Are 'Millennials' the Smartest or Dumbest Generation?

Septembr 30, 2008 | By Andrew Trotter

Has digital overload made today’s generation of students stupid? Or, alternatively, do the “digital kids” have intellectual assets and skills that make them the smartest generation yet? Two experts who have studied what is often called the “millennial generation”—people born from the mid-1980s to around 2000—debated those questions yesterday before about a hundred journalists, lobbyists, and education policy experts and researchers.

Speaking at Sept. 29 luncheon hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta, argued that students’ obsession with social networking and video games has led to an abandonment of serious leisure reading.

“The high school and college years, it’s a short period,” said Mr. Bauerlein, a former research director at the National Endowment for the Arts. “In spite of its brevity and dynamism, this is the most crucial intellectual stage in these young persons’ lives.“

Digital Kids: Smartest or Dumbest?

The two speakers discussed their views with Education Week reporter Andrew Trotter shortly after their Sept. 29 debate hosted by the American Enterprise Institute.

This time, he said, is their “precious” chance to acquire the conceptual tools and background knowledge that will become the foundation for their intellectual lives, careers, and citizenship. “If you don‘t read the ‘Divine Comedy’ and ‘Macbeth’ [then], you‘re probably not going to,” he said.

Mr. Bauerlein cited a raft of statistics from, among other sources, the National Assessment of Educational Progress and college-admissions tests, to back up his argument that an intellectual decline has occurred. The consequences, in his view, are spelled out in the title of his new book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our FutureOr Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.

On the other side of the debate was Neil Howe, a historian, economist, and demographer who also has published a book on the subject—Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation—co-written by William Strauss, a demographics consultant, and published in 2000.

Mr. Howe, the president of LifeCourse Associates, a consulting firm based in Great Falls, Va., reeled off statistics to show positive trends, such as the generation‘s “reversal of self-destructive behaviors” in youth pregnancy and substance abuse, and a sustained trend of rising scores on IQ tests.

Simpsons vs. Flintstones

Mr. Howe argued that young people‘s leisure pursuits today are “more sophisticated” than those of his generation, the baby boomers.

“We watched ‘Gunsmoke,’ which has one plot,” while the millennials watch multilayered dramas like “Law and Order,” Mr. Howe said. Today‘s animated TV show “The Simpsons” and the video game SimCity are similarly more complex than the boomer fare of “The Flintstones” and the board game Monopoly, he said.

And in school, Mr. Howe said, 21st-century students take part in much more elaborate activities than did past generations—creating robots, writing software programs, and developing entries for science fairs that, at the top end at least, sometimes result in patentable innovations.

In follow-up comments, Mr. Bauerlein replied that the current generation of course has “a cohort of superkids out there pulling up the [Advanced Placement] scores,” as well as some improvement in scores at the bottom achievement levels. But those rises, he said, mask declines in areas, such as literature, that cause him concern.

Mr. Bauerline said that strong sales figures for children‘s literature in recent years are due solely to the Harry Potter blockbusters and are not reflected in sales of other children‘s books.

“Kids read Harry Potter, but don‘t pick up the reading habit,” he said.

Both scholars agreed that the millennials show positive trends, such as lower rates of violent crime and greater professional ambitions. They also agreed that today‘s young people have greater access to cultural resources and information than any previous generation, thanks to the Internet as well as a greater number of libraries and museums.

“I‘m really talking strictly about intellectual achievements,” Mr. Bauerlein said of his pessimistic stance.

A ‘Corrective’ Generation?

Mr. Howe admonished those who judge millennials harshly to avoid “myths,” such as the assumption that “video games are making kids dumber.” Aging boomers, he noted, have been picking up video game controllers to play “brain fitness games” to keep their minds sharp. Mr. Howe suggested that Mr. Bauerlein was trying to measure the millennials by a boomer yardstick. Generations do take on characteristics that reflect their times, and the millennials may have more in common with the “GI generation” that fought in World War II, Mr. Howe said.

That generation, he said, was “enveloped in a child-protection frenzy” that accompanied the passage of child labor laws and the rise of the scouting movement, along with pressure to conform, but also had a new sense of optimism and collective purpose that he believes contrasted with the attitudes of the boomer generation that followed.

“We may be looking at a [millennial] generation very similar to the generation that raised us,” Mr. Howe said of his fellow baby boomers. “They might be a corrective to us, as we were a corrective to our own parents.“