The Dumbest Generation

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The Dumbest Generation

Here's a pop quiz:  Who is the U.S. Secretary of State?  The answer, as we prepared this report in the summer of 2008, was Condoleezza Rice.  If you knew the answer, you're smarter than 74 percent of the 18- to 29-year-olds in a Pew Research Center study who recently answered incorrectly.1

Moreover, 70 percent of them do not know what the Reconstruction was, and they were six times more likely to be able to identify the latest winner of the American Idol reality television show than the Speaker of the House of Representatives. 

Another study found that nearly 60 percent of 17-year-olds don't know that the Civil War took place in the second half of the 19th century.  And yet another survey found that 25 percent of 17-year-olds think that Christopher Columbus discovered America after 1750.

Could the vast majority of teens and adults under the age of 30 really be so clueless?  As a matter of fact, yes.  This is a generation of young people who grew up reading blogs instead of books.  They read updates about their friends' parties on MySpace instead of reading about world events in newspapers.  They know more about video games like World of Warcraft than they do about World War II.

They look up information on Wikipedia instead of Encyclopedia Britannica.  They get their political information from Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," hosted by comedian Jon Stewart.  When they do read news online, it is filtered through RSS feeds that only send them stories about subjects that interest them — a list that could be as brief as celebrity weddings, panda bears, Paris Hilton, and new games for the Wii video game console.  They don't want to read about subjects of which they know little or nothing. 

Ironically, the generation that is most comfortable with digital technology, which gives them unprecedented access to all of the world's knowledge, knows less than the previous generations that lacked this advantage.  Instead of using the Internet to improve their understanding of the world, young people are using it to stay in touch with their friends.

Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, has seen this first-hand in his classrooms.  He has found that today's college students know little about science, history, or politics, and consequently they aren't ready to enter the workforce.  He also noticed that students huddled over Internet terminals in the college library were checking their e-mail and each other's Facebook pages rather than doing research...

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