[Paleopsych] CHE: A Very Long Disengagement
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Wed Jan 11 22:00:43 UTC 2006
A Very Long Disengagement
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6.1.6
[Now did you read the past article on life, death, and biocultural
literacy? Here's cold water to throw on it, namely that all kinds of
literacy are going down. I don't know if this apparently deep culture
change means that much or just that learning styles are moving from the
sort of didactic, linear, foundational approach that guided Christian and
Newtonian civilization to the hyperlinking becoming more and
more characteristic of Darwinian civilization.
[Remember that what we take as natural is so often second-natural, what we
are brought up with, that in fact most of the world's civilizations held
together without the didactic, foundational, linear (I must add
experimental scientific!) thinking that we take for granted. Also,
understanding the world and moving along in the world is not all that
dependent on the sort of reductionist promise to carry everything back to
first principles that we so often hold up as ideal. There is only one case
of full theoretical reduction, heat to the motion of molecules, and that
holds only for an ideal case. Even our scientific knowledge is quite
splotchy. This means that hyperlinking is not so bad as those raised in
the old ways fear. And I say this, being very much a foundations man
[Help me develop these ideas!]
By MARK BAUERLEIN
Last spring Nielsen Media Research reported that the average college
student watches 3 hours 41 minutes of television each day. "It was a
little more than I expected," a Nielsen executive told a reporter, and
a little more than professors care to see. But the networks have
complained for years that young-adult programs attract more viewers
than the ratings have previously indicated. Nielsen traditionally
bases its count on household viewing, but many students watch TV shows
in a different way, and the trend is growing.
The Wall Street Journal described one example: "Every Thursday night
at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Theta Xi fraternity brothers
and their friends cram into a common room for their favorite
television show. It can be a tight squeeze, with as many as 40 people
watching at a time.
"The big attraction is 'The O.C.,' Fox's soapy drama about the lives
of teens in upscale Orange County, Calif."
The ritual is a common one on campuses today, and it has precursors. I
remember it back in college in 1980, when the Luke and Laura affair on
General Hospital caught on, and in the 90s when Friends lured into the
lounges undergrads and, surprisingly, grads, too. Now, female students
gather for airings of Friends spinoff Joey, while ESPN's SportsCenter
pulls in massive numbers of twentysomething men.
That is far from the customary image of a loner freshman zoning out in
front of the screen in his dorm room. Ever since Ray Bradbury's
Fahrenheit 451 (1953), media critics have believed that watching the
boob tube "atomizes" individuals, so that even when viewing the news
they have no real social engagement. The college ritual of The O.C.,
March Madness, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and other favorites
reverses the process, and television watching isn't the only leisure
habit shifting from "isolationist" to collective.
Teenagers used to keep diaries under lock and key in their bedrooms,
recording hopes and humiliations for the authors' eyes only. Today's
teens have a different approach. This past spring the Perseus
Development Corporation, a company that designs software for online
surveys, counted 31.6 million blogs, and 58 percent of them were kept
by 13-to-19-year-olds. Instead of opening a monogrammed notebook in
the late hours to cogitate alone, such "juvenile Marcel Prousts gone
wild" (as a story in The New York Times Magazine labeled them) arrive
home from school, log on, and let go. They compose an entry on the
day's happenings, respond to comments on yesterday's entry, search
other blogs on which to comment, and then return to their own site for
As with everything adolescent, the observations range from the
poignantly self-effacing to the tiresomely self-involved. A student
told me how his 17-year-old brother is obsessed with his own blog,
where intemperate chatter vies with awkward confession. He doesn't do
homework or his chores, and he doesn't exercise or volunteer. The
thrill of a peer's reaction to his own adagios holds him in his room
for five hours a day.
I don't know if such habits signal a widespread or long-term trend,
but here and there one sees an odd paradox at work. Students don't
gather often in one place to hang out and tell stories unless an
outside focus -- like a television show -- demands it. They make
contact with a few clicks, and their exchanges can take place with
strangers as often as with friends.
As soon as students leave class, they flip open the cellphone to check
for messages. One of my colleagues talks about how his son carries on
six conversations at a time through instant messaging, with dialogue
boxes from his "buddy list" cluttering the screen. Walk through any
university library, and at each computer station you will see a cheery
or intent sophomore pounding out e-mail messages at a rat-a-tat pace.
