The Dumbest Generation: Does Technology Make Kids Dumb?

Has modern life robbed America's youth of their ability to think? Or simply caused them to think in different ways about different things?

A new book, The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupifies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, has spawned an AP piece asking, “Are we raising a generation of nincompoops?

Second-graders who can’t tie shoes or zip jackets. Four-year-olds in Pull-Ups diapers. Five-year-olds in strollers. Teens and preteens befuddled by can openers and ice-cube trays. College kids who’ve never done laundry, taken a bus alone or addressed an envelope.

[…]

Susan Maushart, a mother of three, says her teenage daughter “literally does not know how to use a can opener. Most cans come with pull-tops these days. I see her reaching for a can that requires a can opener, and her shoulders slump and she goes for something else.”  Teenagers are so accustomed to either throwing their clothes on the floor or hanging them on hooks that Maushart says her “kids actually struggle with the mechanics of a clothes hanger.”

Many kids never learn to do ordinary household tasks. They have no chores. Take-out and drive-through meals have replaced home cooking. And busy families who can afford it often outsource house-cleaning and lawn care.  “It’s so all laid out for them,” said Maushart, author of the forthcoming book “The Winter of Our Disconnect,” about her efforts to wean her family from its dependence on technology. “Having so much comfort and ease is what has led to this situation — the Velcro sneakers, the Pull-Ups generation. You can pee in your pants and we’ll take care of it for you!”

The issue hit home for me when a visiting 12-year-old took an ice-cube tray out of my freezer, then stared at it helplessly. Raised in a world where refrigerators have push-button ice-makers, he’d never had to get cubes out of a tray — in the same way that kids growing up with pull-tab cans don’t understand can openers.  But his passivity was what bothered me most. Come on, kid! If your life depended on it, couldn’t you wrestle that ice-cube tray to the ground? It’s not that complicated!

Mark Bauerlein, author of the best-selling book “The Dumbest Generation,” which contends that cyberculture is turning young people into know-nothings, says “the absence of technology” confuses kids faced with simple mechanical tasks.  But Bauerlein says there’s a second factor: “a loss of independence and a loss of initiative.” He says that growing up with cell phones and Google means kids don’t have to figure things out or solve problems any more. They can look up what they need online or call mom or dad for step-by-step instructions. And today’s helicopter parents are more than happy to oblige, whether their kids are 12 or 22.

I share Ilya Somin‘s lack of concern.

In every generation, there are some mechanical skills that were essential in earlier times that are no longer useful because technology has created machines that perform the same functions more efficiently. When I was in high school in the 1980s, I learned how to use a typewriter. Very few teenagers have that skill today because word processors are both simpler to operate and more efficient. In the generation before me, many if not most schoolchildren knew how to use abacuses and slide rules. By my day, we were using the much simpler and more efficient calculators. Does that mean that we were “nincompoops” compared to those who grew up in the 1950s and 60s?

Harpaz and Mark Bauerlein worry that kids who can look up instructions on the internet or their cell phones won’t learn how to “figure things out or solve problems.” To my mind, learning how to access the knowledge of others is itself a very important ability, one that those skilled at using the internet have an important advantage in. As great social theorists such as F.A. Hayek and Edmund Burke pointed out, even the smartest and most capable individuals can benefit a lot from the vastly greater store of knowledge compiled by the rest of society. If Bauerlein is right, than 19th century Americans should have been concerned about the spread of mass literacy and the declining price of books caused by improved printing technology. After all, kids who can look up instructions in books where their parents had to use their own know-how couldn’t possibly learn how to “figure things out” on their own!

Indeed, we could reverse all this.  Today’s 4-year-olds are more technically savvy than their grandparents.  Is grandma an idiot because she finds her TiVo befuddling or doesn’t know how to use the Google?  Of course not.

For that matter, I’m perfectly fine with people who are able to look things up and figure out how to do things rather than having to rely on “their own know-how.”   The store of knowledge on the Internet vastly outweighs what any single individual could possibly learn in a lifetime. To be sure, there’s something to be said for being able to look at something and intuit a solution.   But not having to do that is a net plus.

Further, Beth Harpaz (author of the AP piece) and Maushart are conflating the impact of technology with the effects of bad parenting.   There is no technology of which I’m aware that takes clothes that have been thrown on the floor and transforms them into fresh-folded laundry.  (If it exists, however, I want it.)   If you don’t want your kid to be a slob, teach them to pick up after themselves.    If your kid looks befuddled when encountering a can without a pull top, show them how to use a can opener!  This ain’t rocket science, people.

I am, however, concerned about a 12-year-old boy who can’t figure out how to get ice cubes out of a plastic tray.  Whack the damned thing on the counter, son.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Education, Parenting, Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    Some parents take their kids to the Maker Faire.

