First Things editor Mark Bauerlein joins Brian Anderson to discuss the woes of Millennials and Zoomers, the technological roots of social dysfunction, and the elusive search for meaning in the twenty-first century. His newest book, The Dumbest Generation Grows Up, is out now.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Mark Bauerlein. Mark is a senior editor of First Things magazine and an English professor at Emory University. He hosts the First Thoughts podcast, which First Things runs, and he's the author of many books, including something brand new called The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults. Mark, thanks very much for joining us.

Mark Bauerlein: I'm very happy to join you there at City Journal. I've been reading it for a long time. You've got such a great stable of writers. I'm going back to the first stuff I was reading by Heather Mac Donald and Sol Stern and Fred Siegel. Actually, I'll say Heather's book The Burden of Bad Ideas, which really was a compilation, weren't most of those pieces out of City Journal?

Brian Anderson: Yes, that's right. That was her first book. It was a compilation mostly, but the essays were updated and turned into more of a straightforward narrative. But yeah, they were all based on City Journal pieces.

Mark Bauerlein: That was actually an important book for me because I was a very staunch liberal and academic, English department in the '90s, and just reading some other things, including Heather's book, opened things up for me and I started to drift a little to the right. One thing I found was that once you move a little to the right and then you suddenly see a few suspicious looks on your colleagues' faces, it pushes you a little further to the right. It's a process that then builds into an avalanche.

Brian Anderson: Once you start moving in one direction, you just keep moving. It's true. Well, that's been the case with you, Mark, I would say.

Well, let's talk about this new book. In a way, it's an update of your 2008 book, The Dumbest Generation, which was published at a period when a lot of optimistic observers were talking about the rise of the millennials. Seeing this generation as having been reared on the internet, raised in this information-dense world, they were pretty positive that they were going to usher in this more just, more interconnected, and a better world once they grew up. I think even the most committed optimist these days about the digital natives would concede that that's not what's happened. What's changed between the original book, The Dumbest Generation, and this 2022 version about these dangerous adults?

Mark Bauerlein: Well, that cheerleading for the millennials that we heard in '05, '06, '07, "They're so young, and they're smart, and they're innovative, and they're ambitious. They're going to college in record numbers. They got these great tolerant, open-minded, broad-thinking attitudes. They elected our first African-American president." They went two-to-one for Obama after, by the way, Bush and Gore split the youth vote. But boy, did that change over the eight years' time.

But that was really part of a general enthusiasm going on in the first decade of the third millennium for Web 2.0, as it was called. People probably don't remember much that term, but it was real hot in those first years after social media. A more interactive, participatory venue set in so that people could do things like do product reviews. They could talk back. They weren't just passive couch potatoes as TV watchers. This was said to spark more critical thinking, more problem solving, more active, discerning consumption and commentary in American life, and that the millennials would lead the way.

Facebook had all this glamor, Google. MySpace was beginning to fade after a few years there. Twitter just came along in '07, '08. There was just an enthusiasm. It was the new millennium, and the millennials are the ones who are going to define this epoch that we were in.

I looked at this, and because of my old-fashioned, bookish ways, and saw between classes on the quad, all these students are staring at this little screen as they walk from building to building. They've been out of the network for 90 minutes, for an hour in class; now they've got to check and see what's going on. I go up to the library, and the library is not a library anymore. It's an information center. They were wiring everything. All the classrooms were starting to have computers in them.

I thought, "This really isn't a good thing for our culture." It's not a good thing for 15-year-olds to walk around with 200 photos of themselves in their pockets at all times. It was building a youth world around them. I couldn't share when I was that age, when I was 15. There was only one screen in the house, and it was with these guys, some Huntley-Brinkley stuff, some Walter Cronkite fellow that I wasn't interested in talking about Watergate, but I didn't have another screen to go to. I didn't have another phone. There was only one in the house. It was in the wall, and it wasn't my phone.

I couldn't fabricate a youth reality for myself at all times. They could. They had the tools now. They go in their bedroom, they shut the door, they've got the screens on. The music is playing. The TV is usually on. The media saturation was enormous, and it was purveying youth stuff. It wasn't giving us the great universe of knowledge.

It was great. The internet had everything. YouTube had tons of great stuff. I would use clips from YouTube in my classes of Jack Kerouac reading from a book on The Steve Allen Show. While Steve Allen is playing his little tinkly blues piano, Kerouac is reading, and he turned the show over to Kerouac for three or four minutes. That's great stuff, but that's not where the kids were going. 15-year-olds, they care about other 15-year-olds. That's what matters. That's where the stakes are. Shunned by other 15-year-olds? That's a fate worse than death for them.

I thought, "They're not being prepared for the rigors of citizenship in a free republic." They are not getting the grown-up materials, the grown-up pressures of history and politics and current affairs and past affairs, great heroes, great villains, great love stories from the ages, that are antidote to youth culture. You need peer pressure and you need adult pressure. They season the young American to become, again, a responsible citizen ready for the rigors of pluralism. They didn't get that.