Head up to the stacks, and the aisles are as quiet as a morgue. The
students at the screen or on the cell appear just as solitary as a
person reading a book, but, in fact, they are intensifying their
connections, solidifying their identity among peers.
Such contacts form largely through campus resources, but they are
completely independent of the professors and the curriculum. It is a
young people's universe of social intercourse, a group behavior
unaffected by studies. Indeed, there is no evidence that the
intellectual life of the college influences their connectedness at
Surveys of undergraduates like "Your First College Year," conducted by
the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of
California at Los Angeles and the Policy Center on the First Year of
College at Brevard College, show troublingly high levels of "academic
disengagement." Students say that they feel bored in class, submit
assignments that underexercise their talents, and do minimal homework.
Last year the National Survey of Student Engagement found that 44
percent of first-year students never discuss ideas from their readings
or classes with their professors outside of class. And Indiana
University at Bloomington's 2005 "High School Survey of Student
Engagement" found that as many as half of all students spend only four
hours or less per week preparing for class.
The trends are not unrelated. The more young people gather to watch TV
shows, transmit e-mail and text messages, and blog and chat and surf
and download, the less they attend to their regular studies. What
develops is an acute peer consciousness, a sense of themselves as a
To be sure, the current crop of students is the most educated and
affluent ever. Their enrollment rates in college surpass those of
their baby-boomer parents and Generation X, and their purchasing power
is so strong that it dominates the retail and entertainment sectors.
Credit-card debt for 18-to-24-year-olds doubled from $1,500 in 1992 to
$3,000 in 2001, much of it due to the new array of tools, such as
BlackBerries, that keep them up to date with contemporaries and youth
culture. Students have grown up in a society of increasing prosperity
and education levels, and technology outfits them with instant access
to news, music, sports, fashion, and one another. Their parents'
experience -- LP records, typewriters, the cold war -- seems a
far-gone reality. As drivers of consumer culture, mirrored constantly
by mass entertainment, young adults understandably heed one another
and ignore their seniors -- including professors.
But what do they know? What have they learned from their classes and
We can be certain that they have mastered the fare that fills their
five hours per day with screens -- TV, DVD, video games, computers for
fun -- leaving young adults with extraordinarily precise knowledge of
popular music, celebrities, sports, and fashion. But when it comes to
the traditional subjects of liberal education, the young mind goes
nearly blank. In the last few years, an accumulation of survey
research on civics, history, literature, the fine arts, geography, and
politics reveals one dismal finding after another. The surveys vary in
sample size and question design, and they tend to focus on basic
facts, but they consistently draw the same general inference: Young
people are cut off from the worlds beyond their social circuit. While
the wealth and education of young Americans has increased, their
knowledge levels have either dropped or remained flat in the following
History. Students entering college have passed through several years
of social studies and history classes, but few of those students
remember the significant events, figures, and texts. On the 2001
National Assessment of Educational Progress history exam, the majority
of high-school seniors, or 57 percent, scored "below basic," and only
about one in nine reached "proficient" or better. Diane Ravitch, a
professor of education at New York University and a member of the
National Assessment Governing Board, called the results "truly
abysmal," and worried about a new voting bloc coming of age with such
a meager awareness of American history.
People who believe that college can remedy the history deficit should
be dismayed at the findings of another study, commissioned by the
American Council of Trustees and Alumni, of the historical knowledge
of seniors at the top 55 colleges in the country. Many of the
questions were drawn from the NAEP high-school exam, and the results
were astonishing. Only 19 percent of the subjects scored a grade of C
or higher. According to the 2000 report, titled "Losing America's
Memory," only 29 percent knew what "Reconstruction" refers to, only
one-third recognized the American general at Yorktown, and less than
one-fourth identified James Madison as the "father of the
The consequences are dire. As Leslie Lenkowsky, the former head of the
Corporation of National and Community Service, observed in response to
the NAEP results, "If young people cannot construct a meaningful
narrative of American history, then there is little hope that the
nation can live up to the highest task of a pluralistic liberal
Civics. In 1999 the Center for Information and Research on Civic
Learning and Engagement reported that more than two-thirds of ninth
graders study the Constitution, Congress, or the presidency.
Unfortunately, their course work hasn't sunk in. In a 2003 survey on
the First Amendment commissioned by the Foundation for Individual
Rights in Education, only one in 50 college students named the first
right guaranteed in the amendment, and one out of four did not know
any freedom protected by it.
