Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University. His latest book bears the unfortunate title The Dumbest Generation. I haven’t read the book but based on the professor’s recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal is seems to be another false diatribe similar to the grave predictions that comic books would foment the collapse of society.
The piece (in part) asserts that texting is eroding the capacity of young people to read non-verbal communication. Bauerlein calls this difference in communication a ‘problem’ (when hasn’t the way of communicating and the content of the communications of the younger generation not been looked upon by the older generation as a ‘problem’.) I take note of this without sharing Bauerlein’s sense of disdain and alarm.
I do take note, as someone who works with young people, that modes and habits of communication are continuously changing. Technology advances change at a rate that often outstrips our understanding of its effects. This alone makes some uncomfortable enough to condemn these shifts in our culture as negative. Before embracing every change as positive or condemning it as negative hadn’t we better seek to understand how and why things are changing?
In September 2008, when Nielsen Mobile announced that teenagers with cellphones each sent and received, on average, 1,742 text messages a month, the number sounded high, but just a few months later Nielsen raised the tally to 2,272. A year earlier, the National School Boards Association estimated that middle- and high-school students devoted an average of nine hours to social networking each week. Add email, blogging, IM, tweets and other digital customs and you realize what kind of hurried, 24/7 communications system young people experience today.
Unfortunately, nearly all of their communication tools involve the exchange of written words alone. At least phones, cellular and otherwise, allow the transmission of tone of voice, pauses and the like. But even these clues are absent in the text-dependent world. Users insert smiley-faces into emails, but they don’t see each others’ actual faces. They read comments on Facebook, but they don’t “read” each others’ posture, hand gestures, eye movements, shifts in personal space and other nonverbal—and expressive—behaviors. Back in 1959, anthropologist Edward T. Hall labeled these expressive human attributes “the Silent Language.” …
… We live in a culture where young people—outfitted with iPhone and laptop and devoting hours every evening from age 10 onward to messaging of one kind and another—are ever less likely to develop the “silent fluency” that comes from face-to-face interaction…
…It is too early to assess the effect of digital habits, and the tools change so quickly that research can’t keep up with them. By the time investigators design a study, secure funding, collect results and publish them, the technology has changed and the study is outdated…
.. Still, we might reasonably pose questions about silent-language acquisition in a digital environment.
Scout leaders may be confronted with Scouts who have a diminished capacity to read non-verbal clues ( I haven’t). Scouting will remain relevant and important to youth so long as it’s leadership pays attention to the continuous challenge of communicating effectively with them.
The next time they face a twenty-something who doesn’t look them in the eye, who slouches and sighs for no apparent reason, who seems distracted and unaware of the rising frustration of the other people in the room, and who turns aside to answer a text message with glee and facility, they shouldn’t think, “What a rude kid.” Instead, they should
show a little compassion and, perhaps, seize on a teachable moment. “Ah,” they might think instead, “another texter who doesn’t realize that he is communicating, right now, with every glance and movement—and that we’re reading him all too well.”
Perhaps Professor Bauerlien has misread the nonverbal clues of slouching, sighing and turning away to a text message inaccurately. It may be unconscious rudeness or a very predictable reaction to rudely being called a member of ‘the dumbest generation’.