Digital Nation
Broadcast Premiere Feb. 2 at 9 p.m. on PBS


Mark Bauerlein

Bauerlein is a professor at Emory University and the author of The Dumbest Generation.


Who are Digital Natives?
Technology has endowed Digital Natives with new skills, but are they using them effectively?

Virtual Education
While many hail the promise of digital tools in education, Bauerlein observes they have yet to help falling test scores.

Screen Reading
Young people are reading and writing more than ever, but can online chatting and social networking replace books for learning?

The Internet allows kids to socialize 24-7, and it shows in their vocabularies.

Research Skills
Students have a world of knowledge at their fingertips, but they frequently don't make it past the first page of Google results.

Depth of Knowledge
Bauerlein says Digital Natives skip along the surface of knowledge without diving in. Has widespread access to information dulled their ability to judge it?

The End of Privacy
In the digital age, many teenagers' bedrooms have become command centers, with everything just a click away.


Q: American reading rates are declining – and, so what?

B: Book-reading rates are going down, and they have been going down; newspaper reading rates have been going down; magazine-reading rates have been going down as well, and one asks: How important is an informed reading public to American society? And I would say that in spite of all the information available on the Internet; in spite of the immediate access to news and government documents and, you know, great works of history and materials of the past, the printed page is still the most significant medium building knowledge and building taste among the population. And the less they read the more informed they are about what is going on in the government; the less good literature and good art they're exposed to, the less judgment they have about the materials of mass culture that are constantly flowing into their lives. And so we will just see a deterioration of cultural values, and we will see a deterioration of political speech and political activity. One thing to remember about democracy is that it puts a heavy burden of knowledge on citizens. It is up to the people - not up to institutions such as the church or a court, in a kingdom, in an aristocracy, to sustain the civic and cultural legacies. It is up to the people themselves, and if they forget these materials of the past, if they forget the great documents and principles on which our society is based - well, we end up with the leaders we get, we end up with the government that we deserve, and we end up with the society that we deserve.

Q: Don't people read more with the Internet than they did before the Internet? Aren't more words passing through young eyeballs?

B: That's certainly true, and young people are reading, in particular young people, are reading more words and writing more words than ever before. Web 2.0 is interactive, people talk back, people talk to one another than ever before. But one has to look at the quality of the speech, and the quality of the language, and the quality of ideas that are being exchanged, as well as the pace with which words are passing back and forth. If people are going online to get news, and it's just broken up into little snippets of headlines and alerts and quick encapsulizations of what is going on in the world... Well, I think that yields ultimately a pretty superficial sense of what is going on. If they get a newspaper and they go through it page by page, they tend to read more deeply into the stories; they tend to look at he editorial page and the op-ed page, and it is a fuller experience, it is a richer engagement with those materials than they get online. Online reading is fast, right, it's accelerated to the point at which it just becomes sort of information flow. People go online to look for things, to find out things generally that they already want to know, that they're already looking for, that they're already interested in. That's part of the attraction of the Internet - it grooves people's input, it allows them to focus only on those things that they're already interested in, that they already care about. So when they see things that don't interest them, when they see things that are different or unusual to them, well, they can just filter it out. So that's that empowerment, that customization, that individualization that takes place through the screen. Well, that may be personally satisfying; sometimes you need to be exposed to things that are different, the things that you don't know about, that you don't care about, to learn.

Q: As far as democratic process is concerned, though, isn't it in the old world [that] a 14-year-old might read how the Constitution was crafted and how laws (?) work? In the new world they will go online onto Obama's site, where citizens are suggesting the questions and issues that Obama should tackle, and then having ardent conversations, pro and con - isn't that a superior level of engagement with democracy?

B: Absolutely. And the potential for democratization that the Internet provides, the opportunity to voice your opinion through a venue, to get into a forum where you can share ideas, where you can talk back - once again this is the great potential of the Internet. But whenever you look at what the Internet offers, you have to add in what are the dispositions of the users. And when we ask young people, why do you do social networking, the vast, vast majority of it involves to keep in touch with my friends. When they talk about things like Twitter - you know, the point of Twitter is to say, What's happening with you right now. Now there are other uses for all these things, all of them can be knowledge and taste-inducing tools and activities. But when you are allowing adolescents, teenagers who are very caught up in adolescent things, that's just natural for them, we really do need to add to that personalization and that empowerment more instruction in perhaps the more democratic uses, the political and civic uses, of these materials. That's what we really need to add. But, remember what it's like when you're 15 years old. What do you care about? You don't care about the opinions of 40-year-olds; you care about the opinions of other 15-year-olds. That's what matters to you. Life is pretty social and pretty immediate. The horizon of activities is largely contained by the high school, you know, by your friends. And in the old days, when we were talking about a 15-year-old reading a civics textbook, yeah, you did your homework, you read things, and you had your social life. And the difference is... this is one of the really important things about the Internet, about Web 2.0... I'm 49 years old now. When I was 15 years old, I would get up in the morning, I would go to school, I'd go in classes, hang out with friends, avoid non-friends; after school I'd go play a little basketball or baseball with people. Then I would go home, and at six o' clock, social life pretty much ended. Yes, there was the landline, and some people would spend all night on the phone talking to one person or two people and gossiping. But for most of us we didn't think, hey, it's nine o' clock, I need to check out what's going on, what's happening with people. I'd had to sit at the dinner table and listen to my parents talk about money and travel and the household... I didn't like them, didn't want to talk to them, I was 16 years old. I wanted to go off on my own course, but I really didn't have another social place to go at that time. I would have to overhear Walter Cronkite talking about Vietnam. I wasn't really interested in these things. I couldn't go up to my room, though, and check out; I couldn't sit at the dinner table and text underneath the edge of the table with friends; I couldn't look up on my personal profile page to see, Did someone say something? I couldn't look up on a blog... oh, yeah, pictures from the party last weekend had been posted somewhere; is something happening that I need to know about? Social life was pretty much suspended for the rest of the night and then I would start up again the next day. Today the big difference is you go up to your room and it's not a private space; it's not an enclosure, it's not a cloister where you have some games, some stuff, some books and you're by yourself - it's a command centre. If you're a parent, you can't say to your 16-year-old, Go to your room, you're grounded! That's not ground anymore; this is actually attaching your kids more and more to the social lives they lead. All the friends and buddies and all the others in their high school or the communities that they form online... You can sit in your bed at midnight, flip open your laptop and chat with a buddy down the street, you know, a buddy three thousand miles away. This is unprecedented, and I think that is perhaps the major social meaning of the Internet for young people. It makes the peer-to-peer contact 24/7. It builds a generational consciousness about them that is more powerful than ever before. And that is the wall, or the resistance, that we have to find a way to penetrate - now and then, not entirely - penetrate now and then with precisely those political and civic activities through the Web, that you described.

Q: Unless, of course, these kids, in their new Digital Native collective organism, can concoct something beyond what we're able to offer them.

B: If they did, that would be great. You know, I wrote this book with that rough title, The Dumbest Generation. And what I would like more than anything else is for young people to prove every single harsh judgment in that book flat wrong, right. We want them to grow up and to blow us away with their literacies, their reading and writing skills, their knowledge about history and art, and their civic activity. But we just don't see it happening as of yet. When we look at the measures of historical and civic knowledge, it's pretty low. When we look at verbal skills, in spite of all the reading and writing they do, remedial courses on college campuses keep swelling with greater enrolments. We find that businesses, corporations and state governments, they keep having to bring in remedial writing trainers into the workplace to try to improve the communication skills of their own employees. When the Chronicle of Higher Education surveyed college professors a couple of years ago about the basic skills of college students today as compared to 10 years ago, only 6% of them said college students come into their classes very well prepared in writing. By a two-to-one margin they said basic skills are worse today than they were a decade ago. So, I think if we look at the results, look at the outcomes, and if we see college professors, if we see employers, beginning to note these improvements, then we can applaud. Until then I think we should worry.

