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New Illiteracy: Interview with Mark Bauerlein

By Lara Van Hulzen | July 1 2007

 Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, and the author of many books. In his next book, called The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, Bauerlein looks at how misplaced faith in the "knowledge economy" and its diversions are eroding the intellectual life of young people.

YouthWorker Journal: Just about everybody except you says tech­nology will usher in a glorious brave new world. Why do you think technology may actually be leading us into a new dark age?

Mark Bauerlein: The problem is that often people look at only the front end of what technology has to offer instead of the back end, or the outcome. An elementary principal told me that his fifth- and sixth-grade teachers are having problems when assign­ing research projects. The students view it as a procedure where they cut and paste information off a Web site, add some sentences of their own and turn it in. The information passes too quickly from the screen to the homework papers and isn't processed through the mind. The speed and ease of the digital resources actually conspires against producing long-term understanding.

YWJ: If you're right, what is the concrete impact on kids? How does technology make them dumber than previous generations?

Bauerlein: The ease of the computer has made skills resolve more in the computer than in the minds of the people using them.

Kids have access to more information than before but they aren't on educational Web sites, they are on MySpace.com or espn.com. They go to social networking sites, which causes them to indulge where they are—adolescence—and not move forward. More than 50 percent of kids who have blogs are 13- to 19-year­olds. They come home from school, sit down at their computer, and type for five hours about their teachers and other students, getting comments and responding. You improve your writing when you are pulled upward and challenged. The blogs keep them networking only with their peers and that holds them at the same level.

We have young adults who have more money than ever before, more education than ever before, more access to cultural institu­tions and yet on all the tests of knowledge and skills in math, sci­ence, history, and arts we see a flat line or shift downward.

YWJ: What are some of the potential spiritual consequences of the changes you are describing, and how can youth workers address them?

Bauerlein: The Internet allows people to create their own little universe. They only make contact with things that interest them. They enclose themselves in the music they like, the politics they like—and what we see is an isolation of young people who really get into this world. This is spiritually withering.

These places are an instrument that enables you to feed your one desire so strongly and quickly. It is bound to appeal to the most corrupt and sinful elements. About 30 percent of Internet activity is porn. There is no constraint. It's you and the universe and you can do anything you want, go anywhere you want, and shut out what you don't want.

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