For nearly three centuries (since the inception of the Industrial Revolution), gifted thinkers have wrestled with the “good news/bad news” paradox embedded in arguably the most momentous material transformation in human history. Labor-saving devices and the massive alleviation of diseases and poverty can neither be denied nor despised. Yet some of the human losses (especially in religious life, educational and artistic excellences) should properly concern us. Thus the late French philosopher Paul Virilio, noting the many distresses accompanying technological “progress,” spoke of “integral accidents”—apparently inevitable and inescapable spiritual and aesthetic downsides to material improvements.
Some of Virilio’s “integral accidents” mar the “digital revolution’s” impact on our schools. So a decade ago Mark Bauerlein published The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future [Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30] (New York: Penguin, c. 2008). Lest the title tempt you to think it a frivolous polemic written by an idiosyncratic journalist, Bauerlein was a respected professor of English at Emory University and served as a director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. In that role he read and analyzed the most extensive research available, seeking to measure the health and accomplishments of the nation’s schools. He endeavored “to consolidate the best and broadest research into a different profile of the rising American mind” (p. 7). As the book’s title indicates, he found our schools less than healthy and manifestly failing.
Bauerlein discovered, sadly enough, that school kids were “miserable.” And they were miserable because they were not growing up properly. “Maturity follows a formula: The more kids contact one another, the less they heed the tutelage of adults. When peer consciousness grows too fixed and firm, the teacher’s voice counts for nothing outside the classroom. When youth identity envelops them, parent talk at the dinner table only distracts them. The lure of school gossip, fear of ridicule, the urge to belong—they swamp the minds of the young and stunt their intellectual growth” (p. ix). Teenagers are technologically adept, but their minds have not been opened “to the stores of civilization and science and politics” because “technology has contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them” (p. 10).
This shrinking horizon stood revealed two decades ago in a variety of standardized tests. For example, on a 2001 history exam a majority of high school seniors scored “below basic” and only one percent reached “advanced” (p. 17). Incoming freshmen at Harvard and Stanford in 2005 averaged a “F” in civics. Amazingly, attending elite universities for four years failed to rectify their knowledge deficit! No wonder the novelist Philip Roth labeled them “The Dumbest Generation” in The Human Stain! And they were dumb because they didn’t read. In fact they were “bibliophobes.” To Bäuerlein’s amazement: “It’s a new attitude, this brazen disregard of books and reading. Earlier generations resented homework assignments, of course, and only a small segment dove into the intellectual currents of the time, but no generation trumpeted a-literacy (knowing how to read, but choosing not to) as a valid behavior of their peers” (p. 40). Youngsters had simply stopped reading during their leisure times.
Rather than reading they stared at screens—TVs, phones, computers, video games—locking themselves into a perpetual adolescence. Nor did the schools challenge them to move on to maturity. They were “betrayed” by “mentors” who carried with them a ‘60s commitment to “authenticity” rather than academic excellence. “By the 1980s, the rebellious, anti-Establishment posture of young adults had become the creed of America’s educational institutions” (p. 182). Teachers relinquished their “authority,” moving from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.” They became “facilitators” listening in to small group discussions. Yet when teachers profess to know nothing why should students work to develop expertise in anything? In sum, Bauerlein said, the “dumbest generation” was at hand.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Updating his earlier work, Mark Bauerlein recently published The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youths to Dangerous Adults (Washington D.C.: Regnery Gateway, c. 2022; Kindle Edition). “This book is in no way a middle-aged man’s ranting against youth,” says Rod Dreher. “Rather, it is a serious and persuasive analysis of the damage our society has done to its young—wreckage that the Millennial utopians are now visiting on society—and an urgent plea to refuse and resist the mass culture of idiocracy before we condemn another generation.” Bauerlein urges us to recall an encounter between Herbert Marcuse (the renowned Marxist philosopher inspiring many of the ’60’s radicals) and a group of students on the campus State University of New York, Old Westbury, in 1969. It was a new college, featuring a student-centered curriculum with youngsters becoming “full partners” with the faculty in learning whatever allured them. These students eagerly attended Marcuse’s lecture, expecting him to flatter and encourage them, even engaging them in dialogue. Instead, the aging Marxist spoke with authority as a professor intent on instructing them. He “‘described the severe Prussian discipline of his own education: the classics he had to master; the languages he had to learn by exercises and constant tests. His theme was that no one had any standing on which to rebel against the past—or dare to call himself a revolutionary—who had not mastered the tradition of the West’” (p. 24). He actually insisted they seriously study great thinkers rather than express themselves! Sensing the youngsters’ mounting restiveness, he said: “‘I detect here … a growing anti-intellectual attitude among the students. There is no contradiction between intelligence and revolution. Why are you afraid of being intelligent?’” He reminded them that the greatest revolutionaries—Rousseau, Marx, Lenin—were serious scholars. The students weren’t persuaded. Nor did Marcuse back down. “It was a telling encounter between American upstarts and an Old-World thinker, a clash over readiness, not ideas or politics” (p. 23).