    (for every trend there is a counter-trend.)

  2. PD Shaw says:

    This piece suggests merely that there are elites that cannot exist without hired help to open cans. It’s the kind of piece the reveals more about the author than the world outside.

  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    Since 10 year olds occasionally assist me in using the computer I hesitate to agree with AP who specialise in provocative (and usually innacurate) headlines, but I think we’ve experienced some loss of deep thinking capacity. Picture a scene in the seventies before video games arrived with a vengeance towards the end of the decade. Kids read books, asked questions (sometimes annoyingly) which involved complicated answers. Today after being forced to do homework (that hasn’t changed) it’s playing on the computer which is much more of a solo acitivity.

  4. B. Minich says:

    My reaction to this particular piece is as follows:

    The Dumbest Generation: How the digital age makes parents feel stupid because their kids get Twitter, so they write books saying that kids don’t get can openers.

    I’m sympathetic to the argument that we don’t have kids that think as deeply as they used to. But that’s not what this screed is about. This screeds sits there and laughs at the poor teenager who can’t get the can opener (notice, they talked about how this happens more than once), and doesn’t lift a finger to, you know, TEACH HER HOW TO OPEN A CAN OPENER!!!! Its the dumb form of tech criticism. Again, some is valid. But as someone else said, a lot of this is easily fixed with good parenting.

  5. sam says:

    “Today’s 4-year-olds are more technically savvy than their grandparents.”

    True enough. But the next time you’re in the supermarket checkout line, and some kid is running the register, ask yourself if the kid could make the correct change without the machine doing for him or her.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    I love the idea of a book author and an AP writer, neither of whom has a clue, questioning the younger generation’s intellectual abilities. Pot criticizing kettle?

  7. Neil Hudelson says:

    I recently visited my grandparents’ retirement community–you know the not-quite-a-nursing home but damn! there are a lot of old people around, deals. And what I saw amazed me.

    My grandfather’s neighbor couldn’t get his computer to load webpages quickly. The old codger didn’t know how to forward his ports properly! And get this, my grandparents rigged up a special table to hold their printer close to their computer. They hadn’t activated the wireless settings! I asked them why they hadn’t returned my messages, and they said they never received a call from me. They hadn’t checked their sms messages! (let alone their mms messages).

    Later we got into an argument about the civil war. They insisted on opening a history book to find the answer, and were amazed when I found it on my phone in 30 seconds.

    I mean, does that generation know anything useful? Or are they a generation of nincompoops?

  8. michael reynolds says:

    And as for this notion that kids no longer read: bullshit. I sell an awful lot of books to kids who “don’t read.” And other authors sell more.

    And what they read is better than what we used to read. Compare Harry Potter or Hunger Games or Octavian Nothing or dare I mention, Gone, to Little Women or A Little Princess or The Hardy Boys. Puh-leeze.

    Kidlit is infinitely better today than it was in the good old days. Even comic books are far, far superior to the comics we read as kids.

    It’s not just books. Sorry old farts, but the games are far more sophisticated and intellectually demanding, too. You really want to contrast Monopoly or the little plastic soldiers or tiddly winks with Halo or World of Warcraft? Or how about TV? Lay Modern Family up against The Jeffersons or House up against Marcus Welby.

    The problem is not the kids. The problem is their clueless parents and backward schools, both operating on absurd assumptions and addicted to counterproductive methods.

    The kids are fine. It’s their parents and grandparents who need to pull their heads out of their asses. All in all the AP piece is just another brick in the wall.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    I am still wondering, is the can opener electric, manual or that kind you find on a boy scout pocket knife?

  10. PD Shaw says:

    michael appears to be in full suck-up to his customer-base mode.

    seriously, I would like to see an objective comparison between the Nancy Drew books and the Nancy Drew computer games. One is full of turgid prose to be absorbed passively; the other is full of problem solving and analytical challenges.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    PD:

    Hey, they pay my bills.

  12. Davebo says:

    “But the next time you’re in the supermarket checkout line, and some kid is running the register, ask yourself if the kid could make the correct change without the machine doing for him or her.”

    I find the checkout line more tedious when a member of the elder generation watches all of his or her items being scanned, then finally pulls out a check book and starts writing a check. Were you planning to pay by credit/debit all along and at the last minute decided to start filling out a check?

    Were you unsure of the name of the grocery store?

    Or do you just shop the same way you drive?

    I have a great respect for our seniors. But seriously, the can suck the joy out of life as well as out of the Treasury.

    Of all the citizens of this country I’d say they have the least to complain about. Consider the wealth distribution scenario.

    Unless you were of working age in the 1920’s, you’ve enjoyed the best of America. Something today’s kids are unlikely to experience.

