Acton Institute Powerblog

The “Dumbest Generation” has finally grown up

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Mark Bauerlein’s follow-up to his 2008 book, The Dumbest Generation, delivers a depressing assessment of what hollowing out the academic canon has produced in the lives of students subjected to the dumbed-down curriculum.

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In his “Parable of the Madman,” Nietzsche, reflecting on the death of God, observes that “this tremendous event is still on its way,” continuing that “deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.” The Madman notes the irony that even though “this deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars,” those responsible remain ignorant that “they have done it themselves.”

They have done it themselves. I think of that line often when I contemplate the state of the next generation (including my own children). It’s not unusual for one generation to complain about the next, but oftentimes our handwringing masks the fact that, deep down, we know we are responsible for the state of things. Part of that is a certain indolence as regards the ways we raise them; part of that is our own inability to be grateful for and appreciate the patrimony we’ve inherited and to know how to pass it on; and a great part of that is a loss of faith and confidence in that patrimony. And so we squander our inheritance rather than enrich it.

Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation Grows Up follows up on his 2008 volume and lets neither generation off the hook. Despite its unfortunate title, Bauerlein’s tome is not an elderly screed that complains about kids these days. Bauerlein deftly weaves together personal experience, trenchant observations, and a host of social scientific studies to bolster his claim that the central problem of higher education reflects the fact that we have “cut the young off from a living past,” with the result that they’ve been deprived “of a profound and stabilizing understanding of life, of themselves.” To make matters worse, we have placed into their hands and their pockets the instruments of such severing. The educational specialists who advocated for doubling down on technology were “false prophets” of what “was never going to be anything but a disaster.”

The young generation is “dumb” not only in the sense that their cultural ignorance is so profound they don’t realize it, but in the second sense that their capacity to speak is muted by their inability to blend their voices with those of the past, in particular the deep and rich sounds of Western arts and letters. Students are thus both dumb and deaf, for neither can they hear the past, the dulcet tones that would remind them of their proper place in the order of things. Here the effect of teachers and mentors themselves giving up on their heritage combined with the distractions offered by electronic gadgets has left students isolated and anxious, precisely because they are no longer part of something. The earbuds are the perfect metaphor for this state: They begin by rendering you temporarily deaf to the outside world and end up making you permanently so. But youth lacks the perspective to see how this might play out 30 or 40 years from now, which makes the abrogation of such knowledge by their elders all the more tragic.

Canon Fire

Political reformers have long understood that they need to know well—indeed, need to know better than the defenders—the tradition against which they set themselves. The canon wars of the 1980s have yielded the predictable outcome: Students from that time period are now standing mute in front of the classroom because they were on the losing end of those wars. Even if these instructors thought it was a good idea to hand on the best of the past, they wouldn’t be able to do so because they themselves are ignorant of it. The average reader would be shocked, for example, at how few political scientists have ever read a word of Aristotle, or how few Social Justice Warriors are familiar with Plato’s Republic. Worse still are the literature professors who—let’s be blunt here—hate literature. If they could even be bothered to read Moby Dick, it would only be as the canvas upon which they could paint their discontent. You can’t love what you don’t know, and the fact is that most faculty don’t know their own cultural patrimony, and so it becomes that much easier to hate it.

In the meantime, they’ve passed on to the next generation the pathological symptoms of such disconnect: a tendency to resort to slogans and jargon that are not so much acts of thinking as substitutes for it; a smug self-righteousness that reflects a lack of cultivated imagination; an inability to see complexity in human beings or events; a related quasi-Manichean conception of good and evil whereby one assumes that one’s own motives are pure. This is what happens when we have “deprived the young of the knowledge and the acumen that men and women rightly possess, the exposure to human nature up and down the scale of good and evil, beauteous and vulgar, smart and stupid, to strange times and faraway places, acts of heroism and disloyalty, the most eloquent words and sublime sounds and perceptive images” (123).

Bauerlein refers to this as the “anti-formation” of a generation, aggressively robbing students of what is rightfully theirs. Without being able to locate themselves on broad horizons of meaning, students become unmoored and unanchored, and what’s worse, unhinged. The strongest chapter of the book, “The Psychological Novel,” persuasively argues that the cause for the fragility and lack of humor of the young finds it roots in the simple fact that “they haven’t read enough literature.” If they had, they’d regard others “as real people having actual thoughts and doing real things.” They’d have the moral imagination to have already “roamed through love and hate” and to have “tried out courage and cowardice” and to realize what it would have meant to “have helped some and betrayed others.” They’d see other persons multidimensionally rather than unidimensionally. They’d abandon the ad hominem approach they often resort to once great literature forms them “to accept a tragic condition you’d rather not accept.” Good literature demands the kind of self-reflection that dissolves self-righteousness.

Reading Is Fundamental

The problem goes back to early childhood and the attenuation of reading practices, the evidence for which Bauerlein carefully details. Even books assigned in the primary or secondary schools typically attempt to satisfy an ideological desire rather than being notable for the skill of execution and their existential depths—in other words, the kinds of books that constitute a canon. Were students exposed early on to such reading, it “would have made Millennials happier adults by exposing them to a richer collection of motives and experiences and personalities” and “enhanced their cognitive empathy” and increased “the recognition of impulses outside [their] personal experience.”

Thus have the ideological passions that resulted in curricular reforms despoiled the world our students inhabit. “The professors had lost interest, and the youths lost what every youth needs and deserves: a patrimony, any patrimony. Multiculturalism didn’t multiply heritages and enhance each one; it left the students with no heritage at all, no relationship to past greatness.” As witness to this claim Bauerlein offers Malcolm X, who, he avers, would have scoffed at the denuding of such a wealthy heritage. Instead, Malcolm X transformed his life when his prison cell became a refuge from the world, allowing him to read day and night, thus awakening “the long dormant craving to be mentally alive.” It was by placing himself in the horizon provided by the great works of the past that Malcolm X was able to turn his life around and give it purpose.

Nietzsche understood that only by placing ourselves within horizons can our lives achieve purpose and meaning. Secularization and cultural ignorance have created a crisis of meaning, and that crisis gets dealt with in part by desperate efforts to backfill the holes, to retreat from the abyss, or, as Goethe said, to amuse ourselves [by] painting our prison-walls with bright figures and brilliant landscapes.” What’s left is the will to power, a world where we would “rather will nothingness than not will,” as Nietzsche said.

In his parable, Nietzsche notes that we have to learn to live in a world where we have wiped away the entire horizon, and that means that we live in a world where our actions have no context and thus no meaning. The world becomes flat in the worst sort of way. It loses drama, nuance, richness, complexity, and purpose. Nietzsche’s “new festivals of atonement” and “sacred games” have all the earmarks of wokeism. Perhaps they might bring some of the comfort Nietzsche sought, but they are unlikely to get us to “belong to a higher history.” Rather, those festivals and games efface both the present and the future. Only the arduous task of recovering “all history hitherto” will allow us, once again, to see “the light of the stars.” The next generation will have to do better than their dumb elders.

Jeffrey Polet

Jeffrey Polet is professor emeritus of political science at Hope College and director of the Ford Leadership Forum at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.