The ‘60s generation, of course, went its own way and quickly gained control of the nation’s significant institutions, severing them from the rich traditions of Western Civilization. “This brings us to the thesis of this book,” Bauerlein says. “The Marcuse affair happened five months before the very first message was sent from one computer to another . . . . Nobody at Westbury, Sproul Plaza, Kent State, or any other site of student protest imagined what was coming. They wouldn’t have believed that one day the icon of youth rebellion would no longer be the stormy college student burning a draft card but a bouncy tween on an iPhone. The generational dynamic would be the same, though.” This was evident in a 2007 “60 Minutes segment ‘Here Come the Millennials,’ which opened with a warning to employers: ‘A new breed of American worker is about to attack everything you hold sacred: from giving orders, to your starched white shirt and tie.’ The querulous longhairs of ’69 self-righteously suspicious of the Man were reincarnated in the networked high schoolers whose teachers hailed them” for “stepping outside the comfort zone of the school system that they have been subject to for most of their lives, authoring their own learning, and in the process, enjoying it.” Marcuse had rebuked teachers for failing to immerse their students in classical studies, and Bauerlein labels them ‘false prophets” who “were doing a terrible thing.” Now, however, they not only endorse “the special acumen of the young and the mustiness of tradition” but celebrate ‘the phenomenal tools kids wielded so much better than their parents and teachers.” The kids’ cell phones and mastery of Facebook, they thought, heralded a great new day. Instead it disguised an educational “disaster” (pp. 28-29). Such educators probably never considered the warning of Hannah Arendt, who “had warned that child-centered child-rearing would free kids from the tyranny of adults only to subject them to ‘the tyranny of their own group,’ of their peers, which terrified them far more than the decrees of their fathers’” (p. 30).
On a university level, this “child-centered” education shouldered its way into Stanford University in 1987. Jesse Jackson arrived to speak on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, brought to campus by activist students and faculty. “Five hundred of them gathered in the plaza at the center of campus to hear this charismatic speaker, who was gearing up for another run for the U.S. presidency in 1988. As Jackson finished his exhortation and the students departed, they sounded the chant that would be repeated in a thousand news stories: ‘Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!’ “ A year later, the Western Culture Course of studies was, indeed, gone, and Stanford no longer prescribed a general education core for students. Thenceforth—and rapidly—our most prestigious universities abandoned the task of exposing students to the foundational thought of our culture. So we now have young people who have been immersed in a technological world surrounding them with “omnipresent screens” providing a deeply-deranged world-view. “Their multi-year digital exposure hit them during the very years in which the world takes form in a child’s head. Digital tools and lax mentors primed them to flee from history, religion, great literature, and art, from music and ethics and American civics, into the fantasy of a society that would replicate the teenage bedroom, where freedom and friends predominated, games and photos and chats never stopped. When school ended and they hit the workplace, the bills piled up, and bosses weren’t so caring, sex partners came and went . . . they had no religion, no cultural patrimony, and no role models to ease the transition. So they attached themselves to something else: a religion of sorts, a pugnacious, illiberal demand, a twenty-first-century American-youth version of, precisely, Utopia. It has many names—‘Black Lives Matter,’ ‘Social Justice,’ ‘Racial Justice,’ ‘Democratic Socialism,’ ‘LGBT Rights,’ ‘Antifa’—but ‘Utopia’ captures best the breadth and generality of the attitude” (p. 46).