Q: But is it possible that the basic skills they're talking about are either obsolete or soon to be obsolete? You know, once we're scanning our cellphones over text in order to hear it read to us, once we have calculators to do our basic math, what does it matter that they can't do the long division algorithm anymore?

B: Right, and you know, that's the big question: are a lot of those basic computational and verbal skills being automated, or being converted over to certain kinds of software, and that we can enter into more creative, more imaginative civic activities. And that could be the future. But when you see that corporate America, according to the College Board, corporate America is spending 3.1 billion dollars a year on remedial writing training, then I think the predictions of a lot of these writing skills going sort of by the wayside...

Q: But this could also be because they haven't the right consultants to teach them how to move beyond the horse and buggy era of corporate America.

B: Well, I would say, though, I don't know how corporate America is adapting (?)... They certainly want to, and they certainly have a profit motive for getting past a lot of the horse and buggy world of reading and writing. But if they haven't figured it out - you've got a lot of smart people in corporate America - then I don't know if this is a problem that will go away, or if actually is being made worse by all the reading and writing that kids do with one another: the texting, the blogging, the posting, the social networking. We have to ask: is it possible that those kinds of writing habits are getting deep into their minds, and that when it becomes time for them to engage in academic writing, or workplace writing, that those habits that they've [word inaudible] with one another, are actually a hindrance; that they don't transfer into better academic and workplace writing but they're actually hindering it. They're making business communication and academic discourse harder for the kids to adapt to.

Q: Because they're used to writing in short and simple ways?

B: Well, I think, if you look at certain things like vocabulary... I sometimes say to my students, you guys understand that vocabulary is one of the most important predictors of academic achievement and of workplace skills. You have to have a strong vocab in order to read sophisticated materials. If you don't have the vocabulary you won't be able to do it. If you don't have the vocabulary in your writing you will only be able to achieve so much eloquence, so much clarity even. So it's really important that you develop your vocabulary. Now what happens if you sit down in the lunch room with a group of your friends, and you were to say, well, everyone's talking about someone that they don't like... Instead of saying, "Argh, that guy is such a jerk," you were to say, "Argh, that guy is one truculent bore." And then they all laugh, and then they say, you know, everyone would stop talking and look at me. And as one kid said the other day, "If I spoke like that, I wouldn't have any friends." Now, what that indicates to me is that the more they converse with one another, the more they are stuck in an adolescent idiom, the less they will develop their vocabulary, the less will they make their prose more varied and more expressive; it will more conventionalized in adolescent ways. This is why it's been so important for such a long time for kids to have conversations with adults, for kids to listen to adult materials on the radio, and on the television; not to be so surrounded by the language of each other. This is where that 24/7 immersion in social life through the Internet does hurt them. Because if they spend so much time talking to one another, they have to use the language of their generation, they have to use the language of 17-year-olds. And, if they use an adult language, if they use again a more sophisticated vocabulary, well, they don't quite fit in, and there's nothing worse for a 17-year-old than not fitting in with other 17-year-olds. So, I think here is where peer pressure comes into play with the language of peers, that's where we see a faltering when it comes time for them to compose a coherent paragraph; when it comes time for them to read a dense legal argument, for instance.

Q: So, you think that this consensus culture of Internet social networks leads to this least-common-denominator sort of language and correspondingly low intelligence?

B: Well, I think that we do see a deterioration of language taking place through that peer pressure. And, one of the sources in my book, an important source, is a Web-design expert named Jacob Nielsen. And what he's about is teaching businesses and government how to design Web sites that are user-friendly, that will maximize traffic. And, remember, the Web is a hyper-competitive environment, and what makes your Web site work is you gather eyes and you hold them there. Well, what Nielsen advises, among the many things that he advises, is that you have to gear your language in a way that maximizes traffic, and that includes maximizing your language across several different literacy levels. If you use sophisticated language, if you compose blocks of dense speech, you're gonna lose readership, you're gonna lose people, they're going to leave your site very quickly. That is counterproductive. So, in order to maximize your eyes and your stickiness, as they way, well, you've got to use very conventional language, you have to make it highly schematic - lots of bullet points, lots of keywords, lots of visuals. And, so, if your immersion in that world is heavy, several hours a day, I think over years of exposure, well, you become accustomed to that kind of language, that kind of speech.

Q: But, in a market culture, wouldn't that happen anyway? Wouldn't the New York Times devolve to the New York Post; wouldn't Walter Cronkite devolve to Fox News.

B: Absolutely, and this is what's been happening for decades with mass media. Mass media has to appeal to the largest possible population. And, you know, you look at the length of news stories on television. Compare the length of those stories, compare how quickly the process something today to 30 years ago, I think you'll see a hyper-acceleration taking place. So, you're absolutely right.

Q: In that sense digital media offers the chance for some micro-channels of actual considered work to penetrate.

B: Agreed. And what we need to do is to get more kids to go to those micro-channels, to go to those places and make them part of their Web experience. The problem, though, is the peer pressure is not going to push them into those places. They need adult pressure, I think, to get them there. Your kids love sports? Well, don't always go to Let's go to some interesting sites on baseball history; let's go to some interesting sites about games in America in the last, you know, 100 years. But other 17-year-olds are not going to push them there.

Q: But Prensky, for example, argues only 10% of Chinese get educated anyway; as Seymour Papert at M.I.T. found out, and I did, Lego Mindstorms was a great toy, but only 12% of kids were interested in actually learning how to programme Lego's - everyone else, the other 80%, wanted Bionicle's, that only has one possible outcome.

B: The question is what do you do with that tendency. Of course, kids are going to gravitate toward the place they've also gravitated, toward adolescent stuff, toward the things that their friends do. That's one thing to keep in mind about adolescent behavior. Many of the activities that we consider worthwhile - you know, reading Harry Potter. Why did kids read Harry Potter? Why did they pick it up so much? Why did the 17-year-old want it the night it came out? They didn't want it because they love reading. They wanted it because their friends wanted it. It's a cool thing to do. It allowed them to join in conversations in the schoolyard. That's what adult mentors, you know, stewards of knowledge and so on... We need to try to get some of those book materials, historical materials, intellectual civic materials into their world and make it so that they reflect it off of one another, it becomes a cool thing to do, it fits into the peer pressure. I actually think this was part of the Obama phenomenon among college students. Obama was a cool thing for them. It wasn't ... We are civic-minded individuals, we respect the great traditions of American democracy, no, I think it was really the youth appeal of Obama that did it. And that's a cool thing. What we want to see is whether that kind of coolness can be sustained from election to election, even if we don't have a cool candidate like Obama.

Q: I'm not... I'm with you on the idea of how do we attract kids back to sort of some of the traditional media experiences that we understand and we value. At the same time sometimes it feels like it's an argument that the ancient Greeks might have made against the book, saying, well, before the book you'd have to memorize the Iliad, and only by memorizing it do you really know what the Iliad is about. Now you have the book and you don't have to memorize it and all these kids are cheating their way through it.

