Mark Bauerlein thinks he knows. Bauerlein is an Emory University English professor and author of the Book "The Dumbest Generation." This provocatively titled tome charts how young people aren't interested in reading or learning period, whether it's to scan news headlines or to crack open "The Canterbury Tales."
Bauerlein's argument is borne out by statistics, and the numbers are grim. A Pew Research Center survey found that people age 18-34 are consistently less knowledgeable about current events than their elders. On a current events quiz, young adults averaged 5.9 correct answers out of 12 questions, fewer than the averages for Americans ages 35 to 49 (7.8) and above age 50 (8.4).
The survey found that the knowledge gap was widest on foreign affairs. Only about half (52 percent) of those younger than 35 knew that Pakistan and Afghanistan share a border, compared with 71 percent of those ages 35 to 49, and 80 percent of those 50 and older.
Bauerlein says young people are in the thrall of Facebook, texting and other digital distractions that keep them from learning about anything more meaningful than, say, who went with whom to the school dance.
"What do 15-year-olds care about? They care about what all the other 15-year-olds are doing," Bauerlein says. "Anything that puts them in touch with one another they're going to use."
"Now when little Billy acts up and his parents say go to your room, Billy goes to his room and he's got the laptop, the video game console, everything. Kids can conduct their social life anywhere," he adds.
And when it comes to the news, "Who cares about some guys over in England jockeying over who's going to run the government there when kids can talk about what happened at the party last weekend?"
Bauerlein hastens to add that he's not a luddite. But he says the digital age has changed something fundamental about the family structure, and the result is that young people are less closely under the guidance of adults than ever before.
"Now they can tune out adult voices all the way through adolescence," he says. "This has never happened before in human history."
Left unchecked, these developments could result in a new age dark of ignorance, Bauerlein warns, or as a blurb for his book puts it, "Sacrificing our future to the least curious and intellectual generation in national history."
Change must come from parents and teachers, Bauerlien says. "Parents have to learn to be more vigilant," he says. "It's amazing how many parents don't even know their kids have a Facebook account. They don't know how intense the media environment is for a 13-year-old.
"You need to disconnect kids from each other for some critical hours of the day," he adds. "You need a critical balance where you are exposing kids to realities that transcend their world."
And if that doesn't work, Bauerlein advises trying self-interest.
"I give speeches to 18-year-old boys who don't read the paper and I say, 'You're in college and just met the girl of your dreams. She takes you home to meet her parents. Over the dinner table her father says something about Ronald Reagan, and you don't know who he was. Guess what? You just went down in their estimation and probably in your girlfriend's estimation as well. Is that what you want?'"
Bauerlein tells students that "reading the paper gives you more breadth of knowledge. it means you can say something about the First Amendment. It means you know what the Supreme Court is.
"I tell them, 'If you don't read the paper you're less of a citizen. If you don't read a paper you're not a good American.'"