Calling students dumb is just dumb

I’ve just read one of those predictable articles claiming that today’s students are the “dumbest generation” (via Judy Gombita), with the blame placed on digital technology.

This time the story is generated by an author, Mark Bauerlein, promoting his book – so I suppose we should applaud the press agentry skills at work here. 

As Newsweek actually reminds us, Bauerlein’s allegation has been around since the time of the Ancient Greeks, when the equivalent grumpy old men were bemoaning young upstarts.

Having spent many hours marking first year undergraduate exam papers last month, I would certainly support criticism of writing abilities, as evidently many candidates have not been taught the basics of English (all together now, i before e, except after c).

But to label an entire generation as dumb, is just conspicuously unintelligent or stupid.  As Newsweek points out: “if dumb means lacking such fundamental cognitive capacities as the ability to think critically and logically, to analyze an argument, to learn and remember, to see analogies, to distinguish fact from opinion … well, here Bauerlein is on shakier ground.”

My disappointment in working with so called Digital Natives, is that those currently at University often haven’t grasped the real potential of technology to enhance their learning experience. 

We cannot blame the tools because users make poor use of them.  For example, the ability to read original journal articles online (from the comfort of your own PC) is a great advantage.  I consider those who use it to cut and paste or plagiarise are dumb – but they might argue they’re being smart if that enables them to pass courses easily.  In which case it is the tutors who facilitate this type of lazy studies who need to rethink how best to assess the skills expected and required of today’s generation.

With the focus on students as consumers, who pay a small fortune to gain qualifications, no wonder they want the quick and easy option for passing.  Why should they spend their time reading for the pleasure of expanding their knowledge or improving their writing abilities? 

Those who are able to make an intelligent argument, demonstrating real understanding, often struggle to do this in writing or within the constraints of a 60 minute exam, where their ability to recall facts can let them down.  But, shouldn’t those who are vocally articulate be rewarded over those who simply have a good memory?  Not if we continue to test them with exams.

Shifting to assignments carries the risk of “cut and paste” answers – but not if you devise an assessment that requires application of higher order skills. 

As so often proven in the modern world, the wrong measure encourages the wrong behaviour.  Until we fail candidates for poor use of English, too many will continue to enter the workforce unable to spell or write to an acceptable standard. 

At the same time, ensuring students are recognised and rewarded for wider reading, good writing and demonstrating contextual understanding, must be better than coaching them in a topic that is known to appear on an exam paper in order to guarantee 100% pass rate.


  1. Mark says:

    I hope, Heather, you take a look at the book. It contains mounds of research on leisure habits and educational achievement of the young.


  2. phi says:

    Every 10 years some idiot claims that the youth generation is ‘dumb’.

    Well it’s pretty dumb to make the charge, especially when there are a couple of people saying it. Sure, American youth lag behind in academics compared to their counterparts worldwide, but it doesn’t make them dumb.

    No wonder no one reads newspapers any more.

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