Mark Bauerlein is Emeritus Professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since earning his PhD in English at UCLA in 1989. For two years (2003-05) he served as Director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy (1997), The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief (1997), and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008). His essays have appeared in PMLA, Partisan Review, Wilson Quarterly, Commentary, and New Criterion, and his commentaries and reviews in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Weekly Standard, Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national periodicals. He is currently an editor at First Things.
His most recent work is The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults, which is being published in February by Regnery Press. He recently spoke with CWR.
CWR: Professor Bauerlein, you are an English professor, a convert to Catholicism, and an accomplished writer. Could you tell us a little bit more about your background? How did you begin your love affair with literature?
Mark Bauerlein: From an early age, I was a book reader, non-stop. I was born in California, lived outside Washington DC in the Maryland suburbs during my adolescence, but finished high school in North San Diego County before going to UCLA for undergrad and grad school.
I wasn’t a great student, to be honest. It took me five years and two summer schools to get my undergraduate degree, and my grades weren’t impressive until my last two years. I did more reading out of school than in-school, lots of Freud and Nietzsche, Existentialism and Faulkner and Poe, sports bios and detective novels and Ray Bradbury–and lots of beer and basketball. I didn’t go to graduate school for career reasons. I just wanted to keep reading, I still felt unlettered, and I was lucky to find a pathway that let me continue to do what I wanted to do. I had no professional plans in my first years of graduate school, no clear sense of becoming a professor. That goal materialized slowly as the years passed and I moved through the program.
Today, one hears of first-year graduate students giving conference papers, organizing events, and trying to get published, but in my day one didn’t think about those professional activities until four or five years into a program. You were supposed to go to the library all day and night, do your reading and research, and hope that after a few years you might have something interesting to say. I can’t say why I had a “love affair with literature.” It was like the air I breathed, something I did all day and much of the night. Today, I go to bed and look forward to 30 minutes with a novel while the world goes away.
CWR: On one level, The Dumbest Generation Grows Up is a lament for the death of print culture and the eclipse of books by the internet. What are the Millennials losing by not reading classic literature?
Mark Bauerlein: The point of The Dumbest Generation Grows Up is to explain the unhappy condition of Millennials, now that they are age 30, by the poor formation of their adolescence. An awful thing happened to them, and it did so at the very time that everyone was complimenting them as the most worldly, informed, curious, talented, smart, ambitious, and tolerant generation in human history.
The catastrophe was this: We let them plunge into screens, build their Facebook pages, plug in to crappy music and movies, walk around with 250 photos of themselves in their pockets, text all night and game all day, and skip the reading of good books, attending church, the watching of intelligent shows, and the studying of a little history, politics, art, and psychology. The opportunity cost was incalculable. You mention classic literature as a particular oversight—yes, indeed. What the kids lost when they didn’t learn about Odysseus and the Sirens, Richard III’s maniacal eloquence, Anna Karenina’s errant love, and the Invisible Man in his basement is what no young person should go without.
These stories and characters would have become for Millennials equipment for living, for handling the trials of adulthood, stretching the horizons of their experience and giving them better role models than those which youth culture purveyed through the screen. When I hear a 33-year-old speaking in meager sentences packed with “like” and predictable cliches and nonstop simple declarative rhythms, I see many years of not reading behind him, of assimilating the patter of screen chitchat as the language of expression at all times. What a waste of sensibility.
CWR: You are member of the dreaded Baby Boomer generation. In recent years, Millennials have fired back at Baby Boomer criticism, arguing that it was, in fact, the Baby Boomers who set America in decline. What is your response to this Millennial counter argument?
Mark Bauerlein: This book begins with the sentence: “What have we done to them?” By “them,” I mean the Millennials; by “we,” I mean their Boomer and X parents and mentors and teachers, any elders who should have told the young to learn a little history, read some literature, pray every day, and acquire better taste, but didn’t, instead letting the kids be and congratulating themselves for their oh-so-liberal attitudes.
Out of a ridiculous notion of child-centered growth, the adults stepped back, withheld the traditions and backgrounds and cultural literacy that would enable the young to enter the world with some surety and adeptness. Colleges got rid of Western Civilization courses, multiculturalism demanded that there be no central heritage all would learn, and egalitarianism took away the masterpieces and geniuses that young people could have revered. It was as if the elders told the young, “Hey, there is a long past that you have inherited, but we aren’t going to give you much help, and we’re not really responsible for what it all amounts to, and you’re on your own.” When we see young people unhappy and bitter and disappointed, not understanding why their lives haven’t turned out to be the wondrous thing they assume it would, let’s pin the blame on the elders who fed that expectation.
