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Saying What No One Wants to Hear

The adults in the room have no one to blame but themselves for the mess that is the younger generation.

The Dumbest Generation Grows Up, by Mark Bauerlein (Simon & Schuster, 2021), 256 pages.

Virgil’s Aeneas knew where to find the treasure trove of ripened human wisdom: He sought the words of his crippled father, Anchises, “the best of fathers.” Unlike its Homeric antecedents, the Aeneid was not a celebration of eclectic Odyssean capacity, nor was it a portrayal of the hubris inherent in an Achillean quest for glory. Aeneas understood human flourishing required intellectual and moral absorption of what had come before.

Thus, Mark Bauerlein begins his new book, The Dumbest Generation Grows Up, by asking the most relevant and pressing question of our time: What have we done to them? The “them” is millennials and the honest answer is: We murdered Anchises.  

In many ways, The Dumbest Generation Grows Up is Bauerlein’s love letter to a life of deep and passionate reading. The displacement of books by computer and phone screens has altered the moral ecology of human life for an entire generation of Americans. But the die had been cast long before Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey dug their digital talons into the hearts and minds of the millennial generation.

The strongest section of The Dumbest Generation Grows Up details the decades-long process in which adults have willingly forfeited any claim to moral or intellectual authority. Universities canceled the core and the canon and let teenagers pick and choose what they study. Revolutionary juveniles were allowed to fuel their outrage with sentimental victimhood instead of grasping the significance of what they are attempting to overthrow. The muscular intellectual spirit of Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau in the French Revolution finds no kindred spirit in the braindead landscape of modern university life.

We see it, too, in modern secondary and primary schooling in America. Gone are the days when students were expected to acquire deep knowledge of history and science. Gone is the expectation of being able to read difficult texts, write cogent sentences, or even essays. My high school students today do not know state capitals. They can’t tell you that Lincoln came after Madison. They have never heard of transubstantiation or the Five Pillars of Islam. Newton’s apple tree or St. Augustine’s pear tree are equally enigmatic to them.

Instead of mastering subject matter content and acquiring hard skills, Bauerlein explains that students are exposed to a trendy potpourri of soft aptitudes like “Information Acquisition,” “Cause and Effect,” “Thinking in Time,” “Interpretation,” or “Numeracy.” A teacher steeped in tradition, who believes contact with great texts or momentous ideas facilitates boys becoming men and girls becoming women, is so woefully passé in the modern teachers’ lounge the issue hardly merits an argument.

We have put children in the driver’s seat and they have no idea where to go or how to drive. The adults have abandoned them, in every aspect of life that is formative and meaningful. And thus, Bauerlein writes, “a generation so idealistic and broad-minded, more schooled than any group before, cosmopolitan and committed to justice, socially conscious and forward-leading, ended up bitter, suspicious, disappointed, cancel-conscious, unforgiving, and vengeful.”

The Dumbest Generation Grows Up is a follow up to Bauerlein’s hugely successful and much-celebrated 2008 book The Dumbest Generation, which argued that the advent of a digital world populated by internet usage, emails, blogging, and instant messaging resulted in stunted learning capacity for young Americans and glaring gaps in their basic knowledge.

Looking back on it, The Dumbest Generation seems to be warning of spears when we now have nuclear weapons in our pockets. This doesn’t mean Bauerlein was wrong—far from it. It means his diagnosis of generational ignorance and sloth was just the beginning, a pedestrian prediction of the mighty dysfunction to come.

What started out as poor reading habits and shortened attention spans has metastasized into something far more gruesome and menacing—a generation short on knowledge and high on outrage, a generation seething with cynicism about the cultural, commercial, and political institutions that constitute civil society, a generation that knows almost no history or literature but is ever confident in the superiority of its moral and political opinions, a generation suspicious about marriage, largely indifferent to religion, and absolutely mired in its own misery.

