U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Neil Howe on "The Dumbest Generation"

This morning’s Washington Post features an interesting op-ed from Neil Howe, co-author (with the late William Strauss) of Generations: A History of America’s Future, 1584-2069 (1991). That book falls into the oft-derided “pop history” category, but I have nonetheless found it to be insightful and creative.

In today’s piece Howe takes aim at Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation. I have not read this book, but must admit that my experience with students–who have to be constantly monitored for text-messaging during class but often do not change the font on a plagiarized Wikipedia paragraph in order to match the rest of their text–has left me sympathetic to its argument that early exposure to technology does not necessarily mean that young people are well-prepared for the world. Howe, however, labels the work merely the latest in a long line of “jeremiads” in which the current crop of elders “look down the age ladder and accuse today’s young of sloth, greed, selfishness–and stupidity,” calling it “long on attitude and short on facts.”

Once Bauerlein has opened the door, however, Howe is willing to walk through it. If the category of a “dumbest generation” has any meaning at all, would it apply to the current crop of “Millenials”? Not according to Howe. Instead, this dishonor would belong to a segment of my own “Generation X,” specifically its oldest group, who are today in their mid-to-late 40s. In that sense, then, the thoughtful and articulate Barack Obama is not terribly representative of his age cohort. “Like it or not, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (born in 1964), who stumbled over basic civics facts during her vice presidential run, is more representative of this group.” Standardized test scores, attainment of high school diplomas and college degrees, and even a decline in professional career tracks all single out this group as the least “book smart” generation currently living.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I like your blog, and the concept of US Intellectual history.

    I also read that Howe op-ed in WashPo today. I am proud to be part of Generation Jones (between the Boom & X), and am pretty offended by Howe’s years of trying to undermine our long-lost generation (the problem is that Howe’s theory doesn’t allow for the fact that most generational experts now view generations as shorter than the traditional 20 years which Howe’s theories depend on).

    If you have a chance, read the comments responding to this op-ed today; I was happy to see lots of people defending Generation Jones. Here’s one of my favorite comments, from ‘CultureAndPeople’…

    “As someone who has studied generations for years, I must say that I’m very surprised that Neil Howe would go this far when it comes to attacking GenJones. It’s well-known to many of us in the field that he has felt very threatened by the whole GenJones thing, but you’ve got to get over it, Neil! Generations are getting shorter, there is a Generation Jones. Instead of embarrassing yourself trying to diss it, just figure out a way to adapt your theory to include the shortening of generations. Your theories can co-exist with GenJones; figure it out.

    This article takes the cake when it comes to your attempts to diss GenJones. Using ridiculously bad science to try to position GenJones as “The Dumbest Generation”?! Wow. Feels over the top to me.

    First, Neil, framing this generation as “dumb”?! As you know, dumbness is another way of saying “low intelligence”. What evidence do you have that Jonesers are less intelligent?! If Jonesers were the “victims” of ineffective educational experiments, less attentive parents, a souring national mood toward youth, etc., etc., etc., on what basis does that make them less intelligent? You might more plausibly say that they are, for example, less knowledgeable (although I believe that would also be untrue), but to characterize them as “dumb”?

    You might also frame this in a positive light; for example, showing how Jonesers have overcome these enormous obstacles to get where they’ve gotten (e.g. wealthiest generation in the country). But instead, framing them as the dumbest generation?!

    And the evidence you use to try to make this case makes my jaw drop. Take the SAT comparison you make as one example; how could you write this with a straight face? I find it hard to believe that you are not aware that: students now do all kinds of SAT prep that they didn’t do in the 70s/80s, that SAT scores were re-normed in the 1990s which significantly inflated the scores, making any comparisons obvious apples to oranges, the relevant varying admission standards (including the 1970s admissions de-emphasis of SAT’s) affecting SAT scores, the fact that it was the ACT, rather than the SAT, that “smart” teens took in the 70s/80s, and all the other reasons why your SAT comparisons are completely absurd.

    In addition to your faulty SAT comparison, this article is filled with similarly ridiculous “evidence”. Are you so desperate to diss Generation Jones lest it hurt your business, that it’s worth cheapening your name this way?

    And given the dire situation our nation now finds itself in, and given that it is primarily GenJones, starting with Obama and most of his main appointments, who we are looking to lead us through these difficulties, do you really need to use the platform which you’ve built to try to position this new generation of leadership as the Dumbest Generation? Couldn’t you at least wait until they are sworn in and have a little time to try to lead before you launch this kind of attack?

    With all respect, Neil, it feels to me like you are putting your own selfish personal goals ahead of the country’s interests at a dangerous moment in our national history. William Strauss deserved better than this, Neil.”

  2. Dear Mike and Franklin,

    So, Neil Howe operates from a That Seventies Show paradigm of generational intellectual history, and Bauerlein from a Borkian/Barzunian paradigm of continual decline (i.e. Slouching Toward Gomorrah, From Dawn to Decadence)? Meh.

    My problem with these kinds of arguments is that they’re pretty easy to refute. Counterexamples abound. One generation’s weed is another’s video games and another’s Lindy Hop and another’s text-messaging. Before that the problems were external: we didn’t educate the youth properly, attend to them enough, or discipline them enough.

    Perhaps I’m feeling blase, but I tire of this pseudo-intellectual jeremiad crap. Let’s use history for perspective, not to promote our selfish agendas (elitism, great books study, etc.) or useless fearmongering. – TL

  3. One explanation I did not see considered for this fall & then rise of SAT scores is that it correlates pretty well with the rise in lead exposure from paint & leaded gasoline followed by its banning. This generation (1960-1964) probably had the greatest cumulative exposure. The primary reason for the banning of lead was its effect on the mental development of children.

    Public Health Doc

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