobs and his fellow tech geniuses were wary from the start of their creations’ effects on the young.
There’s that prophetic theme again: Grey-haired Herbert Marcuse confronting an auditorium of students enraged at his refusal to ratify their woke presuppositions. (Regarding that 1969 audience, the word “woke” is no anachronism, by the way.)
When I first saw Bauerlein’s book title, I thought “editor in search of sales chooses simplistic title for serious book.” While there may be something to that, I don’t quite see it like that anymore. I think the title is Bauerlein’s refusal to go along with the fawning idealization of the Millennials that characterized almost all the early treatments of the topic. Bauerlein’s in-your-face title is his insistence that students systematically sheltered from their mentor’s criticisms must finally hear some. The title also reflects another of Bauerlein’s themes: the fear of boomer teachers and mentors of being dismissed as grouches — or worse, conservatives — for any affirmation of the old standards, any insistence that something irreplaceable is being lost when the classics go out the window. “The Dumbest Generation Grows Up” signals Bauerlein’s refusal to play along. I’m glad he didn’t.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K–12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).