B: Precisely. And that I think is a constant tension that we've had with every technology coming along to facilitate mental activity, intellectual activity. We always ask, wait a minute, isn't this allowing for a certain amount of intellectual laziness? They really don't get to immerse themselves, to think through the depth of those materials beforehand... And I think that is just an existing tension and, you know, calculators was one issue. You give kids calculators they're not going to be able to do long division, they're not going to really understand the process... Well, I think what we would say is we're going to have a nuanced response to that. We would say that, look, it's good to be able to do long division fast. It's also good that they understand more deeply the process of long division. And that those things are going to co-exist... The right thing is that they co-exist in some kind of tension. We have practicality, you know, demands ... they want things to be easier. At the same time we have a deep understanding of a lot of these things that we've created shortcuts for, and that's what should happen in early years. In early years, if you learn long division, well, you can do your calculator in the office 20 years later. We still understand what is happening.

Q: Isn't this understanding a luxury in society that's quickly going bankrupt. Isn't long division opera?

B: You know, what we would say is, we have trends, multiple trends, taking place in any society. And we can say this deeper understanding, this slow deliberation over ideas, over art, that that is a luxury. I think it is an important thing to preserve. And people have different responsibilities in a society in order to keep it vibrant and healthy, to keep the flow of ideas a thoughtful a thoughtful and reflective one. Some people, their role in a healthy society is to promote innovations, to promote advances, to praise those shortcuts, and advocate for them. Other people in a society, I think, have a more conservative role, in a small "c". To try to say, now, wait a minute, when we make these advances, are we losing something. The Internet is a great, fantastic, miraculous thing; it gives us access to great works of art, right there. I don't have to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art a thousand miles away, I can go on the Web site and look at these works by the Old Masters. I don't have to go to the Library of Congress to get government documents the way I used to. So, the availability is all there, and we have to treasure what has happened. We also have to say, wait a minute, there are times when we want to cultivate the more laborious activity of investigation. We need to have people work through these materials so that the ideas aren't just prepackaged for them and presented to them. So, one thing that I sometimes do in my classes, I will have them say... Okay, go get an obituary for one of the 19th-century American writers that we've been studying this semester - Mark Twain's obituary, or Walt Whitman's obituary, and just bring it into class and just write a few sentences on the central import that the obituary writer finds in this great American writer. They all come in with the obituary right off the Internet. And I say, OK, let's do another obituary, and you can't use the Internet. And a lot of them say, Why? If it's there, why can't I just go get it there? And I say, Because the process of searching for something that you can't quickly find by a few keystrokes is an important skill to develop because there are going to be times when it's not there for you. So, just as an exercise in inquiry, they have to go to the library, they have to ask the research librarian, where would I find obituaries, you have to go down to the microfilm room, you have to look up the New York Times in 1892, and then print up in that way. I think that that process diminishes the absolute reliance upon these tools. You have to be more enterprising than just sitting there at the screen. There are times that you have to find information that is not available; you have to dig a little bit more. The things that everyone can get are sometimes the things that you should go past. What are the things that you can find? What is the information, the data, the evidence that is concealed somewhere? You've got to learn how to dig for it.

Q: Compare what was being advertised the day Walt Whitman died with what the obituary person valued. And that is going to force someone to go to the microfilm and look at the obituary and look at the ads that were in the paper that day - at least then they see, oh, I get it, looking at something in its original context teaches me something that going and Googling for the obit doesn't do.

B: I'm going to remember... that's a better example ... illustration than what I said. Too man historical materials are not on Google, like ads in the New York World in 1890...

Q: Well, it's context. You talk about this in the book, though. When you go in ... when there's a piece of knowledge you want... you go in the ocean and get that piece, what do you learn? I've gotten my piece of knowledge. It's not that you have been denied the arduous journey, it's that you've been denied the world that that piece of knowledge came from.

B: Very good, yes. And this came home to me in talking with an elementary school principal who told me that his fifth and sixth-grade teachers were having a little bit of a problem when they assign research papers because when they assign a topic ... such as slavery in antebellum America, what the kids do is they follow the pattern: you type in the keywords into Google, Wikipedia comes up first on the list, and a few other relevant sites. You download those, you look at the material, you cut and paste what you need, you add a little commentary of your own, you print it up, and then you hand it in to the teacher. And this is really on the model of information retrieval: you're getting bits of information that you can assemble to satisfy the research question. It's not knowledge formation, it doesn't require precisely that examination of larger contexts, it's already been packaged so nicely for you, that you don't have to work through a lot of materials and synthesize a little bit more, pick and choose, say, now this evidence, this isn't really appropriate or may even be wrong, whereas this evidence is right. The Web, in its delivery system being so fast and so useful and broken up into those right pieces, that precisely is very good for that information retrieval. But when you are thinking about developing minds, when you are thinking about building a knowledge base among fifth and sixth graders, we want a slower process, we want them to pore through more documents, to wade, to sift, to evaluate a bit more.

Q: Why - and this is an evil question, but we've got to just bring Prensky back in here - why do more than 10% of our population need to be educated in the better way?

B: Well, I think that democracy doesn't work very well if we have an oligarchy or an elite of the kids who are really getting intense, focused instruction in liberal arts learning when 90% are just getting a superficial or perfunctory education in civics and history and the other liberal arts. I don't think that's a healthy condition in a democracy. I think we need a wider base of informed and active individuals. I think we need a more vigilant citizenry to examine the political speech of our candidates, and that they need to examine the political speech of the current candidates, for instance, by the examples of political speech from the past. The more people examine the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln, the great speeches of Booker T. Washington and of F.D.R., the higher a standard they will apply to the present. And that doesn't work for just 10%, OK. We have a voting population, and we want it to be much bigger than that, and we want more voice from the larger population, and the less history, the less civics, they have in their heads, the more they vote on present concerns, on self-interest or group interests, the more they respond, again, to surface attractions. And people are going to do that, but we need to add a broader civics sense, a sense of the body politic, that is going to come with more historical and civic knowledge. And so I think that, just for a healthy democracy, 10% is not enough.

Q: But isn't the answer to that more and better internet?

B: Yes, yes and what we need is to find a way to bring more and better internet into student's lives, into the classroom, into their leisure lives as well. When we find, according to the National Schoolboard Association that high school students spend 9 hours per week on social networking and according to the High School Survey of Student Engagement they spend, 55% of them spend less than 1 hour a week reading and studying for class, we have a big huge imbalance there. Now if more of that social networking can contain good intellectual material its no problem. This is the challenge, more and better web screen activities, the challenge is not how to eliminate it but how to make it better

Q: So, we went to a school in the Bronx. We went to a school on the verge of collapse, 7% of the kids were actually at grade level in math, discipline problems, the principle restructured the school using technology and only 4 or 5 moths after they were part of the one laptop program, the place is transformed, kids describe how excited they are to go to school, attendance is up, teachers say discipline problems are down, isn't that enough, isn't that great?

