George F. Will: How Millennials Became Illiberal, Censorious Young Adults

From a Washington Post column by George F. Will headlined “How millennials became aggressively illiberal, censorious young adults”:

Time was, conscientious parents fretted about “summer learning loss.” Now, when much of what schools do subtracts from understanding, summer could at least be a time for recuperation from educational malpractice — were summer not just another season of screen addictions for young people deformed by this digital age.

In 2008, Americans were being inundated by journalism performing anticipatory sociology. “Techno-cheerleaders” — Mark Bauerlein’s term — predicted that millennials (born 1981-1996), the first generation suckled by their digital devices, would dazzle the world with the sublime personal and social consequences of their mind-melds with those devices. And their emancipation from the dead hand of everything prior. Bauerlein, Emory University professor of English, dissented.

Fourteen years ago, in “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)” he anticipated that millennials were going to become “unsatisfied and confused” adults, bereft of the consolations of a cultural inheritance, which is unavailable to nonreaders. They would be gripped by the furies of brittle people bewildered by encounters with disagreement, which they find inexplicable. And by the apocalyptic terrors that afflict frustrated utopians, the only kind there is.

Immersed in social media that have “contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them,” unable to “think beyond the clique and the schoolyard,” they pay the severe “opportunity costs of digital diversions” — “mind-maturing activities” forgone, such as learning a language, mastering a musical instrument, following the real politics of governance. Books are the best “reprieve from the bombardment” of the digital age, but the bombardment makes young people “bibliophobes,” drawing them into “the maelstrom of youth amusements.”

He knew in 2008 that his lament about “a low-reading, high-viewing childhood” would get him dismissed as a “kids these days” scold. Today, he has nothing to regret but the fact that he was prescient. In “The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults,” he reminds us that YouTube’s original motto was “Broadcast Yourself,” an invitation to self-absorption and self-celebration. In 2010, with 15-year-olds averaging eight hours of media a day (42 percent more minutes in lower-income than in higher-income households), children were constantly absorbed in youth culture and peer pressure, all of it flooding “the pleasure centers of the developing brain.”

Confined to the moment, children relished “a radical discontinuity with the past” because it “lifted the burden of the monuments, the greats, the heroes and geniuses, all the things that can make an adolescent feel small.” An educational fad reinforced this: A teacher would not be a “sage on the stage” but a “guide on the side,” with students “taking ownership” of their education. This obscured the truth that adolescence is an episode inferior to adulthood, which is “a realm of civic, historical, and cultural awareness that puts them in touch with perennial ideas and struggles.”

The stage was set for the “overproduction of elites,” churning out college graduates who, flattered since middle school, felt themselves of historic importance because they lacked knowledge of history. Which is a chastening record of the wreckage of egalitarian utopias imagined by people boundlessly pleased with themselves for being the first to understand “social justice.”

Bauerlein is telling the origin story of today’s cohort of aggressively illiberal, censorious young adults: “The fractious, know-nothing thirty-year-old is what we got when we let the twelve-year-old drop his books and take up the screen.” Those 13-to-17-year-olds who had mobile devices in 2010 were, according to Nielsen data, averaging more than 100 texts sent a day (3,339 per month). Now they are adults. Sort of.

Hence the youthful millions who are sour, humorless and disappointed — with America, and everything else less perfect than they. They are fluent in the thin-gruel cant (diversity, inclusion, equity, anti-racism, antipatriarchy, antiheteronormativity, etc.) of ostensibly political but actually just emotionally satisfying performative demands.

Abundant data confirm that they have read remarkably little. As Bauerlein says, unacquainted with literature, they are content with cliches. Ignorant of history, and hence of political possibilities, they cultivate bitter victimhood. “If there is no past that deserves their attention, if they are given only yesteryears fraught with shame, heroes with clay feet and clay hearts, too, the present becomes a barren habitat,” he writes.

In a flattened world drained of greatness, today’s steep decline of humanities majors among undergraduates is a lagging indicator of lack of interest in humanity’s lessons learned on the path to the present. Given this nation’s unhappy present, it is remarkable to remember that the arrival of screen-soaked lives was cheerily announced as the next stage of the “information age.” LOL.

George F. Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977. His latest book, “American Happiness and Discontents,” was released in September 2021.

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