  13. tom p says:

    what can I say…. my sons know how to use a P-38 AND a laptop.

  14. Brummagem Joe says:

    michael reynolds says:
    Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 16:37

    “And as for this notion that kids no longer read: bullshit. I sell an awful lot of books to kids who “don’t read.” And other authors sell more.”

    Not sure I entirely buy this. I’ve interviewed some exceptionally bright people with specialized educations over the past 20 years(much brighter than me) and am often staggered by their lack of what I would call wide culture. Fairly unfamiliar with routine classic novels and poetry, shaky grasp of geography and history, never heard of Mahler let alone Alma Mahler, unfamiliar with schools of painting, and so on. Now sure you can google Klimt and produce a potted answer of who he was but it’s hardly education is it?

    ” And what they read is better than what we used to read. Compare Harry Potter or Hunger Games or Octavian Nothing or dare I mention, Gone, to Little Women or A Little Princess or The Hardy Boys. Puh-leeze.”

    And you mean other rubbish like Treasure Island, the Sherlock Holmes canon, Wind in the Willows, the Riddle of the Sands, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Call of the Wild, Kidnapped, Tarzan, The Jungle Book, the Hornblower canon…no we don’t want kids to waste their time on rubbish like this; Harry Potter is much superior literature (and Little Women isn’t a bad book btw)

  15. michael reynolds says:

    Joe:

    They still read Treasure Island and the rest of your list. But they also read a whole new genre — young adult — which includes some amazing books, books that I will stack up against a lot of the classics you cite.

    Don’t forget that simply by virtue of age a lot of those books acquire a patina of respectability that is not necessarily a function of their inherent virtues. Go back and re-read some of those books with an unsentimental eye and tell me the prose is really that great, or the ideas any more profound than the best of current YA. And bear in mind that your list represents better than 100 year span of time.

    Literature is alive and well and does not rest solely on dead authors.

    By the way, Harry Potter is damned good writing and terrifically inventive. And JK Rowling has the advantage of not being, as Jack London was, a raving white supremacist loon with a distorted view of Darwin, or a misogynist Christian propagandist like C.S. Lewis. And try re-reading Burroughs and see if you can keep a straight face reading his prose and his godawful dialog, let alone stomach his casual racism.

  16. John Burgess says:

    PD Shaw: Try going back and comparing the original Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books with their current re-issues. I suspect you’ll walk away rather mind-numbed.

  17. JKB says:

    I am, however, concerned about a 12-year-old boy who can’t figure out how to get ice cubes out of a plastic tray. Whack the damned thing on the counter, son.

    Beyond the lack of basic tool skills, it is the lack of ideas how to solve the problem that is so sad. Here, I have something I’ve never confronted before. I will stand in the middle of the kitchen looking confused rather than test any theories of how ice cubes might be released from their plastic prison or food, in a can, might be accessed when the pull top is missing.

    This has revealed a flaw in Illya’s thesis. Googling “emptying plastic ice trays” has many links but all simple gloss over the actual release of the ice. There is a flaw the internet, all hands to their Youtube accounts.

  18. michael reynolds says:

    The ice tray problem I think has to do with Joyner’s hope that some day his daughter will be able to fetch him cocktails.

    I tried this with my kids. Sadly my wife objected to the notion that the kids should function as my bartenders, and I suspect Mrs. J will take the same high-handed approach.

    Women. First they insist on having kids and then, suddenly, they’re like, “No, the kids cannot light your cigars or mix your martini.” Honestly, why do they think we agreed to have kids?

  19. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Don’t forget that simply by virtue of age a lot of those books acquire a patina of respectability that is not necessarily a function of their inherent virtues.”

    Well you see I have read a few of the Potter books and for me personally the device rapidly runs out of steam after the first novel although they are well written. But then I also find the entire Tolkien saga rather boring. Life at Hogwaerts seems rather narrow and unreal by comparison with; escaping from the Chateau D’if and exacting revenge; or a sea battle on the high seas between the Lydia and Natividad; or listening to the howl of the hound on the moors. And I don’t remember mentioning Burroughs who isn’t very good.

    “Rowling has the advantage of not being, as Jack London was, a raving white supremacist loon with a distorted view of Darwin, or a misogynist Christian propagandist like C.S. Lewis.”

    And if the personal beliefs and behavior of novelists is what defines our reading choices then it’s goodbye Tolstoy, Hemingway, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Mailer, Balzac, Dickens, Thackeray, Amis and most of western literature.

  20. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Don’t forget that simply by virtue of age a lot of those books acquire a patina of respectability that is not necessarily a function of their inherent virtues.”