In 2003 a project led by the National Conference of State Legislatures
examined the civic awareness of young people age 15 to 26 compared
with older Americans. Barely half of those surveyed said that "paying
attention to government and politics" is important to good
citizenship. While 64 percent knew the name of the latest "American
Idol," only 10 percent could identify the speaker of the U.S. House of
Representatives. The researchers concluded "that young people do not
understand the ideals of citizenship, they are disengaged from the
political process, [and] they lack the knowledge necessary for
High-school and college students shine in one area of civics:
volunteerism. A recent study by the Center for Information and
Research on Civic Learning and Engagement titled "The Civic and
Political Health of the Nation" found that young people "trail their
elders in attentiveness to public affairs and in electoral
participation, but hold their own in community-related and volunteer
activities." But the habit is a superficial one, most likely fueled by
the emphasis that college admissions offices place on volunteer work.
A study in April 2005 sponsored by the Higher Education Research
Institute at UCLA reported that "engagement with the community
declines sharply during the years immediately after students graduate
from college," and the drop begins during the college years.
Literature and the arts. In 2004 the National Endowment for the Arts
released two reports, the "2002 Survey of Public Participation in the
Arts" and "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America."
(I was the project director of the latter.) The surveys measured rates
of involvement in different art forms -- like attending, listening,
and performing -- and compared them with previous findings. In the
performing arts, the involvement rates of 18-to-24-year-olds fell
significantly in most activities from 1992 to 2002. For example, the
numbers of students who listened to jazz and classical music fell from
37 percent to 22 percent, while those who visited a museum or attended
a performing-arts event dropped from 29 percent to 24 percent and 33
percent to 26 percent, respectively. The literary reading rates
plummeted as well. From 1992 to 2002 the portion of young people
reading at least one poem, play, or work of fiction for pleasure in
the preceding 12 months fell from 53 to 43 percent.
Meanwhile, it should be noted, young people have enjoyed greater
access to literature and the arts than ever before. The Economic
Census counted 9,353 performing-arts companies in 2002, up from 5,883
in 1997. During the same period the number of museums jumped from
3,860 to 4,535. From 2000 to 2002 the number of fiction titles
published rose from 14,615 to 15,133. And yet, from 1998 to 2003, the
portion of all books sold that were purchased by people under 25 years
old declined from 5 percent to 3.9 percent.
The fact that involvement fell while access rose signals a new stance
toward literature and the arts among the young. I don't know of any
research that formally examines the trend, but a snippet of
conversation that occurred during a National Public Radio interview
with me last year illustrates the attitude that I'm describing:
Caller: "I'm a high-school student, and I don't read and my friends
don't read because of all the boring stuff the teachers assign."
Host: "Such as?"
Caller: "Uh ... that book about the guy. You know, that guy who was
Caller: "The great guy."
Host: "The Great Gatsby?"
Caller: "Yeah. Who wants to read about him?"
Geography. In 2002 the National Geographic Society issued the results
of the Global Geographic Literacy Survey. Thirty-nine percent of
American 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed failed the test, and in
international comparisons Americans came in second to last out of nine
nations tested. Only 13 percent of our country's participants could
pinpoint Iraq, only 12 percent could identify Afghanistan. The rate
rose to just 51 percent for those who could locate New York State.
Moreover, the young American adults surveyed could identify an average
of only 2.5 countries in Europe. Around 30 percent believed that this
nation has one billion to two billion residents (young people in other
countries scored higher in estimating U.S. population), and only 19
percent could name four nations that acknowledge having nuclear
weapons. Remarkably, 29 percent could not identify the Pacific Ocean.
Politics. In the past few decades, higher education has undergone a
revolution in curriculum, what conservatives have called "the
politicization of the humanities." But while the curriculum has
changed, the shift hasn't affected the students. Political interest
among them couldn't be much lower.
The geography survey found that, despite the high Internet usage among
young adults, only 11 percent of the respondents said they use the
Internet to follow the news. Eighty-two percent stated that they keep
up with events by watching television, but a growing proportion tune
in to programs of dubious informational value. A January 2004 study by
the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that comedy
shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
"are now mentioned almost as frequently as newspapers and evening
network news programs as regular sources for election news." A story
on the report in The Hollywood Reporter began, "To a young generation
of Americans, Jon Stewart may as well be Walter Cronkite."
