Opinion » John Rember

Child Abuse

With the best of intentions


John Rember

I've just finished reading a 2008 book by Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, titled The Dumbest Generation. You may think an English professor reading a book by an English professor is the worst sort of intellectual inbreeding. But it's nowhere near the intellectual inbreeding The Dumbest Generation describes.

Bauerlein suggests the current generation of young Americans spends more time in close contact with pixels on screens than with their parents. It's an upbringing that reinforces self-indulgent adolescent dependencies instead of producing mature, empathetic, problem-solving adults. Social networks, video games, televised sports, laptops in schools and Internet porn work together to keep young people from ever leaving the emotional equivalent of junior high school.

Facebook and Twitter manufacture cliques for their members. Video games groom the self for an us-or-them, win-or-lose, inside-the-box reality. A hike in the woods doesn't happen if the hiker doesn't immediately verify it with a selfie. Personhood comes from the possession of the right consumer goods, the right diploma from the right college, the right circle of admirers, the right vacation tweeted from the right place.

The Dumbest Generation joins other curmudgeonly treatises that claim American culture has a go-back-to-the-womb kind of death wish. I've also been reading Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism and Robert Bly's The Sibling Society. They too portray a society where adolescence is a permanent condition, where magical thinking trumps objective reality, where the lens of the self transforms all it gazes upon into extensions of itself. Bauerlein goes one step further, saying that a world made of pixels makes people who live in it downright stupid.

He's correct, if only because being raised by screens doesn't allow for the surprises necessary to develop a flexible intuitive intelligence. With few exceptions, what young people see on a screen has been designed for them as consumers. There is at least one focus group between them and objective reality.

A video game limits their experience to the imagination of the game designer. A Facebook personality quiz limits their identities to the ones provided by the quiz writer. A GoPro video about skiing the Eiger has less to do with skiing the Eiger than it does with someone who skis the Eiger wearing a GoPro, hoping the resulting movie will go viral on YouTube.

Young people can watch the skiing-the-Eiger movie on YouTube even if they don't know how to ski. Chances are, after watching, they'll be satisfied with never learning. They'll just watch YouTube until the Ski-the-Eiger video game comes out.

This sort of counterfeit transaction has become real life for a lot of young people and it isn't making them any smarter. Granted, they're probably smarter than the person skiing the Eiger, but over time and over many similar GoPro viewing experiences they become chair-bound spectators, their faces green from lack of sunlight, their sense of the world grounded in their ability to consume whatever content makes it to the screen, their intelligences atrophied to nubbins.

It's no wonder that old but prescient movies like The Truman Show and The Matrix present their narrative characters as the only real people in their world, for whom any experience is manufactured and any event is theater. They're clueless as to the real nature of things.

That's what it's like for children these days. Since this process has been going on since well before The Truman Show, I'm using "children" to encompass a cohort of the American population that ranges from age 3 to age 55 or so.

It looks like child abuse to me. We're training people to live in a world that doesn't exist except on portable electronic devices, giving them selves that have been constructed by marketing departments and software developers, educating them to excel at standardized tests and then putting them in jobs that have nothing to do with any of these things. Adulthood comes in the form of The Matrix's red pill, which delivers an agonizing awareness of the real, or Truman's discovery that he's living in a stage set.

Once, when I was teaching a first-year writing class in college, I offered an A for any essay that described only the external sensory input of a walk across campus. "Give me the details of the outside world," I told students. "Write down its sights, its sounds, its textures, its smells, and if you walk through the dining hall, its tastes. Four or five pages should be enough."

I never gave an A for a paper of that description. Everyone who tried it gave up after a page. Some students couldn't turn their attention to the external world at all, and the ones who could found they were overwhelmed by details. "It would take a book," they said. "There are a million things out there."

They said this with a sense of wonder, as if they had discovered a reality they hadn't realized existed. It was an alien place and dangerous, one where the blades of grass, the leaves of trees and the flat metallic glare of the sun on sprinkler-wet sidewalks all threatened to dissolve who they were and send them adrift, without body and without self, into a far country.