B: This is great and this is the place where technology can transform young people's lives. If we look at the ways in which technology can promote writing, getting writing on blogs, in social networking and so on, if they would be doing no writing otherwise, then that's a very good thing. If they write on blogs or they are writing on blogs, or they're reading blogs by their peers and that is taking time away from reading the Wall Street Journal editorial page or from practicing a musical instrument or learning a foreign language that's where we have a trade-off that works against them. Now, in the last Nape writing test we actually got some improvement in the lower ends from before. We didn't have more advanced and proficient writers but the lower scale is basic and below basic writers moved up into basic and the Nape researchers said this is probably because of all of the writing they're doing on the web. And I think there we do see a fair illustration of if they're not going to be doing any writing otherwise, it is fantastic to bring the technology into the classroom, to get them to start writing, even if it is you know texting with their friends or writing paragraphs with poor grammar and spelling, its an advance on where they would be otherwise. And that's where we would have to take the next step in that school do we see the writing scores continuing to move upward? Getting up there into proficient and advanced. Now one thing you have to do notice is students do have better attitudes towards classrooms with technology in them. The attitude improvement is higher and that's something to take into account.

Q: Well they would have a better attitude towards classrooms if there were pictures of naked girls on the walls too...

B: You know when I talk about bringing televisions back into school back in the 50's and 60's, yeah you have the same thing. Now if the televisions are delivering good strong adult content then that's great, it's the material passing through, that's the important thing.

Q: Right, I mean you describe the web as a consumer habitat rather than an educational one. If you could elaborate on that...

B: Sure, what does the web do for people with an address and with a laptop. Well, Web 2.0 I should say, what does it allow them to do, they can read a magazine article and they can interact with it, they can write back, they can not only take it in but they can express their opinion, okay its like consumer opinion taking place when they read articles in the New Republic they can comment on them, and if you read the comment rolls on these magazine articles or in Slate or elsewhere, some of these people are dying to voice their opinion and some of them are very intelligent, some of them are not so intelligent, but it gives them an interactivity that clearly a lot of them crave and I think that it allows the purveyors of the content, the magazine editors and website editors and so on, they look at these comment rolls, they look and see what is generating response so in that regard the Web 2.0 is a consumer medium, its not just delivering content it's looking at response to it, its like market research provided for...or Amazon, you know that's considered an early example of Web 2.0 and viewers comment on this and a lot of people look very carefully, especially authors at those reader comments, although authors aren't allowed to intervene in those discussions so in that sense, it's a consumer medium. And as I've said before the customization that you can make, the Google alerts or the RSS feeds or subscribing to newsletters or updates from different websites, you can sort of tailor your input you can fashion your world coming into your screen when you wake up each morning. You know 60 years ago you got the newspaper delivered to your front door and you sat and read the newspaper while you had your coffee, you know the ____for Heigel referred to this as modern man's early morning prayer. And it was, I'm seeing what is going on in the world and you know the most you can do as a consumer was continue to subscribe or not. Or occasionally you write a letter to the newspaper which had a miniscule chance of being published now look at the comment rosters on Stanley Fishes' columns on higher education in the New York Times they go into the four figures, sometimes people talk back and so this I think is the interactivity that we see taking place that makes it more active.

Q: The consumer is active but it turns the consumer more into a producer so they're less of a consumer in that sense, aren't they moving towards...Now I go onto BoingBoing I see something that I disagree with and I fight back now I am just as important as the writer...

B: That is I think that's part of the attraction, the temptation, my voice is standing here besides this, you know the writer has his byline I have my name or my pseudonym on there, there I think we do see in that model, a more active or interactive activity, yeah the passive consumer is I think fading for people engaged in those activities.

Q: For me the web itself was a devolution of the internet, the internet was this great textural place, it was an academic environment and then it became something much closer to interactive chat logs. It seems to be the general purpose of any webpage is to get somebody towards the buy button. In the end it's to sell something.

B: Well you can sell advertising just based on hits so that. I think that can...holding people there is itself, can be a profitable activity.

Q: Production of users is always constrained by one or the other corporate interests. Is it cultural production to be typing into a window on an Amazon site?

B: This I think we can talk about. The proclaimed interactivity, or the becoming a producer, or content maker, content creator, in a lot of these websites, really what does it amount to, what does it end up being at the end of the day? Let's say a 17 year old designs a really cool personal profile page and you've got all these bells and whistles and all the visuals and you know your moving video materials, what does it amount to? What actually have you produced? Something that your friends come and look at? And you've got millions and millions of people creating these things, again, what is the accumulative effect? What does it mean when you spend so much time on content creation, making videos or something, when you're 35 years old, you know 15 years later, what is this going to do for you? Unfortunately, I think the vast majority of content creation by teenagers is of a completely transient nature, and not only does it not last but whatever skills you're developing or ideas your forming in that process are largely confined to the adolescent world. That these are not the kinds of activities that are going to stand you very well when you are 30 years old, they don't make you more knowledgeable, they don't make you more skilled in the workplace.

Q: We wrote book reports when we were kids and now you see a kid create a MySpace page even about a rock group that they like or a country that they like with bells and whistles and songs and wallpaper, the parents go into the kids bedroom and see this creation they've made, which they couldn't make themselves and it looks to them that what the kid has done is superior to the book report that you and I would have written as a kid.

B: And I think in superficial ways, in visual ways in particular it is, and we all marvel at the things the kids can do with the tools. If you want to ask, the programming, you know the Iphone or the odd person you know can ask a 17 year old and its the digital immigrants that struggle with these things. But in terms of the content creation that we see in the online world, and I wouldn't confine it only to the young, we take blogs, much was made of the great amateur blogger success, what is the great success story for them? It was the Dan Rather George Bush story of his time as a pilot and the bloggers caught that in ways the mainstream media did not and so this was heralded as look, these people are doing things now in their pajamas at home that are a great public service. Well again I would say and I would apply this to the kids as well, for every story caught, such as the Dan Rather case, you've got a million people blogging in which there are no comments on that blog post, there is no consequence that follows from that blog post. And so you have to ask what happens it you've got all these content creators these days and the consumption of that material is less than the production of that martial.

Q: Well they're all willing to be there and to do it just in case they're the ones that figures out the great thing. What's the difference between that and academic articles that get read by 2 people per article.

B: No argument on that point. But what happens when, how many years have to go by before you start saying all that time spent on those words what did it amount to? You know there's a funny New Yorker cartoon a few years ago in which you had a book signing taking place and you had a bunch of people lined up with books and I'm trying to remember exactly, the books were different and the person sitting and the table was looking up with a smile and signing books and you know the sign above said reader signing so it was author's lining up with their books for a reader, somebody who actually read their book to sign it for them. So I think the joke there is we have had an explosion of creativity all these new venues are forming for people to post their thoughts their ideas, their words and you would have to ask, well, this is good for opening up the gates which can sometimes be too narrow for a lot of important voices to come in, but again you have millions and millions of people creating the content how much of this content is being read, how much of it is really entering into civic discourse that enables us to keep a close watch on our government, on our leaders, on what is going on in the financial world, what is going on in the art world, we need i think, we do need a critical mass of readers, or audience who aren't so caught up in again, expressing their own opinions to the point of not playing that role of being more, and this is a horrible thing to say, of being more, again in the position of an audience and saying, you know something my, I don;'t have voice my opinion so much, I don't have to spend so much time putting it all out there...

Q: But isn't it better for a 14 year old to be blogging his own onions than sitting and watching re-runs of Gilligan's Island?

