Johnson vs. Bauerlein, third and final round

Round 1, Round 2. You can find the relevant links there, so I won’t repost them here.

I earlier suggested that Mark Bauerlein doesn’t have enough comparative data to back up the claim that young people today constitute “the dumbest generation” — a point that Bauerlein himself (at least I think it’s him) sort of acknowledges — and since the book’s title is pointedly comparative, that’s a real problem. On the other hand, if the title of the book had been The Generation That’s Dumber than It Ought to Be and Needs to Be — well, for a claim like that he has some significant evidence. The chief value that underlies Bauerlein’s book is good citizenship, and he shows in all sorts of ways that a frightening number of young people lack the factual knowledge and habits of mind to be good citizens.

(Now, one might also say that there is reason to believe that several other generations of Americans exhibit the same deficiencies, so that an even more useful and accurate title for the book could be The Country That’s Dumber than It Ought to Be and Needs to Be — but that book has recently been written by Susan Jacoby and for that matter was written half-a-century ago by Richard Hofstader, and very effectively too. But enough of such quibbles.)

It’s a good thing that Bauerlein has this meaningful standard of value in relation to which we can assess ourselves; it’s just such a standard that Steven Johnson, as far as I can tell, lacks. As I noted in the earlier posts, Johnson’s primary argument is that movies, television shows, and video games have become progressively more cognitively demanding: they are more complex than ever, and require their users to master certain skills of attention and response before they (the shows, the games) can really be enjoyed. The problem with the way Johnson develops this argument is that, all too often, what he shows is that the real payoff for our attention to these genres is the ability to enjoy more examples of the same genres. Watching Pulp Fiction prepares you to enjoy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; watching The Sopranos prepares you to enjoy Lost. Whether these pursuits have any actual value is a question Johnson rarely raises.

When he does raise it, he does so in order to make two points: first, that the people who immerse themselves in these cognitive worlds are well-prepared to make a lot of money; and second, that these people tend to be politically active. Whether their activity is informed and therefore useful to the public good is not a question Johnson raises; whether money-making is intrinsically good, ditto.

Johnson’s unreflectiveness in these matters is troublesome — especially when he mocks “obsessive novel readers” for their likely future poverty. This is perhaps not so wise, given that people who disdain novels may well disdain other book-length narratives: Jason Jones, one of the commentators on my first post in this series, wrote: “I teach [Johnson's] book all the time in writing courses, as an example of how to build certain kinds of arguments. Students always complain that the book is “too long” — at 200 pages!! — and that they can just watch his Stewart and Colbert interviews.”