Bauerlein is unequivocal about where the blame lies: with those who knew better. It lies with the parents who knew there was something desperately wrong with children staring at screens for nine or ten hours a day but liked the time it freed up for their own amusements. It lies with the college professors and administrators who wanted to flatter their students instead of actually educate them, who suggested the past was obsolete and unworthy of study, who perpetuated cynical theories of power in which racial and gender categories confer power instead of hard work and character. It lies with Big Tech, whose titans won’t let their own children anywhere near the products they push onto the rest of us.

We told ourselves ignorance of history doesn’t matter as long as the kids know there was a lot of sexism and racism in the past—“The past was obsolete; how intoxicating was that idea to eighteen-year olds!” We told ourselves they don’t need to read when you have YouTube in your pocket—“The culture is too fragmented; the printed word lost out to TV and YouTube and games; poets retreated into the academy; ‘diversity’ won’t let anyone represent things and persons outside his identity group.” We told ourselves a young person doesn’t need a long attention span because their world will be one that optimized efficiency—“The fifty-year-old English professor had passages of Wordsworth in his head line by line, and he could recite the arguments of all the best scholars on Romantic poetry, but his expertise didn’t apply so much anymore.”

In short, we told ourselves that young lives untethered to the past or to notions of truth or to the trappings of exultant imagination or to any objective standard of meaning would still somehow find their way in the world. Bauerlein’s contention is not just that this is a pernicious lie, but that we keep repeating it. In one of his most compelling passages of the book he writes, “History is more than knowledge, the mentors should have said; it’s moral truth. Literature is more than plot and character; it’s personal. A nation isn’t just a place; it’s part of who you are: you’re an American. But the mentors didn’t tell them any of those things.”

Bauerlein’s reflections are certainly weighty and well-researched. No one can accuse him of not backing up his claims with data and scholarly citations. But what makes the book so powerful and compelling is that it brims with tragic resignation as Bauerlein does something that is colossally difficult to pull off—weave anecdotal material about his students and life into a broader narrative about a generational sense of existential loss. His writing resonates with the urgency of a Russian novelist and the personality of a Tom Wolfe essay.

In The Dumbest Generation Grows Up, Bauerlein’s prose bristles with a tragic sense of pathos about the sheer volume of human misery one generation has knowingly bequeathed to another. Nowhere is this clearer than in his contention that a sinister utopianism has ensnared the hearts and minds of millennials. The dogma of utopia embodies itself in a number of millennial dogmas that simply don’t square with reality. Among them, “everyone has a right to be happy” and “It doesn’t matter who you love.”

Bauerlein’s most powerful contention is that millennials celebrate socialism not because they have read Das Kapital or considered the colossal distinctions among Marxism, Stalinism, and Maoism. Rather it stems from a therapeutic worldview that feeds the utopian fiction that human contentment and joy would be more abundant and egalitarian if material circumstances were just a little bit better. At any moment we are just two or three government programs away from true ecstasy and fulfillment, just a few tax-percentage-hikes away from true and abundant happiness.

As Bauerlein writes, it is “a religion of sorts, a pugnacious, illiberal demand, a twenty-first century America-youth version of, precisely, Utopia.” Young Americans who relish a smug take down of America or rejoice in putting up sneering quotation marks around the American Dream, genuinely believe that human flourishing is a matter of one’s external condition. Sad? Miserable? Deflated? Don’t consider the bad choices you have made. Don’t lose weight or decide to read The Bible or volunteer at the soup kitchen. Don’t replace comfortable nihilism with Christian or Platonic piety. Utopianism seeks external culprits for internal misery.

My criticisms of The Dumbest Generation Grows Up are few. At times, Bauerlein overwhelms the reader with research about the death of reading. And there are small and unnecessary sprinkles of defensiveness when he writes about some of the interactions he has had when speaking to adversarial audiences. I found the ending eloquent but also a little abrupt.

These are small, even miniscule, objections to an otherwise brilliant reflection on the ennui inflicting millions of young Americans. I just wish I knew what to do about it. Where is Anchises when you need him?

Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently released book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation. He teaches high school and college political science in Bakersfield, California.