That book came out. The timing was right. I got lucky. People were getting sick of hearing all the enthusiasm for the kids for being online all the time. There were a lot of accusations, "This is just another Luddite complaint" and "Grandpa get off my lawn," about the young, to which I said, "You got that right."

15 years later, here we are, and Brian, how are they doing? These millennials are not the confident, optimistic, ambitious characters they were when they were teenagers. There's a sour mood that prevails. I include in the book a lot of the social science data, these surveys and polls. Self-reporting numbers on depression is up, and anxiety and narcissism. Who would've thought they'd become narcissists when we handed them a tool that would let them photograph the food they're going to ingest 10 seconds later and share it with everyone, as if that matters?

They have high levels of social mistrust. They are suspicious of their fellow citizens, much more so than older cohorts. They have a more vindictive sense of social affairs, so that if they see an injustice happen, even a microaggression, tiny, little microaggression, they really want to see punishment happen. There's a vengefulness in the millennial. That's why I have pages here on how they really lead the way on the cancel culture going on. They're willing to sign a petition with thousands of others to get someone fired for a dumb joke on Facebook.

Brian Anderson: Yeah, and there's really no forgiveness either. It's very interesting. It's almost post-Christian in that sense.

Mark Bauerlein: There's a mercilessness, an un-generousness about it. People talk about the woke thing as a religion, and it certainly has a lot of zeal, a lot of passions that go deep into the heart and soul. Joshua Mitchell talks about it. He makes a whole book on this issue, that there really is... You repent, but the forgiveness doesn't come. It is permanent guilt, permanent apology. That's the condition that you are in.

Now it operates along group lines, group identity lines, and this isn't making people happier. I say the millennials are big on this because of what they didn't get when they were in those teenage years. They didn't get civilization in big terms. They didn't come to feel they're entering a world in which they stand in the wake, in the shadow of greatness, of brilliance, of genius, of the beautiful and the good.

We know there are villains; we know that there are sins out there. But let's let them realize what Valley Forge really demanded of Washington and those troops. Let's try to look at what Beethoven's Ninth, what heights does that reach? Let's look at Gatsby and his idealization of love and reliving the past. Then, of course, give them religion. Give some transcendent orientation so that-

Brian Anderson: Well, that's right. The major theme here is the dominance of relativism, so I wonder what the connection is with the proliferation of these narcissistic mirrors, these technologies and the dominance of relativism. On most moral and cultural epistemological matters, young people are, and this has been the case for a while now, denying the possibility of objective truths. Who's to say that the Western canon is worth reading? Who's to say that European or American culture offers more possibilities for human flourishing than that of Iran?

You talk about this in that 2008 book, that students would often insist upon relativism in one breath, but then be really censorious and rendering absolute moral value judgements in another, yet without perceiving the contradiction. I wonder, in the shift to 2022, is this still the case? Is the woke religion more coherent? Does it really embrace something that goes beyond relativism?

Mark Bauerlein: I think that the woke religion certainly surpasses relativism, the kind of liberal relativism of "Let's not believe in anything too strongly. Let's all get along. Let's not push any values too hard. Live and let live" kind of thing. I think what we see in the woke is that that liberal soft relativism, it doesn't work. It doesn't feed the soul. It has no spiritual content, and people want spiritual content.

I think that the woke young are looking for purpose and meaning in their lives. They realize that in that relativistic world, yeah, getting on Facebook, having fun, building your friend network, it's all about the present moment. It's all about instant responses to things. It's all social, and it pulls people away from moments of solitude and contemplation that put them in touch with more solid realities, the deeper gods, the strong gods, as rusty Reno will put it.

What we see with the woke, you've got the activists and the impresarios of woke, that core few, like the founders of Black Lives Matter. I don't mean them. I mean all of the fellow travelers of woke, the people who are actually willing to go along with identity politics, among the young, the millennials. This is a later stage of liberal relativism which enters into, again, the hunger which doesn't know where to go to be fed, to be fed properly, to be fed well.

I think it does play into the social media worlds of the young in that one of the crucial things, I mentioned a moment ago, one of the crucial things you must do when you are young is learn to be alone. Contemplation can't happen when you are diverting yourself with the back and forth of social contact. Religious leaders know. Jesus knows. He has to pull away. He's got to get away from everyone. Now, He gets away in order to be with the Father.

But anything to pull them out of the social circuit, so this is time for silence, for prayer, for reflection, for examining yourself a little bit outside of that immediate back and forth and the patter of youth stuff, they find that it's not satisfying. Relativism doesn't do it for them.

Identity politics, political correctness, the woke, it's a deeply moral vision. It's a twisted one, but it's solid. It gives you good guys and bad guys. It gives you a historical model. The past is a time of injustice; the future will be a time of justice if we fight for it.