    And I wouldn’t agree with this basic premise. The reason all these books retain their grip on popular culture and the imagination (and are all still in print) has nothing to do with longevity. After all lots of similar genre books were being written at the same time and they’ve largely disappeared without trace. The reasons are the strength and originality of the plots and characters, and their narrative drive. I have a feeling Ratty and Mole will still be around in 100 years and so will Blind Pew.

  21. Fortunato says:

    “Don’t forget that simply by virtue of age a lot of those books acquire a patina of respectability that is not necessarily a function of their inherent virtues. Go back and re-read some of those books with an unsentimental eye and tell me the prose is really that great, or the ideas any more profound than the best of current YA. And bear in mind that your list represents better than 100 year span of time.

    Literature is alive and well and does not rest solely on dead authors.

    By the way, Harry Potter is damned good writing and terrifically inventive. And JK Rowling has the advantage of not being, as Jack London was, a raving white supremacist loon with a distorted view of Darwin, or a misogynist Christian propagandist like C.S. Lewis. And try re-reading Burroughs and see if you can keep a straight face reading his prose and his godawful dialog, let alone stomach his casual racism.”

    Presentism and philistinism at their crudest, proudest and dumbest.
    There’s a dumbest generation than the one currently emerging, i.e., the one that enables it.

  22. Brummagem Joe says:

    Fortunato says:
    Friday, October 1, 2010 at 12:01

    “Presentism and philistinism at their crudest, proudest and dumbest.
    There’s a dumbest generation than the one currently emerging, i.e., the one that enables it.”

    Heh don’t include me in this as I’m around the same age group as Mikey but I was rather surprised with his response. Somehow I don’t see Evelyn Waugh going down too well at one of Mikey’s dinner parties but he’s one of the best fiction writers of the 20th century.

  23. Michael Reynold says:

    I’m really at a loss to understand why you would treat me with disrespect since I’ve shown none to you. But okay: you’re an out of touch old fart, a weary old crank yelling at the kids to get off your lawn.

    Old does not equal good. Just like cranky doesn’t equal wise. In this particular area a wise man might consider that this is an area I know rather well. But by all means keep working the crotchety angle.

  24. Michael Reynold says:

    By the way a further note on the notion that kids don’t read: you realize I’m writing this comment on my phone having just come from two school visits where I spoke to and sold a lot of books to actual children, right?

    And that I have so much demand from editors that I could easily keep two clubs working full time writing books for the kids you claim don’t read books.

    And now I have to run to another event at a library which will once again be filled with the kids for whom the old fart brigade gas such evident contempt.

  25. Michael Reynold says:

    Clubs = clones. Curse you iPhone autocorrect.

    Oh wait, someone will need to explain autocorrect to the retirement home culture warriors.

  26. PD Shaw says:

    Michael, the real question is when you get to that part of the story where the can opener makes an obligatory appearance, do you

    a) write around it by settling for a more familiar utensil;
    b) introduce some background chatter between characters to give the youthful reader some background on can openers;
    c) make no changes; assume the reader will google their questions; or
    d) pour a scotch and wonder at the stars why YA stories always have to have a can opener?

  27. Michael Reynold says:

    PD:

    Pouring a scotch is never a bad choice.

    But seriously I never condescend. Condescension is deadly in kidlit. I usually aim just over their heads. I think most of us do that.

  28. James Joyner says:

    Pouring a scotch is never a bad choice.

    Hear, hear!

  29. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Hear, hear!”

    We’re still in the Martini season Jim and I’m just enjoying one.

  30. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Oh wait, someone will need to explain autocorrect to the retirement home culture warriors.”

    all very interesting Mikey but I see you steer well clear of substance.

  31. James Joyner says:

    We’re still in the Martini season Jim and I’m just enjoying one.

    I’m fairly ecumenical on spirits. Scotch, rocks, works for me even in the height of summers given the comforts of air conditioning. And I’ll drink a martini after work on a winter day.

  32. matt says:

    “Today after being forced to do homework (that hasn’t changed) it’s playing on the computer which is much more of a solo acitivity.”

    You would be amazed at how wrong you are about computers being a solo activity. Your view as an outsider is of one person sitting at a machine but that person at the machine could be in communication with litterly hundreds to thousands of people worldwide. How is it a solo activity when I log into WoW hook up with some friends and slay some beasts while talking to a couple of my friends on MSN?

    OH and James I’d rather they twist the icecube tray instead of pounding it on a counter 😛

    Micheal Renolds’ post is pure poetic truth to me. Seriously you’re on a roll in this thread and had me laughing hard as a result..

  33. matt says:

    I can’t help but feel I’m a “youngin” here 🙁

  34. James Joyner says:

    OH and James I’d rather they twist the icecube tray instead of pounding it on a counter 😛

    Sure! But banging it on the counter — not befuddlement — would be what I would expect from a red blooded American 12-year-old boy.

  35. matt says:

    Hell yeah James.