Utopians, by definition, are dreamers. And our youngsters dream of entering a state of “permanent happiness.” They don’t want to work to become happy but expect it to be given them. They claim they’re entitled to it. They often espouse “socialism,” not as a philosophical or economic theory but as a longing for “‘fairness,’ or ‘someone to watch over me.’ It’s a chance to get out from under their student loan payments and find a good job, free health care, and affordable housing in a Millennial hot spot (Austin, Seattle).” Our Millennials, then are not true socialists, but simply utopians “and they are utopians precisely because they haven’t acquired any political knowledge or weighed any political ideas. Their worldview fits into neat catchphrases; it doesn’t get any more sophisticated than that. P. J. O’Rourke pared it down to this in a column entitled ‘This Is Why Millennials Adore Socialism’: ‘As soon as children discover that the world isn’t nice, they want to make it nice. And wouldn’t a world where everybody shares everything be nice?’” (p. 82). As dreamers rather than scholars they know nothing about the histories of capitalism and socialism but imagine a wonderful society can be construed in accord with adolescent aspirations. Knowing nothing they can envision anything! Says Bauerlein: “Ignorance plus self-righteousness is a dangerous mix. As avid and unbending utopian desires go unfulfilled, you know what will happen next: idealism will slide into frustration, the promised happy fellowship to come veering into a merciless search for the enemies who must be obstructing it; the positive will turn negative” (p. 84). So conservative speakers are shouted down on campuses and American cities in 2020 witnessed fires in the streets.
Utopian radicals in the streets reveal the nation’s educational deficit, for in spite of enormous amounts of money expended and philanthropists’ lavish endeavors, students are reading no better than they were decades ago. Ambitious federal initiatives—“Common Core” and “No Child Left Behind”—have done little but enrich educrats. We’ve “ignored a reality in plain sight: the average day for a seventeen-year-old Millennial in 2010 was an intellectual wasteland, an immersion in other things, in games and gossip, photos and messages, shows and songs that would do nothing to help him grow up, to acquire the tragic sense that is essential to shaping prudent hopes of what life can be and to the realization that what they believe and enjoy in adolescence is best forsaken by age twenty-two” (p. 123). They have become, Bauerlein says, “dangerous adults” dismantling civilization.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Pete Hegseth and David Goodwin, in Battle for the American Mind: Uprooting a Century of Miseducation (New York: HarperCollins, c. 2022; Kindle Edition), urge us to abandon the public school system, believing it is failing our kids and cannot be reformed. Hegseth, a popular FOX & Friends commentator, served as the lead author, while Goodwin (who years ago began promoting private schools) did most of the in-depth research. Introducing the book Hegseth says: “It is my brokenness that brings me to this book. Our brokenness. Nothing but the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ affords these two authors—Pete Hegseth (me) and David Goodwin—the sufficiency to undertake such an audacious task: writing a book that motivates others to reorient their lives around the education of their most precious gift—their children and grandchildren.” Acknowledging their fallenness, they “appeal to heaven to breathe timeless truths into this earthly work.” “The insufficient quality of our own educations—in the classroom, and in life—is the inspiration for this work” (p. xv).
The authors were both educated in public schools, unaware of their immersion in the progressive philosophy (most effectively promulgated by John Dewey) which has shaped students for more than a century. During the 1980s and 1990s, this was evident in “self-esteem” rhetoric and “value-free” ethical nostrums. But for many parents the ramifications of progressivism first became clear as they watched the virtual classrooms their children “attended” during the COVID-19 panic. They saw the online lesson plans and teachers’ presentations. Textbooks were opened in homes rather than secluded in classroom desks. Alarmed at what they found, moms and dads began attending school board meetings, protesting at what what being taught their children. Basically school boards and unionized teachers told them to shut up! Educators’ truths are the final truths! “This is the future, parents were told. Get with the program! White people are inherently oppressive. Gender is completely fluid. Climate change will destroy the world. And America is the ultimate source of evil in the world. Up is down, left is right, good and evil are subjective—until an educator tells you who or what is good and evil, and then you must comply” (p. 6).
Given this situation, Hegseth and Goodwin propose a peaceful revolution—“uprooting a century of miseducation.” Decades ago it may have sufficed for Christian kids to attend church a few times a week, since their values would not be devalued in their schools. But today’s youngsters need a more robust, clearly Christian schooling. Hegseth often cites “Abraham Lincoln’s warning that ‘the philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation becomes the philosophy of government in the next.’ The statement remains true, but it is incomplete. To put it more comprehensively, the strength of the church in one generation becomes the culture of its people in the next . . . followed by the philosophy of the schoolroom and the government. The schoolroom is a vital front in the battle for Christendom and Western civilization, but alone—it is not enough” (p. 14).