B: Absolutely, yes. Yes it is but it's not better for the 14 year old to be blogging his own opinion instead of practicing to play the piano, or learning Spanish, or reading some historical novels or even I would say, reading the Conan novels as well, it's too early and here's the danger, I was on Canadian radio, National radio, debating a 24 year old, very bright young woman who's big in marketing and big into technology and she was arguing just about this how teenagers they're so active, they're writing and thinking in ways that they've never done before and I said, you know I was sort of playing up the old fogie role, I said you know what I do is I have students memorize poems, lines of verse, 20 lines at least and they have to get up and recite them to the class and they just have to learn it and she said this is precisely why Professor Browline doesn't understand this kind of rote memorization, this kind of sitting back and taking in what he says and then regurgitating it, this is not going to help them with 21 century skills and he even needs to realize that the education system has to change. You can't just ask students to do this. Now I didn't' want to come down on her again because she's a very bright woman but the fact is I wanted to say wait a moment, you're 24 years old, you are in marketing and technology have you ever taught a class before? Have you ever sat down across the desk from a student who says I don;t like to read and I don;t want to read. Have you ever corrected a paper before? In other words, she didn't nearly have the experience to make this kind of judgement, I'm not saying she was wrong but she was too confident about their opinion to assertive about being right but she's had a blog for many years she's had a personal profile page she has been opining ever since she was probably 14 or 15 years old and so the sense sinks in that her opinion is valid that she does know things and she is very bright and she's gotten good feedback from her friends and they do say wow that's a great blog post you did I really love what you're saying , it makes young people believe too much in their opinions before their time. You need to have a period of doing your homework of getting some experience before you can be so strong, you have such convictions about your own opinion.

Q: But what she's showing is that you don't she might make more money than both of us combined at this point and her argument as Prensky would say that there is a heuristic that is characteristic to the new space. Kids who play video games are working up against a wall just as challenging as the wall that we worked up against only its a more highly dimensionalized, new media language that these digital natives are speaking and sharing.

B: Well let me take the example of the memorization of poems and why for someone like her the fairly rare student so bright and so active a very curious intellect, maybe memorizing poems and reciting them for the class might not be that great of an exercise but when we look at the vast majority of 17 year olds and the conditions that they live in and in which they have a fairly impoverished vocabulary and they're very much located in their social zones you know personality norms and attitudes are pretty constrained. What does memorizing a poem do, well one it forces them to adopt another identity they have to get into character in order to articulate that poem it makes them get out of their own ego for a little while if they want to present it effectively that's a good exercise for a 17 year old to do, it also forces them to pay attention to language and its real details. You can't go really fast through a poem and memorize it, you have to slow down, you have to pay attention to rhythms to metaphors to rhetorical pauses and so on and so that's a verbal education for them that is all together absent from their ordinary spaces so for the vast majority of students to call memorizing a poem just a form of rote memorization diminishes what really goes into that process and again and for her, she doesn't need that kind of thing and what I'm saying is the 90% of kids, they do.

Q: She probably had that kind of thing that's why she can think the way she does but the argument is that the human species is changing, we are evolving form a sort of a hard disk based intellectual organism to a ram based, you know so that our storage capacity is not what we should be working on but its our processing ability, and they see it as directly opposed. That if we waste our time doing hard disk stuff working on the damage...

B: Slow down maybe the evolution of it all. You know I sort of as an open question and I wouldn't say no that is not happening, this is just wild speculation, no I wouldn't say that and it may be 20, 30 years from now things are going to look much differently and the education will have to change, the education system will have to change in order to keep up with that but that having been in the education world for 30 years, 25 years at this point I've heard many many predictions about where things are going. I saw you know in the mid 90's I'd have colleagues in the English department saying oh the book is dead, you know we're moving into the digital age, the electronic world as it was called back then and this idea of linear narrative and passive reading that's over..Well, I think those claims were immature you know the e-book is still a tiny tiny phenomenon, the only reason why e-books look like they have strong growth is because we're looking at a microscopic base and we're still waiting for the e-book to explode, the publishing industry is doing horribly right now and they;re looking at e-books as potential.

Q: But are books, are book just to long?

B: You know you will find a lot of english professors saying I can't assign a novel more than 200 pages , I used to, I can't anymore, it's simply not it's not part of the ordinary rhythms of an 18 year olds' life to sit in a chair for 2 hours and read, the interruptions are always happening the laptop dings an e-mail came through, the blackberry buzzes they've got to check in on the social networking page yeah exactly and so reading time is sort of quiet time...and I feel it myself if I want to read something more than 10 pages long I have to leave my office, because I feel the temptation I'm going to check my e-mail, I'm going to look at the UCLA football blog, I;m going to check the stock market, I'm going to think of something I can look up online and so I leave my office, I go into the theology library where I can't get any calls and where I can't get any e-mails because its really hard to concentrate to focus

Q: You need to create an artificial obstacle for yourself because you don' have even as an adult you don;t have the self control required to read a book.

B: I feel the temptation is there.

Q: Well if it's there for you then how is a 14, 15, 16 year old kid supposed to live through this. So you're going to get them to go to the theology library what are you going to do, handcuff them?

B: Well I tell parents when they say look you know, certain problems what do we do, and I say why don;t you just have 1 hour in the home unplugged from, get your kids off of their friends, the Twittering and so on and spend just an hour, and the parents have to do it too, you can;t just say go read a book, you have to show your kids one of the things adults do is read a book or you can sit and you can watch C-SPAN you can watch you know shows PBS or on NPR, anything where you can get good intellectual ideas where ideas matter values matter events matter and then after an hour go ahead go back to your social lives.

B: And a lot of young people don't understand often the context or the implications of their communications and a good example of that appeared in this film, this documentary that came out last summer it was called American Teen, and it was a documentarian who went to a high school in Warsaw, Indiana and she did about a thousand hours of film tracking 4 or 5 seniors through senior year. And in one episode one of the guys and another girl they get together boyfriend and girlfriend, they're having a great time a few weeks go by she writes an e-mail at night I'm in love with you I'm having such a great time and she includes a picture, a compromising picture of herself, she's topless, well what she doesn't know is that somehow his e-mail is configured, I couldn't quite figure out the technology, to bounce files to someone else and so another kid got the picture and he sent it to other girls in the film and for the next few minutes the film shows this masterful and sadistic campaign by these two girls to blanket the entire high school with her picture. they send it out to cell phones to e-mails to pages they tell people where they can go find it. This girl is asleep who sent the picture, all this is happening at night she doesn't really realize but they leave her a cell phone message saying love your picture can't wait to see you at school tomorrow. And so the next frame shows this girl walking down the hall of the campus with the full realization now that her breasts are on every guy's page today, she's mortified, she's going to remember this for the rest of her life and the two lessons to this are one, this is not private, this space is a public space things get out, they're always going to get out, and two is even if you're disconnected and even if you're logged off, even if you're asleep stuff is going on, things are happening in your social world now that sort of they happened before the digital age but nothing like they can happen today. And I see this with my students when they leave classes the first thing they do is flip open that cell phone and you watch them walking across campus they do not have joy on their faces they have concern on their faces because they've been out of touch for a few hours they need to know if something has happened. Do I have a cell or text message that says I don;t think we should go out anymore, you know these things can happen while they are down. You know their down time is not down time you are just out for a little while more things are going on. And I think that gets to a that intense social life they feel in the digital age and also their lack of awareness of the nature of a lot of communications that they send out to their friends t o you know to adults.

Q: But this is a different human organism. I mean its one where they're living, at best, symbiotically with the technology so their social life is characterized by the technology and the technology is characterized by their social life.

B: And that's what a lot of adults, a lot of parents don't realize the intense social meaning of these tools. When the parent gets the cell phone bill of $300 because your 17 year old ran up all those minutes in text messages. the parent takes away the cell phone is like I'm taking this toy away from you, that's what it means to the parent, to the 17 year old it means you are destroying my life, ok you are disconnecting me from having meaningful social life that's exactly these are prosthetic instruments these tools they are connected to their personal lives in such a close intimate way.

