I figured the book would discuss why, in spite of increasing access to higher education, young people evidently score less well than their seniors on social scientists’ measures of knowledge and skill. Since Bauerlein is an educator who has written as a conservative activist, he would presumably focus on what liberal college professors believe and on what education schools advise regarding lower-level schools (both topics conservatives consider important). Instead, we find a complaint to the effect that reading, of the kind Bauerlein teaches and was himself taught, and the kind of reading all educated people (according to Bauerlein) have practiced for centuries, is dying out.
That is the argument of the first two chapters, especially: The Internet has been around for between ten and twenty years, depending on how you count. Therefore, American kids now finishing high school and beginning college have grown up with the Internet and we can expect them to display whatever advantages Internet is actually able to confer. The Internet contains lots of information about topics of civic and academic interest, so kids who have grown up with it ought to know a lot. They don’t, though. The reason for this is that they don’t read; reading provides all kinds of benefits that help kids do better in school, and readers acquire all kinds of information as they engross themselves in books and reflect on what they say. Kids don’t really acquire information in school, so it’s natural that their leisure-time activities are what determines how well they do on standardized tests and in college. Bauerlein pulls the elements of this argument from a smorgasbord of sociological studies.
He appears to take the incredible yet still increasing popularity of the Internet as obviously the reason for the decline he feels exists. The book is addressed both towards people who are interested in the rise of this new technology and also towards people who are interested in culture and reading.
As Bauerlein reads the studies, working with computers appears to improve a kind of putative intelligence which is actually bad. (He does not describe what it is, or at least not in any detail, but presumably he knows it when he sees it.) Thus, the book will make those who work with computers consider whether they have been missing anything. And, correspondingly, it will make those who are interested in culture and reading, and who suspect that those who work with computers are missing something, more sure that they are right.
I don’t personally find this argument convincing, but Bauerlein covers the bases very neatly. The data for the arguments are not Bauerlein’s, so if they are questionable, he is not responsible. And he emphasizes frequently that lots of people appear to be highly intelligent yet are (in his opinion) unable to read. Those who disagree with him and cannot make sense of his argument may conclude they fall into this category.
Which raises the question who he thinks his audience is. Because he has lost the people for whom critical thinking involves evaluation of evidence, as well as felicity in word choice. He has lost the people who are turned off immediately by statements like the one I peeved about last week. He has lost the people whose response, when faced with huge metaphysical arguments like the ones that English professors today are so fond of, on one of which I presume Bauerlein implicitly bases this book, is WTF? And I’m not sure whom that leaves, other than college professors, the more credulous sort of journalist, and maybe the clergy. Yet his book is published by a nonacademic press.
To a large extent, he is criticizing educators like himself, yet his book is addressed to a general readership. I get the sense he is trying to rally nonacademics to join in his critique of a subgroup among his fellow academics, something that conservative college professors have been doing for two decades, at least. Because the book reads, essentially, like an (ever so mildly worded) jeremiad. Yet it seems ungracious to harangue his lessers for not correcting his own colleagues and even himself. Why would he do that?
Perhaps to make readers feel guilty or indignant enough that they would urge their legislators and other elected officials to support the educational policies Bauerlein promotes (vaguely described as these are).
Perhaps to intrigue future teenagers who feel they are smarter and more moral than their peers, who after reading this book may feel inspired to major in English and put into practice the high-flown sentiments they’ve learned from reading it.
Perhaps to console middle-aged and retired autodidacts and former English majors, who know they know how to read and are frustrated by the fact that they can’t express their own opinions without being challenged. Perhaps to give them talking points for responding to such (explicit or implicit) challenges.
Perhaps to encourage what general readers may actually remain (and have time for books like his) to discuss the ideas it contains with their friends and colleagues after work or during their lunch hours.
Of course, it’s more than probable that Bauerlein had no such rhetorical intention. Perhaps he is simply articulating the beliefs of those he considers the entire educated class. In fact, I have little real doubt that he sees himself as doing something quite different from what I describe above.
As a conservative and an English professor, naturally, I think, he writes a kind of book that is really rather traditional. He assumes no subject matter expertise and, indeed, prefers no such expertise. Though he seems to have no problem turning reading itself into an expert skill. He assumes a unitary culture and even proceeds as if one existed. Though, at the same time, he is continually discovering individuals and groups that don’t properly belong to it. Though he dehumanizes those he disagrees with by referring to them as a faceless horde with an ugly name like “technophiles” or “technovangelists”: almost a metaphysical cause in itself—like Tony Kushner’s imagination of what an angel is—here, though, a fallen, Satanic angel. It’s the continual casting out of the other that really grates, but maybe I ought to ignore that. After all, none of us are without sin.
He is writing for a general audience: not political, not professional or technical. He is writing an old-fashioned kind of book, the kind of book that can be read by all educated men and women. His book is not at all of a type that can be read and be of use only to wonks, to bureaucrats and technocrats and low-level government clerks. His book is, precisely, a book that informs educated men and women of what’s going on behind the scenes in the social and governmental institutions that determine what their lives will be like (on those infrequent occasions when they interact with such institutions). His readers do not themselves work within those institutions, and they don’t have any influence on the controlling beliefs within those institutions either (except the small incremental influence any one of us has, and uses when we talk among ourselves or raise concerns with authority figures). His readers are educated and at least vaguely conservative and much like himself.
interpretation, however, while generous to Mark Bauerlein, leaves this
out in the cold.