There is providential meaning that enters into their lives when they go out and join the march for Black Lives Matter. For once, they can get involved in a movement, a cause, a metaphysics that is more than building their friends network. It seems real to them in a way that the "do your own thing, hang out, do your Daily Me," as it used to be called back in 2010, in which you're able to fabricate your own wonderful, self-affirming world with the right friends and the right news feed so you don't have to encounter anything disagreeable or contrary. Here, I'm getting into a bigger movement, a bigger reality. There's the purpose. There is where I can find the meaning of life.

Brian, you know back in the mid-20th century there was talk about man's search for meaning, existentialism. Where are we in the universe? Those questions went away for a while. I think they're coming back with this, but they're coming back in the wrong way because we took the legacy of civilization away from the young when they needed it. The boomers, we still got the remnants of that, the great American novel, Western Civ, the greatness of Shakespeare and Mozart. It still was there a little bit when we were young. Leonard Bernstein doing his young people's concerts in the '60s, which were fabulously popular. He's doing Mahler for 10-year-olds. It was amazing, and people loved it all across the country. It was a sensation. The young today, they don't get anything like that.

Brian Anderson: Yeah, I wonder how much that really... It makes me just wonder whether we can develop, as a culture, a healthy use of technology. You look at something like TikTok, and you have these fragments of meaning. How is that going to do justice to the search for meaning or complicated technical subjects? There's viral videos that are out there with zoomers demanding to know why inflation can't just be curbed by the government saying, "Don't let it happen." There is a kind of expectation that everything can be handled in some kind of top-down, immediate fashion, that you can just make your will reality.

How much of that, I guess, is again a consequence of just an educational breakdown, which is really what you've been talking about, or how much of it is being fed by the proliferation of these technologies? I guess these two things can work in tandem, but what do we do about it? What kind of a practice can we develop that might steer people in a healthier direction?

Mark Bauerlein: The technology is very hard to combat. For one thing, it came in so quickly. It hit our society... Web 2.0, it was like a tidal wave. It inundated everyone, and the kids picked it up very quickly. What they did was... When I said they went into their bedrooms, they were, again, able to create a reality in which you can stop inflation. Just stop it. The world would accord with their wishes when they were in that bedroom. It was a utopian space.

If you're on Facebook with someone, you got 400 friends, and one of those friends starts saying things you don't like, Brian, what do you do? You unfriend that person. They've been canceling since they were 12. You could block anything you didn't like. You just block it out. That was the wonderful thing about these tools for the 15-year-olds.

Then the educational breakdown you refer to, the mentors, my colleagues, my generation did not insist, "Stop. Put down that phone. Close the screen. Log off. Tune off. Tune out." My generation didn't want to do that because most of the mentors, most boomer mentors, in mentor positions, are liberal, and liberals don't want to condemn people for their cultural choices. They don't want to judge. They don't want to say rap music is garbage. I'll say it, but they don't want to say that. They would not exercise their mentoring roles.

You asked what do we do, and if there's any way to use the technology. Well, if you take an example like Jordan Peterson, Brian, his YouTube videos were a sensation for the young. What that showed was a way... In a way, it's just watching TV. It wasn't a very innovative use of the technology, but his lectures really struck a note, on the Bible. He's talking about the Bible, ancient myth, social psychologies, bringing all that Peterson stuff into discussions.

The 16-year-old, mostly boys, because boys are the vast majority of YouTube audience, mostly boys, they loved it. They ate it up, because here was a mentor talking about the deep questions, the meaning of life, what are you going to do with yourself, and they responded because they were hungry and they weren't getting it in their classrooms. They weren't getting it with their friends, their buddies. That's cause for optimism. This sour mood of the millennials now shows this isn't working for them. They should have gotten better. We failed them.

The mentors, boomer and X mentors, failed the millennials. That's why the first sentence of this book is, "What have we done to them?" We got rid of all the requirement of Western Civilization. We didn't talk to them in college about beauty, the elevation of taste. We didn't talk about great love stories in any kind of passionate way to pass along to them.

What did we do? We said, "Well, let's all be critical thinkers. Let's do more problem solving." What a bore. The kids just sat there and say, "Okay, college is for fun and for getting a job. As for the humanistic development, the civic development, the improvement of my aesthetic sense of things, forget it." They didn't get that, and now they're feeling the pain.

Brian Anderson: Well, it's a very, very interesting updating of your argument, Mark. It's called The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults. It's available now, so don't forget to check that out. We'll link to it in the description. Mark has also written for City Journal from time to time. We're always welcoming of his contributions.

You can find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal, and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. As always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us ratings on iTunes.

Brian Anderson: Mark Bauerlein, thank you very, very much for coming on today.

Mark Bauerlein: Thank you for having me.

Photo: Halfpoint/iStock

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