Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University, made headlines in 2008 by declaring today’s young people the “dumbest generation.” At least that was the title he used for a book describing the impact of the digital culture on young Americans. He discussed that impact with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: Some members of our audience should know whether to feel insulted. Who are you describing when you talk about the “dumbest generation”?

Bauerlein: I’m talking about people who have really grown up with digital technology from kindergarten onward, so all these digital tools have been in classrooms, in their homes, from formative ages, and this has really entered into their lives from really the first learning ages. The influence of digital technology and digital tools on their learning development, their intellectual development, I think while on the one hand has provided enormous access and wondrous knowledge and information at their fingertips, it has on the other hand produced some deterioration of certain aptitudes.

Kokai: Calling this group The Dumbest Generation sounds pretty harsh.

Bauerlein: It is a harsh judgment, and it’s a provocative one, and I really understand the title here as a provocation more than an empirical description of the young. Young people today are actually showing very many positive behavioral measures. We have lower rates of violent crime, lower rates of illegitimacy, better attitudes towards parents, better educational pursuit — more AP course taking for instance — and more enrollment in college.

However, when we look at measures of knowledge, measures of actual understanding in areas of history, of civics, of fine arts, culture, current events, foreign affairs — those sorts of traditional liberal arts subjects — we see astonishingly abysmal numbers. The level of ignorance, for instance, in U.S. history is quite distressing. Every time the U.S. Department of Education gives the U.S. National History Exam, more than half of seniors in high school score “below basic,” according to the scoring, which is essentially an F.

For instance, in 2001, when they gave the U.S. history exam, one question was, “Which of the following countries was our ally in World War II?” The choices were Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Fifty-two percent of high school seniors chose Germany or Italy or Japan. This is astonishing, because World War II is a popular culture subject, not just a classroom subject, and in order not to know that the Soviet Union was our ally in that conflict, you have to see this as more than just passive ignorance — not reading your textbooks carefully.

It really means you are actively shielded from this type of historical knowledge, that there’s another force in young people’s lives that is closing them off from this kind of understanding and knowledge, and that’s where we get into the power of digital culture in young people’s lives.

That’s where we see digital culture not serving the purposes of opening young people up into the great big world of history and fine arts and civics and foreign affairs and so on. Actually, it is shielding them from those things.

Kokai: So if digital technology is causing these problems, what do we do about it?

Bauerlein: This is the tough question, and this is the question that always hits at the end of these discussions. What do we do about it? It’s a really, really sticky thing because you’re dealing with two extraordinarily powerful forces.

One, all of the marketing, the consumerism, the industry behind all these digital tools — you go to the mall and walk inside the Apple store, and you will see an abundance of consumer goods and commodities that are fun and exciting. All the kids are in there running around, and they want to have them: the iPhone, the iPod, and so on. So you’ve got a whole industry supporting this, and it has consumer cachet among the young. That’s one thing.

The other thing is this extraordinarily powerful force in our society, which is the collective will of teenagers, the capacity to imitate one another, to reflect one another, to be like one another, to exclude one another, all the forms of tribalism that go into high school, come into play with these tools. And so we have to understand before we can see what to do about it, we have to understand the depth of social meaning that these tools have. If you want to see that, just go to a 17-year-old and say, “You have to give up your cell phone for two days,” and you see what that means for that 17-year-old. A parent can no longer say, “Go to your room! You’re grounded!” No, the room is a command center. The room opens them up to all of their friends because they have the blog, the personal profile page, the laptop, the cell phone, the text messaging, and so on where they keep in touch with one another.

If you really want to punish a 17-year-old, all you have to do is say, “Go outside and play, and leave your cell phone and Blackberry at home.” That is exile. That is banishment for them. That underscores the power of these tools.

So the recipe I offer to parents is, look, one hour a day you have the family disconnect, log off, shut down, and go into a room and read. And read whatever you want. Read the newspaper, read Harry Potter, read Conan novels, read The Daring Book for Girls. It doesn’t have to be Moby Dick every time, but the parents have to do it, too. The parents have to model for their kids reading. And it shows the kids this is what adults do. This is what you do if you’re a responsible person in a democracy. You read. You stay informed. You’re not always out there connecting with your buddies.

After the one hour is over, go ahead, go on back to your blog, to your cell phone. Check your messages, whatever you need. But parents have to carve out a space vigilantly in the day in which you’re going to do something else. You’re going to pay attention to some adult matters. You’re going to read a long book without interruption. The cell phone’s not going to buzz. The computer is not going to ding an e-mail through. And in that one hour a day, it will accumulate into something significant over the years.

That’s what I say within the home. On college campuses, it’s a different matter — in the education system. For one thing, there is a tidal wave to digitalize classrooms everywhere you can. And we all know that technology is the wave of education, but I think it’s very important for educators to realize that there are certain habits of mind and communication that screens are not conducive to.

I would summarize these in just calling them slow reading and slow writing, and you can see the contrast simply by standing behind an 18-year-old in a library or at a computer. Watch that person go through Web pages online. It is fast. Watch them read. See how long it takes for them to read a page. They don’t read linearly. They don’t read all the words. They look for visual clues, bullet points, catch phrases, keywords, and they pass on. It’s a fast information retrieval system, and this does not cultivate the forms of attention and analysis and deliberation that are very important in a lot of workplace environments.