Q: But isn't it like then we blame the kid or we blame the technology for being addictive. saying this child is addicted to the technology but they are addicted to the technology in the same way that you are addicted to your reading glasses.

B: And my wife accuses me of being addicted to the computer and a lot of adults feel this is as well. You know one of the things that I heard the other day as I was talking to the teachers that are in elementary school and talking about digital technology and kids and they said well we have had to bar cell phones by the parents when they come to pick up the kids and I said what do you mean and they said well all the cars line up, this is a private school, all the cars line up and the parents are behind the wheel we open the door the kid gets inside the 4th grader says "mommy" "daddy" - they're on the phone, they barely even register their kids coming inside the car because they're hooked to their cell phones as well. And the school has had to say parents you're not allowed to talk on your cell phones when you get in line with your cars say hi hello to your kids they just ended the school day.

B: You know one thing I'll say about adults being vulnerable to this as well if you took a bunch of 40 year olds, and five days a week you put them in a building together they all went into their rooms then after an hour they went down the hallways they went to their locker they went to other rooms after school they were organized to do certain activities and sports, if you put them into that intensely close physical space you would see a lot of the same tribalism taking place among men that you do see among 17 year olds.

Q: I mean high schools these were just designed by the Prussian School and the great compliant workers and bells ringing it is an obsolete form of education on a certain level, dragging them all to this building and you combine that with digital technology you're getting...its a perversion.

B: Indeed and everyone wants to figure out how are we going to fix the public schools. This is one of the burning questions of the United States for the last 25 years and technology for many of them has looked like a solution, it has looked like one way for us to break up the old fashioned bricks and mortar spaces that students do currently occupy and I think that this is the future but if someone can figure out how to do it well they'll make a lot of money.

Q: Can you paint a portrait of the so-called digital native in the 21st century, what is important to them, how do they spend their time, you know what can they do what can't they do.

B: I think that when you talk about the digital native these are people who ever since their minds are first developed kindergarten onwards screens are a natural part of their lives and this one of the things about putting technology into schools, if you are a teacher 50 years old and suddenly you have this big laptop program coming into your school and you know September 1st you come into your classroom and your old wooden podium is now a multi-media control panel and at the desks you've got all these glistening white laptops there you're blown away, wow we're going to do break-new things with these materials this year for the 9th graders coming into this room this is nothing new, you know that's the digital immigrant / digital native contrast, their perception is oh cool i've got this tool in class now I've got the same tool at home and I'm actually a little bit quicker with learning these tools than the teacher is. That's one characteristic you'll find of the digital native, a perfect perfect feeling of being at home with all of these glistening new tools that all of us old folks look upon, this is an advent taking place. The facility with the surface activities of these tools, texting and so on, very adept's where we find a breakdown with these tools. When they have to go beyond these simple activities, texting, posting and programming and so on and have to use these tools for deeper intellectual activities to not only collect a bunch of websites..this is Not something that I can see the Internet itself can help them with. That is not where access to information doesn't help them. This is where you need to have that teacher standing next to you. Someone who can provide a critical sense of approach towards these tools. One interesting thing happened in the state of Maine last September. On the statewide writing test they got the results and they found something really weird is going on because the proficiency rates of this years 8th grader has nose-dived. And they looked at the test and they found here is the problem. A lot of these students responding to the prompt reacted to it. They didn't write about it. They didn't articulate a position in relation to the prompt. They simply basically said, "I don't like this, this is stupid!" And what was the prompt? The prompt was television viewing hinders learning, discuss. So it's not that they disagreed with the prompt and brought reasons to deny it. No they wrote things such as "this is ridiculous, I watch TV and I do great in school!" In other words, the critical approach to that idea, that too many of them could not assume. And I think part of this is the main laptop program begin in 2001, 2002. They gave laptops to every 7th and 8th grader in the state. And they accompanied that with all these claims that the screen is a learning tool. How visual media and screen technology helps you learn things. So they got a prompt regarding screen media and they couldn't think critical about it. That's a case where the judgment broke down, in relationship to precisely the technology.

Q: Couldn't or wouldn't Gertrude Stein's famous "I choose not to answer this question today" did they go beyond the confines of the test? Did they just break the reality of the man and comment upon it the way boing boing would have?

B: Maybe that typifies the kinds of opinion sharing that they do in their social lives, instead of forming agreements against something, they attack or ridicule. And what you have to say is "look, if you disagree with something, you have to form reasons to bring someone over to your side"

Q: They don't care if you're on their side or not. I refuse to enter into that. That's a stupid question is my answer. AS a certain level, as consumers, that's consumer empowerment.

B: Here's the thing, the prompt was not about a controversial topic; religion, politics, sexuality. It was just about television. Why do you feel so viscerally about a TV screen? When I saw the test scores and what happened there I thought, "wow, they must have raised some fairly controversial issue here." No. To me it seems like a fairly harmless; or at least a fairly debatable statement. And what you said about "they don't care". That is precisely what I would see as civic breakdown. You have to care about what people think and you have to address what other people think before you make that judgment of "you're stupid. I refuse to engage with you."

Q: But they care what their peers think. They don't care what the ETS thinks.

B: They don't think care what many adults think. I gave a talk once at the University of Maryland, they were about 260 students in the audience. And I told them the truth. I said, "look, you guys are 6 times more likely to know the latest American Idol than you are to know who the speaker of the House is just a couple miles away." And a girl in the back shouted, "it is more important to know who the American Idol is". You know, she is right. In her world, knowing the American Idol gets her by. To know who Tip O'Neil, or all the other speakers of the House, that gets you nothing. That is not survival in the teen world. And it's a ruthless world. In middle school, the other kids search out your vulnerabilities, they find them very quickly and they will exploit them.

Q: But lets go to the other abilities of the digital native though. It's not just to be able to Google what happened on Top Chef or whatever show they are watching. It's to get through the first 16 hours of Second Life in order to create an identity and get your clothes and get off that first thing is beyond my patience level. And I just couldn't go into that world because the learning curve is just to steep. To get through the first two levels of Doom and do the problem solving and figure out how to do those puzzles. These kids do have an amazing attention span.

B: And I think that that concentration in those zones is a kind of aptitude. It is kind of a cognitive talent that they have and one of the things that physiologist will talk about is something they call 'slow time'. Where someone will spend three hours on a game and it feels like 30 minutes. They are so intently focused on the activity that time slows down for them. And I can see how that is one form of literacy, if you want to put it this way, or one form of concentration. And that can be certainly a beneficial thing in many areas, they talk about it in the Air Force, using video games for hand eye coordination for pilots. Or for surgeons, very delicate surgeons actually using video games for this activity. But I still think the range of professions, the range of work place activities in which Second Life activities are beneficial, it remains limited; one. And there are too many areas of science and the profession in which very slow linear thinking, linear reading and writing are still essential.

Q: In the rush towards digitaltality though, this screen based learning, and screen based and google based and bully and search and all that might just be an interim phase towards the true digital human, the nano implemented person. And if we get there, then don't we regain a lot of what it is that you think of as being lost?

