Johnson vs. Bauerlein, Round 1

In the one corner, Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good For You; in the other, Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation. Two very smart people with very different ideas about where young Americans are heading. I’ve written a little about these two before — here and here — and promised to revisit the issues. This is a belated attempt to do so, though I’m just going to outline some thoughts here and then (I hope) develop them further in later posts.

Johnson’s basic position is that (a) today’s young people are smarter than kids of earlier generations and (b) this is largely a result of their constant exposure to varieties of pop culture that are cognitively demanding. It takes more brainpower, he would argue, to play Grand Theft Auto IV than to play Monopoly; and Lost demands levels of concentration and attention that Gunsmoke never did. Pop culture today is “good for you” because it forces you to develop a certain mental acuity in order to enjoy it. Johnson also frequently cites studies indicating that today’s teenagers are “the least violent, the most politically engaged and the most entrepreneurial since the dawn of the television era.” So when Johnson looks at the data about young people, he’s especially interested in, and encouraged by, two things: skills acquisition and activity levels.

Bauerlein, by contrast, is concerned about the content of young people’s brains, or the lack thereof. If they don’t actually know anything about American government, should we really be encouraged by their apparent political activism? Bauerlein cites one study of American teenagers — cultural conservatives love this kind of survey — showing that 59% of them can name the Three Stooges, while only 41% can name the three branches of government. (And perhaps the disparity is even greater, depending on the methodology of the study: would an especially Stoogocentric teen get proper credit for naming Curly-Joe as a legitimate Stooge?) For Bauerlein there is nothing remotely exciting about a generation of passionately committed political partisans who don’t know jack-shit about how government actually works — and therefore about what would make for positive change, or about how such change could be achieved.

The disagreements begin here, but go much deeper. I will say more in a later post — again, I hope — about long-form versus short-form reading, and the cognitive benefits of each. But for now I’ll leave you with this thought: much of the disagreement between Johnson and Bauerlein involves different models of the future. Johnson is banking on the relatively near future being quite different than the relatively recent past: he is expecting that the existing economic structures will morph, or rather will continue to morph, into new shapes that will place a premium on a certain set of cognitive skills; and he is likewise banking on the internet functioning efficiently as a universally-accessible outboard brain that can always be counted on to hold the content that people haven’t bothered to upload into their own craniums. I’m not sure whether Bauerlein thinks such a scenario likely — probably not — but if he did think it likely he certainly wouldn’t think it desirable. But in any case, future developments in culture and economics are going to make one of these guys look really bad.