NEW YORK - Who hasn't snickered at "Jaywalking," a "Tonight Show" segment in which host Jay Leno flummoxes unsuspecting young people on the street with such tricky questions as: In what country is Paris located?
Or cringed to see Miss America 2007 humiliated by a brainy bunch of 10-year-olds - who just happened to know the sun is the heavenly body with the greatest mass in our solar system - on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? Or witnessed the consternation of a cashier presented with a $20 bill and two quarters for a $12.50 tab?
Some consider such deficits in knowledge and ability no laughing matter, citing it as evidence of the "dumbing down" of Americans, particularly young adults. Others believe any apparent decline in book smarts simply reflects the evolution of new ways of learning and "knowing," forged in a fast-paced wireless world where the data of the ages are downloaded in a nanosecond at the touch of a keyboard.
So, which is it? No one really knows. But the topic clearly is percolating through the popular culture: Read the less-than-reassuring poll of "What Do Americans Know" in Newsweek's July 7-14 "Global Literacy 2008" issue. Or the cover story in The Atlantic magazine's July/August issue: "Is Google Making Us Stoopid? What the Internet is doing to our brains." Or the just-published DISTRACTED: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson.
The question is hotly debated in academic circles, where Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein further turned up the temperature with his recent book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future." Its subtitle: Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30.
That last phrase, a play on the hippie counterculture mantra "Don't trust anyone over 30," underscores that many of yesterday's hippies are today's baby boomers. Confronting criticism of the younger generation's perceived shortcomings by the older generation, one might be tempted to ask: Wasn't it always thus?
"Kids have always been weak on history, weak on civics. The point about 'the dumbest generation' is probably a provocation more than an accurate description of simple comparisons," said Bauerlein, 49, who doesn't question the intelligence of young Americans but their intellectual health.
The difference he sees between the current generation and those of the past: "No generation in American history has enjoyed so much access to knowledge."
Yet, often, "when they give the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, more than half the 12th-graders score 'below basic,' which is roughly a D and an F," said Bauerlein, referring to a federal assessment program, mainly in reading and math, that is dubbed the "Nation's Report Card."
Bauerlein attributes this to a number of things, including lack of reading and new habits of mind geared to absorb information by the byte-size, warp-speed, quick-hit and visually eye-popping standards of the Internet.
Ironically, Web sites demand that people read, but their information often is more to be accessed than retained, more to be consumed than assessed and more to be gulped than savored, unlike a book, a poem or a lengthy article. "The material isn't lodging in their minds. There is not enough internalization of knowledge," Bauerlein said.
He recalled assigning a class to memorize a 20-line poem, and a student asked him why. "The idea of memorizing a poem doesn't make sense [to kids] because in a digital world, they can always call it up."
To memorize, "they have to think, visualize, get the rhythm of the language. It's slow, slow reading, and this works against all their screen habits, which are ever faster," Bauerlein said.
Americans may have more access to information but "think also of the unprecedented overload," said Gerald Graff, president of the Modern Language Association and professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "The more accessible knowledge becomes, the more things there are to be ignorant about. Knowledge has increased, but the human capacity for knowledge hasn't increased that much," he said.
In fact, in its "What Americans Know: 1989-2007" survey, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found public knowledge of national and international affairs had changed little in 20 years, despite the emergence of 24-hour news channels and the Internet and dramatic increases in education levels; half of those surveyed would earn an F.
The least informed were those age 18 to 29, part of the same group that least follows the news, in any medium, according to David Mindich, a journalism professor at Vermont's St. Michael's College and author of the book Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News. He is concerned about the potential effect of this on democracy because "the only way to hold leaders accountable is if you're really focusing on what they're doing."
In the workplace, there is a discernible difference between this generation and the boomers, said Mary Ann Downey, an executive with the Seattle-based Institute for Corporate Productivity, a membership organization focused on improving workforce productivity.
"I don't believe the younger workers coming in have the critical thinking skills and the creative thinking skills that are required," she said.
Downey added that employers also complain that young employees, unlike their parents, often have no patience for learning the ropes and tend to quit when frustrated.
Older generations have always found empty-headedness among the young, said Graff, quoting from the inaugural address of a former Modern Language Association president: "You are all aware of how dangerous it is to assume, on the part of our college classes, any definite knowledge of any subject." The speaker: Harvard professor Charles Hall Grandgent. The year: 1911.