The Millennials are right to be angry. Too often, though, they are angry at the wrong things (racism, sexism, blah blah blah). What they should be angry about is growing up without grownups around them who would stand firm for traditions and canons and norms of taste. Even if the kids wanted to reject what their elders stood for, at least they would have something meaningful to reject.
CWR: One of the key points you make in The Dumbest Generation Grows Up is that the digital revolution only increased a downward trend in reading among Americans. Why were Americans already giving up on reading in the twentieth century?
Mark Bauerlein: Reading began to decline as a leisure activity with the advent of television in the 1950s. The development of an independent adolescent culture in the mid-century also contributed. The expansion of cable channels in the 80s was another aggravation, for it raised the number of adolescent oriented shows and pulled more teens away from books. The Internet and video games put this withdrawal into overdrive. Keep in mind that the last step was entirely intentional. Silicon Valley hired psychologists expert in addictive behaviors to design the games and websites. They wanted our kids’ attention all day and night—not their own kids, of course (they limit consumption in their own homes and schools), but everyone else’s kids. Game companies love to get young people hooked—and they’ve succeeded.
CWR: A more cynical person might note that reading has traditionally been reserved to an elite few and the common people always were interested in the equivalent of cat and makeup tutorial videos. Is reading truly for everyone?
Mark Bauerlein: Reading is not a natural behavior. It has to be learned, and the brain has to adapt to it. You will never get everyone interested in reading. But active reading habits have always been remarkably high in the United States, including among the middle and lower classes, in good part because of the widespread devotion to the King James Bible, which is one of the greatest works of literature in all of English and American literary history. Everyone read the Bible, including many slavemasters who read it with their slaves (as did Stonewall Jackson).
Reading was “truly for everyone” in this land. Democracy demanded it, and we can see that in the common ritual of the 4th of July—not fireworks, but a public reading of the Declaration of Independence. Put it this way: totalitarian societies love a media-addicted population, not a reading population (Fahrenheit 451 was remarkably ahead of its time).
CWR: There is little doubt that digital media has enormously detrimental effects on the emotional and cognitive abilities of heavy users. How has digital media harmed us?
Mark Bauerlein: I would estimate that digital media consumed over the years produce a loss of 10 IQ points in areas of language and knowledge. Screens speed people up, cut down their vocabulary, induce an appetite for stimulation, and make intellectual experience too social. And it’s only getting worse.
CWR: In The Dumbest Generation Grows Up, you note that earlier generations of radicals such as Lenin and even Malcolm X were educated men and women. You further argue that Millennial radicals operate principally on emotion. Do contemporary radicals note this dissonance between the education level of their heroes and their own seeming ignorance?
Mark Bauerlein: Young social justice warriors don’t know anything about Marx and Malcolm X and other radicals. The truth is that Malcolm X would despise Black Lives Matter (he was a social conservative who would abhor that sexual politics of the founders of that organization), while Saul Alinsky would have no patience for their anarchic behavior (he wanted activism to be organized and controlled).
But Millennials have too many personal disappointments to manage; they don’t have time or inclination to worry about studying the radical lineage. Their own lives provide them all the knowledge they need. They occupied a utopian space in their teens, the bedroom with all the connections and screens and music and contacts, a universe of their own making. Now, out on their own, they don’t understand why the real world can’t be just as satisfying. Their discontent is personal, not political, though it sometimes looks as if it has a political thrust.
They are proud of their ignorance, too, boastful of their certitude, clear in their demands. They don’t need Marx’s ideas of surplus value to END RACISM NOW! Rousseau doesn’t help them demand a “living wage.” This is the 21st century, you see, and nobody understands the plight of the young better than the young do. What does a 19th-century guy who spent all his time in the big library in London have to tell them?
CWR: There has been a lot of talk of “un-grading” and eliminating standardized tests. What effect will this attempt at leveling the playing field have on education?
Mark Bauerlein: The more we try to make education an egalitarian endeavor, the more we will turn over the task of discriminating talent and intelligence to businesses and the professions and workplaces. The discrimination has to happen for institutions to function. If college doesn’t indicate to employers which graduates are superb and which are middling, we will see lots of intern and associate programs set up that will do the weeding out on their own. There is no escape from judgment.
CWR: You return to a number of authors and literary works throughout your writings. What authors have shaped you most and which works do you consistently turn back to?
Mark Bauerlein: I find myself returning to many predictable sources, too many to name, but here are some highlights: Nietzsche and Hegel among Continental thinkers, Peirce and William James among Americans; Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman in poetry; I have been going through books of the Bible with a religious mentor for more than five years, and will continue; the fiction of Cather and Fitzgerald; memoirs by Wilde and Hemingway; criticism by Eliot, Harold Bloom, and George Steiner; and the music of Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Ravel, Debussy, and Mahler. And, I still go to bed at night and read genre fiction by John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, Donald Westlake, and Jim Thompson.
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