B: It could be and again that is the hope, and the futurist are envisioning, all kind of things. Singularity is in there. But one of the difficulties I find in predicting the future in technology is the research problem with technology. By the time you design a research study, you apply for funding, you get the funding, you implement the study, and you publish the results about the technology and what has happened? The technology is obsolete. We moved beyond it. So the technology and the practices that go with the new technologies, they keep outdistancing the research. The research can't catch up to it. Just think what would happen if you described facebook to someone in 1995. Well, you create your own website, you can write about yourself, and people can read about it, you can keep in touch with people. I wonder how many people in 1995 would have said "wow, that's a really great idea" or would that have said "if I want to keep in touch with you, I have a cell phone, I can just keep in touch with you." Would anyone have predicted that this would be the phenomena and profitability of it back then that we have now? I don't know.

Q: Right, but if you went to Proctor and Gamble and 1995 and said "we got a way for you to know, where your consumer lives, what they like, who their movie stars are", they would say "yeah!"

B: Absolutely. And businesses my be ahead of the research on this. They're all experimenting with ways to use facebook on business models. And that may be the direction. The education system tends to be a much slower system and works more on inertia then that. I think that the record on technology in the classroom is at best a disappointment. Especially when we look at all the money that has been spent on the technology.

Q: I'm interested in specific examples we can use of our increasing stupidness. Or dumbness. In other words, do we have shorter attention spans, what's the problem with split focus? What's our best evidence that our immersion in digital technology beyond the sort of social value features of it, that our relationship with this technology is compromising our cognitive function?

B: Well I think that one would say that in certain areas of cognitive function that technology is enhancing that ability. I mean the certain kinds of multitasking, the swiftness with which we can access this information and developing the skills in accessing this information. Very often you don't need to reflect on something, you just need the information. You get it there quickly and you can be more productive. And that is a good thing. In developing these kinds of information literacy's is what the digital age has promoted. You have to more adept with this kind of multitasking, digital, information world than you ever had to be before. Where I think we do see some deterioration, is in those with slow reading and slow writing skills. If the digital age where producing such good verbal dexterity than we wouldn't see, according to a report a few months ago, that more than forty percent of students in two year colleges now have to go into remediation classes, 29 percent of student in four year colleges go into remediation classes. These are basic verbal and math skills that student have to do before they are even ready for college level work. We wouldn't find that on the NAP 12th grade history examine, every time they give it, more than 50% score below basic. Essentially a D or an F in letter grade terms. We would see more gain, because they have so much knowledge, so much information there. We have more museums, more libraries then ever before. It's all available; history channel; we have a lot of media that provides historical information. Why aren't we seeing any bump in civic and historical knowledge?

Q: Why aren't we?

B: Well I think we have a bigger menu from diversions. You have in a students room now, you have, you got a laptop, you have a video game console, you have a iphone, you have a blackberry, you have a lot of other things to do than to read books, read the newspaper, go to the museum, go to the book store, go to the library. Library checkouts of books are down. Library usage is up, because of the media. Libraries have become multimedia centers. And that is a good thing; we want libraries to be multimedia centers, but we need to recognize that they are providing less of a book-based service.

Q: But couldn't it be that books have served their purpose? I mean the scroll went out at one point, the tab...the books, and book length works was a way of approaching a material that was part of an academic discipline that either came from Greece or the Renaissance, and that is just not the most efficient or useful way of presenting or preserving information.

B: Right, well I'm a traditionalist on this. I think looking at a book shelf that contains the Federalist papers, there is no substitute for the Gulag Ark Bolero (?) And you have to work through these books slowly, carefully; you have to read all these pages. You have to read the sound and the fury. We can't get a way from that. Books, I think, are still the cornerstone of knowledge and the literally life. And the...

Q: Books are the cornerstones of knowledge in the colonial white European reality. They're not the corner stone of knowledge for the Malay people or the African.

B: That's true. But, if you gave those non literally civilizations the options of the benefits of books; books are a way to preserve those civilizations. Books are a way to record the thoughts, the ideas, the values, and the art of those non-book societies. It is people who grew up in book societies that went in and were interested in, as well as exploitive, of those other societies. But they were interested in studying about them and writing about them. Books are the outcome of inquiry. Of finding out, of being curious about things. That's why I have to tell students; some students will come into my office and say, "I don't like to read novels." I say "If you don't like to read novels you are missing out on some of the most important expressions of humanity in your life. You are improvising your own formation with that approach." That doesn't mean you have to read all books, you can't watch TV, you can't do facebook. But you have to preserve a space in your life for book reading.

Q: To the digital native, and hopefully to the kind of the post feminist, Donna Harrawy, all these kind of guys, they would argue that the book and the kinds of knowledge and education that you are talking are artifacts of failed, yucky, mean, capitalist, evil society. Sure, if you sit someone down and force them for 20 hours to read these words and this very compiling book format, you will program them into submission to the agenda to your generation.

B: here is the hope. You give students examples of people like W E.B Dubois. Or Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass, for him, learning to read and then reading books, that was the beginning of his liberation. If he hadn't learned to read, if he hadn't had a book fall into his hands by Richard Sheraton, Douglass says, "I don't know if I would have recognized my own condition." For W E.B Dubois, reading books for him was a compensation for living in a Jim Crow society. He said, "By reading Shakespeare, and Dumont and others, I got out of white supremacy." They occupied a white supremacy society, but for him this was an activation of imagination beyond the terrible circumstances of his existence. That's what books can take us to. Now, there are bad books. Books can have a pernicious influence. Books can appeal to the vicious, sinful, racist, sexist attitudes of young people and they have, over time. This is the risk you take in free society. The influence of books can go in a lot of different directions. But what we can say is that books force you into imagining another world, other sets of characters, other settings, your talking about novels; other ideas that are going to open your mind.

Q: But in the early days of books, of books books, Cervantes or Don Quito is sounding much like you are about the internet, this dreamer titling in windmills, utterly removed from the real world.

B: And I think this is one place that educators play that partial role. The world is changing; we are in a midst of the information age; the digital revolution. And we have a lot of people that are votaries of that. We have a lot of money going into pushing that evolution forward. I think that it is crucial that we have a condray, of educators, teachers, intellectuals, journalist, who are raising the skeptical point and looking back on the past, not so much as a world a world of limitation and depression, but to say we can find materials in the past that enrich the meaning of our lives. And we can't forget the accomplishment of the Declaration of Independence, and the US Constitution. We can't forget the example of Booker T Washington's autobiographer up from slavery. We got to preserve these materials because so much in our culture is about the future or the present. We have to have a cohort of people treasuring the past.

Q: Isn't that Wikipedia. Isn't Wikipedia the cohort of people?

B: Wikipedia is a great resource for information, the quick date, and the fact quick, but there are a couple of problems with Wikipedia. For one, it is a starting point; it shouldn't be an end point. And for many students it is the endpoint. And two, this is a curios thing, if you look at a Wikipedia entry, one of the disappointing things, I find about it, is the literally style of the entry. It's so blank and flat, and featureless, and colorless. Wikipedia is very worries about bias, which means that it neutralizes the language so much that students read Wikipeida entries over and over again and they tart believing this is what intellectual style should be. So I often find myself in classes telling students, "com'on, you are trying to be so objective here, you are trying to be so neutral. You don't want to take a position on things. Make your language more stylized. Try to develop some sharp metaphors here. Try to come up with an unusual word that makes your reader go, oh, good. Or that makes me laugh. Be more enterprising with your language."

Q: Why can't we all just get along? So what about people using computers in your class. Do kids in your classrooms allowed to have their laptop and messaging?

