In a comment on my previous Johnson-Bauerlein post, David A. suggests that a significant problem with Bauerlein’s gloom-and-doom studies — Look at all the things today’s teenagers don’t know! — is their lack of comparative context. Okay, so only 41% of American teenagers can name the three branches of government — or rather could, since that study (I failed to notice this earlier) was conducted a decade ago, well before the internet had fully asserted its dominance. So: what would have been the results of that study, or a similar one, in 1988? 1968? 1938? 1858? As far as I can tell, Bauerlein’s book doesn’t contain any comparative data of this kind. So what does that mean for his argument?
Looked at in one way, it’s a big problem. Bauerlein concludes his book by writing that the people he calls “the dumbest generation” “may even be recalled as the generation that lost the great American heritage, forever.” But if they aren’t any more ignorant than previous generations, and previous generations have not lost that heritage forever, then this claim seems (on the face of it) overblown. Now, perhaps they are more ignorant, but if so, Bauerlein’s neglecting to show that is a significant shortcoming.
However, you can look at all this in another way. You could argue that a healthy and properly-functioning democracy simply requires a better-informed citizenry than we have, or (given current trends) are likely to have. You could argue that if Americans fifty years ago were similarly uninformed about the basics of our government and the rights guaranteed by our laws and Constitution, that could help to explain acquiescence in the curtailment of civil liberties during the McCarthy era; or acquiescence in Jim Crow laws throughout the South; or acquiescence in dramatic wage differentials between men and women doing the same jobs.
Taking a slightly different tack, you could argue that a level of ignorance that was survivable in earlier periods is not survivable now, thanks to technological developments or globalization or whatever — but again, that would need to be argued.
So I don’t think a reasonable person can simply dismiss Bauerlein’s concerns; but I also don’t think Bauerlein has done as much as he needed to to hammer home his argument.
(I haven’t said anything about Steven Johnson, which makes the title of this post misleading, but I’ll get back to him soon.)