Indeed, newspaper circulation is down, in part because while 46
percent of people in their 20s read a newspaper every day in 1972, the
rate now stands around the low 20s. The Higher Education Research
Institute at UCLA's 2004 survey "The American Freshman" tabulated only
34 percent of new students thinking that it was "very important" to
keep up with politics, a drastic slide from the 60 percent who thought
so in 1966.
The lack of curiosity among college students is reflected in their
knowledge. In the 2004 National Election Study, a mere 28 percent of
18-to-24-year-olds correctly identified William H. Rehnquist as the
chief justice of the United States. Only 39 percent knew which party
had the most members in Congress, and one-quarter of them could not
identify Dick Cheney as vice president.
Educators usually denigrate such surveys as ideologically slanted and
narrowly conceived. They test "rote learning" and "mere facts," the
argument goes. In 2004 the president of the Organization of American
Historians stated, "Using such surveys as a starting point for debate
diverts us from the real challenge at hand: how to use what students
do know -- the ideas and identities they glean from family stories,
museums, historic sites, films, television, and the like -- to engage
them in the life-changing process of learning to think historically."
In spite of the naïveté of that parenthesis, we see the operative
contrast: a knowledge of historical data versus thinking historically.
The one amounts to a storage of facts, the other to a mode of
reflection. But do we have any evidence that the latter is possible
without a fair measure of the former? "Thinking historically" is one
of those higher-order critical-thinking skills that educators favor,
but how one can achieve it without first delving into the details of
another time and place is a mystery. The facts are not an end in
themselves, of course, but are a starting point for deeper
understanding, and the ignorance of them is a fair gauge of deeper
Moreover, if critics of such surveys consider them ideologically
slanted -- because the knowledge they test is ideologically slanted --
they should develop knowledge measures in other, less partisan areas.
But it seems that they don't like any kind of metric, that measurable
knowledge is itself a problem. If students pick up that attitude, they
are primed for ignorance and failure.
Reading through those reports, and given the advantages that college
students enjoy today, one recalls the professor in Philip Roth's The
Human Stain, who declares: "Our students are abysmally ignorant ...
far and away the dumbest generation in American history." They aren't
less intelligent than their precursors -- as IQ scores show -- and
earlier generations, too, struggled with traditional subjects. But
they've taken more courses than previous cohorts, and they have more
money and access than ever before. Why hasn't their knowledge level
In part, because of the new leisure habits of teens and young adults.
To repeat, the more time young adults devote to activities like
sending e-mail messages, the less time they devote to books, the arts,
politics, and their studies. Time has proved the formula. In the 1990s
the gurus and cheerleaders of technology promised that the horizon of
users would expand to take in a global village, and that a digital era
would herald a more active, engaged, and knowledgeable citizenry, with
young adults leading the way. It hasn't happened. Instead, youth
discourse has intensified, its grip on adolescence becoming ever
tighter, and the walls between young adults and larger realities have
grown higher and thicker.
College professors complain about the result, noting the disaffection
of students from their course work and the puny reserves of knowledge
they bring into the classroom. But they hesitate to take a stand
against mass culture and youth culture, fearful of the "dinosaur" or
"conservative" tag. The disengagement of students from the
liberal-arts curriculum is reaching a critical point, however. And the
popular strategy of trying to bridge youth culture and serious
study -- of, say, using hip-hop to help students understand literary
classics, as described in a June 19 article in the Los Angeles
Times -- hasn't worked. All too often, the outcome is that important
works are dumbed down to trivia, and the leap into serious study never
happens. The middle ground between adolescent life and intellectual
life is disappearing, leaving professors with ever more stark options.
One can accept the decline, and respond as a distinguished professor
of literature did at a regional Modern Language Association panel last
year after I presented the findings of "Reading at Risk." "Look, I
don't care if everybody stops reading literature," she blurted. "Yeah,
it's my bread and butter, but cultures change. People do different
Or one can accept the political philosopher Leo Strauss's formula that
"liberal education is the counter-poison to mass culture," and stand
forthrightly against the tide. TV shows, blogs, hand-helds, wireless
... they emit a blooming, buzzing confusion of adolescent stimuli. All
too eagerly, colleges augment the trend, handing out iPods and
dignifying video games like Grand Theft Auto as worthy of study.
That is not a benign appeal for relevance. It is cooperation in the
prolonged immaturity of our students, and if it continues, the
alienation of student from teacher will only get worse.
Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University.
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