It’s not enough because leftists now occupy the “commanding heights” of our culture. A century ago Vladimir Lenin used the phrase “commanding heights” to describe a strategy of allowing “limited capitalist activities” on a “local level” while insisting “all the main levers of the national economy would be controlled by the state.” As long as today’s cultural Marxists control the “main levers” of society—schools, media, foundations—they need not worry about smaller institutions. For they now “control every strong point, every choke point, and every inch of high ground in the realm of American education, and by extension, American culture. That was the plan, and it worked” (p. 27). It’s dramatically evident in the schools’ current commitment to Critical Race Theory. The dominant teachers’ unions—the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA)—promote it. Indeed, the AFT featured “Ibram X. Kendi—the author of How to Be an Antiracist—at their 2021 national conference.” (p. 28). The public schools, like the mass media and modern military, talk much about “diversity, equity, and inclusion” to camouflage the radical nature of their agenda. This became clear as early as 1972 when the NEA hired Saul Alinsky to help “train their own staff. A 1972 NEA training document, titled ‘Alinsky for Teacher Organizers,’ made the case that teachers should be used to organize, not just for changes in the classroom, but for social change. Think picket lines and teacher walkouts. As recently as 2009, the NEA website dubbed Alinsky ‘an inspiration to anyone contemplating action in their community! And to every organizer!’ For more than sixty years, the NEA has been in cahoots with cultural Marxists—and growing in power” (p. 37). “Rather than teaching basic skills and knowledge to America’s children, America’s unions believe their job is to solve America’s problems based on their social-justice, culturally Marxist view of the world” (p. 41).
Consequently, today’s public schools inculturate rather than educate students, using pedagogical methods designed to impart their agenda. While Critical Race Theory (CRT) overtly denounces racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., it’s ultimately designed to deconstruct “anything and everything that reflects not just the founding principles of America, but the foundations of our families and our faith. It’s about control—of thought, and behavior. To the Left, our Western Judeo-Christian roots are the problem—they must be dismantled, one theory, one word, one classroom, and one mind at a time” (p. 32). This was evident in the “Common Core” promoted by the federal government and designed to cast aside traditional learning. So too is the widespread use of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. “It is not hyperbole,” Hegseth asserts, “to state that no other book has had a greater impact on the minds of American youth for the past forty years. When not assigned in classrooms, it has been fully incorporated into the mass-produced textbooks in our classrooms.” He “was openly anti-American, openly socialist, and always willing to bend history to make America look like an evil country.” Today’s NEA works hand-in-hand with the “Zinn Education Project,” which has become a leading resource for teachers and teacher educators. Howard Zinn is no longer an antiestablishment historian . . . he is the establishment” (pp. 39-41).
Having despaired of the public schools, Hegseth and Goodman propose recovering a distinctive Western Christian Paideia (WCP), which seeks to purposefully shape the “deeply seated affections, thinking, viewpoints, and virtues embedded in children at a young age, or, more simply, the rearing, molding, and education of a child. Classical Christian education creates a paideia unique in all of human history—one that enables freedom” (p. 44). It takes seriously the fact that we are created in the “image of God.” It seeks to revive the “common school” that preceded the public school and partnered with “the family and the church, which had been the center of perpetuating the WCP since the first century” (p. 51). For centuries Christian parents and teachers prioritized “Reason, Virtue, Wonder, and Beauty,” which have largely disappeared in progressive schools. For example, the widely-used SAT exams measured verbal and quantitative reasoning, essential for succeeding in universities. But some racial minorities consistently scored lower than whites, so some elite universities are discarding it. Rather than depreciate reasoning ability, however, WCP schools must recognize and encourage it. So too with the classical and Christian virtues. Progressives talk much about “values” rather than virtues, which are “rooted in the affections of a person as they align to God’s affections. A virtuous person loves the right and the good” (p. 165). Encouraging youngsters to wonder at the grandeur of creation and the mystery of human consciousness, exposing them to the objective reality of beauty in nature, art and music, will properly educate them as persons with souls, pilgrims on a journey to life everlasting. The authors persuasively fill in the specifics of their vision of a “classical Christian” education, something both churches and parents should devoutly embrace.