B: They bring their laptops in class and they'll open them up and I go around the room the first day and I pile them up in my office and they can come get them at the end of the semester. No! I don't have kids do the laptops in the classroom. I've never had to say so. Maybe they just sense this isn't the right classroom for having a laptop. Because we have a lot of discussion, and in terms of information, it's not an information class, this is an English class. So we are looking with the book open, were making notes, we're talking about interpretations about different phrases and plots and characters. So I actually discourage implicitly the laptop use. If I saw a student come in and do a lot of the open laptop, I would say, "no laptops in the class, look at me. This is discussion, we're engaging with things. I'm not asking you to memorize dates, just poems." But the engagement factor, the face-to-face connection is important. And I have also sat in the back of two many classes in which the laptops are open and the kids are emailing and facebook. And so on. I did last semester have a couple of laptops in the back of room in a large survey course I was teaching. And I realize there my be a problem when I was talking about the end of the novel, "The Awakening", in which the protagonist walks into the ocean at the end and she kills herself over some romantic disappointments. And as I'm describing her expiring under the waves, the group with the laptops in the back, they were smiling and they were typing away. So there is some disconnect taking place. So I do say no laptops in the class. However, if my colleagues said no laptops in the classroom, I would rethink my position of disallowing laptops in the classroom. Because again it is about students facing in their education, they should face a plurality of approaches. There shouldn't be too much agreement among their teachers about the best way to educate. About the best approach to the materials. I mean I come off as a very very traditional and authoritative figure in front of the room. If a lot of my colleagues were the same way I would probably would end up having a much more student centered approach to things. So you often define your pedagogy in relationship to the others, on campus.

Q: Do you notice a change..(rachel...) talk to doug..(can't discern)

B: When you ask about the level of skill and knowledge of students over time, I do think we do see a deterioration of sort of liberal arts knowledge and skills among students. One, their reading habits. They are not as vigilant readers, especially of long books as they were previously. Also, they're not as careful in their own writing as they used to be. I do a lot of work with students on their rough drafts. They'll bring in a rough draft, they'll submit a paragraph, and I'll go through it; they aren't grammatical errors in it. Emory students are pretty well qualifies kids. They aren't spelling errors. But there is flatness to the pros. They tend to write in unimaginative ways. So when I sit down with them, when I say, "you see this sentence here, you see this verb, can you pick a more descriptive verb there?" They say, "Well, what do you mean?" "A more evocative verb. Can you make a reader see what you are describing more vividly." That kind of exercises in imagination, in being more picturesque, more colorful, more edgy, more vivid in your language, and more unique in your own style. Developing your own style with language; that I see is a declining factor.

Q: Look at the TV they're watching. They don't even watch stories anymore. Law and Order is out and reality TV is in. The metaphor is dead anyway.

B: And that is way it is so important for that coudray to hold on to it. To say, "don't just pick dead metaphor. Pick alive metaphor. Say something powerful. Write long sentences and then end it with a really good epigrammatic phrase. Be impressive with your speech. Don't talk as if you are just hanging out with your friends. Don't talk when you talk to adults as if you are just sort of bestayed and proper and give the right, truthful discourse. Be an individual a little bit, be critical, and be self-critical. But step out a little bit. Take some risk with the way you speak. This is where the curiosity that I find on the internet, the web, for many of the kids on the social networking pages; if you browse through them, the uniformity to so much of it. This is all about individualization, you are talking about yourself. Boy, do we keep seeing the same phrases, the same self-descriptions, over and over again. The same activities, the same interest. You all sound the same. It's a herd of individual minds out there.

Q: But from their perspective you are teaching them to conform to some adult notion of what writing is suppose to be.

B: Well I hope that their free to express different opinions. I don't want to tell them what to think. I don't want to tell them what conclusions to draw. What I do insist upon is that they acquire the intellectual equipment out of my classroom to draw intelligent conclusion. To have the powerful vocabulary in which to express. What you think, I don't care if you are liberal or conservative. I don't care if you're pro choice or pro life, but I want you to be intellectually liberal or conservative. And that is my rule in the classroom. And you do, you have to push them into taking the intellectual stakes, taking the intellectual stakes. Taking the intellectual positions they assume seriously. You have to take ideas seriously. They have consequences, what you believe what is really important. And it's very easy in our society, it's so consumer orientated, and it's so superficial in our celebrity cultural and so on, makes them not consider their intellectual formation as seriously as they should. And college, it's a precious few years. They don't realize this. I say to students in their spring semester in senior year, "It's almost over." And they say, "I can't believe it, it happened so fast." And I say, "You're never going to get this opportunity again. You are never going to be able to read James Joyce's Ulysses and have someone help you get through it. To share ideas with someone. When you are 35 years old, you're not going go to work, and get home, and cook, and feed the kids, and do laundry and get them to bed, and then so sit down and say "Okay, it's time for Canton 20 of the Divine Comedy." This is it! And if you don't make use of this now, chances are you never will.

Q: We had Neil Postman, Jerry Mandards, Cliff Stole, and in some sense now you. What has been the reaction from mainstream media and the internet to your views? Are you surprised to it?

B: I am surprised and one thing that I found is people reacted not only to the book, but to the issue. There were feature stories on the book in a lot of newspapers around the world even. And it wasn't about the book, it was story; it was on the issue. So I do feel like with this book, The Dumbest Generation, and a few other books by Lee Siegel, elements of Susan Jocoby's book; others just raised the skeptical voice about the digital age. Especially of the intellectual consequences of the digital age as the push back against all the enthusiasm and all of the hype about it. And I really do regard it as adding an element to the question, so when journalist talk about digital technologies there is a new skeptical component that we've added; that is part of the story. It doesn't mean we are right. It doesn't mean 10 years from now we won't look quite dated about all of this. But it does mean that I think we contributed to the discussion, complicating it in a useful way. Now with young people the response has been a little different. I have gotten hundred of emails, some of them sprinkled with four letter words. From angry 18 year olds whose said "you know, this is really offensive what you have written about us." John Leo at a lunch in the other day introduced this book by saying "this is the only book last year that managed to insult 82 million people in America with a few words." I take students offense as a very good sign. One, it means they are paying attention. And two, it mean they care about intellectual values enough to be offended. And they want to defend themselves as well. And I write back to every email I receive as sort of a teacherly duty. And we have some really good changes. We get past the instabilities that they offer and instead we debate issues of substance. How bad are these problems. "I am not like this, my friends aren't like this." And we want this generation to do precisely that. Now one of the interesting things about the offense and the anger they put in their emails, sometimes with the obscenities. I think that is a function of feeling like adults aren't listening. I'm writing this email, to this author, he isn't even going to look at it. He'll just blow it off. Well, I do look at them. And I take them seriously, and I write back to them. And I look at their substantive points and they are surprised. They come back with an entirely different tone. Not that they agree with me now, but the anger has gone way down. And I think that is really a function of "wow, I write something, and someone listens. Someone responds to me. Someone takes me seriously. As an intellect I need to speak differently. I need to respond, I need to debate." Because I sat to them, "when you sprinkle your points with obscenities, nobody is going to take you seriously. No one is going to listen to you. But I will listen to you on substance." And we end up having a really good exchange, and I do, I concede some points to them and I'm happy to do it.

Q: Well that's because they're writing opportunities afforded to them by the current web is writing on somebody's wall. What do you expect?

B: And I think it is a good example for them to keep in mind that we can get past reaction, and actually find some common ground at times. And we can clarify uncommon ground as well. And one hopes that they go back to writing on walls and their writing is more penetrative and substantive.

posted june 9, 2009

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