Loving Mediocrity: The Digital Generation vs. “David Copperfield”

Will they get off the phone to read David Copperfield?

The other day I blogged about a teacher who claimed in a post at a Millennial blog that she hates the classics.  Not only does she loathe Jack Kerouac, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Bronte, but she believes that Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the seventeenth century.  

I wish I hadn’t read this woman’s boastful declaration of ignorance.  Why ? Because I do not want to be the kind of person who despises the younger generation. 

“This is the end,” my husband said, laughing.

 It is, though we laugh.  We dismiss this problem from our mind, because it is not our line of work.

This problem of barely literate, proud, classics-bashing students is becoming the norm, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, The American Scholar, and The New York Times. We have all read about students who demand “trigger warnings” and decline to read books on the syllabus that may trigger bad memories.  (That makes for a lighter reading load, doesn’t it?)   And if I may interject something  controversial, we all have been (choose one or more) cyber-bullied, sexually harasssed, threatened, beaten, mugged, raped, or traumatized by war.  Reading great disturbing literature  can even be therapeutic.

There is now a glut of articles about falling enrollment in the humanities. The digital age has changed the ball game: YouTube, Twitter, and other social media are now frantically integrated in some classes to engage students.  Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future,  believes attention spans have shortened since he published his book in 2009.  His thesis  is “that youths are too caught up in social media to outgrow adolescent ignorance.” 

Nowadays, it is worse, he says.  Instead of just making phone calls, students write 3,500 texts a month and take countless selfies.  He says, “ I disallow screens in my classes and make freshmen write papers by hand, preferably in cursive. Between classes, I sit on the quad and count the kids rushing from one building to another as they focus on that tiny screen to see what monumental things have happened during their 90 minutes offline.”

In The American Scholar, Paula Marantz Cohen, dean of the Pennoni Honors College and professor of English at Drexel  University, writes about  teaching a 10-week one-credit course on Dickens’s David Copperfield.  Most of the students read very little, but committing to one long book  a semester gets them to engage with a classic.  She is proud of the success of this program and has expanded it.  She wrote in 2016,  “A filmmaker colleague will teach John Ford’s classic exploration of racism, The Searchers, in the summer, and an art history professor will teach Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic, paintings that depict the evolution of surgical procedure, in the fall, when they will be hanging together in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Again, sounds like a light load, doesn’t it?  But many students admitted to Cohen that they thought David Copperfield was the magician! Now they’ve read the book.

Bravo!  Whatever works.

N.B.  There have always been mediocre, even bad, teachers. I do not mean to idealize the teachers of my generation.  During my teaching days,  I once sat in on a college composition class in which the students were asked to do two things:  free writing for fifteen minutes (most spent it surfing on the net on their computers) and then the teacher went around the class and asked each student to identify the beginning and end of a paragraph in an essay.  No discussion of the essay, mind.  Just look at the indentations. Surely we weren’t first-grade prodigies, but we learned about paragraphs  from the Dick and Jane basal reader!

4 thoughts on “Loving Mediocrity: The Digital Generation vs. “David Copperfield””

  1. Great post–lots of interesting points. I think there’s a lot of room for debate on whether or not college students “appreciate” things like the classics. I was an English major at a top-15 university, so I guess I was from a weird subset, but my classmates and I absolutely LOVED classics. Lots of lovers of 20th century, especially–James Joyce (one of my favorites), Virginia Woolf, and that lot. And feminist evaluations of older authors like Austen and the Bronte sisters.

    And people like to mock those who ask for trigger warnings, but in just about all cases, they aren’t asking because they’re going to boycott the material; they ask so they can be prepared when they do read it, either physically (for example, if it might cause you to have an episode or panic attack, you can make sure to read it in your room rather than in public and then process the material before going to class) or mentally (if you are in a depressive episode and the book involves suicide that might trigger more thoughts from you, you can make sure you are in an okay mindset to do the reading and face that material). It is almost never about avoidance, just a courtesy. And it takes almost no effort to say, “Oh, by the way, this book has a graphic rape scene/suicide attempt/ton of racial violence/other difficult topic” so students aren’t taken by surprise.

    Also, just a note–not on you specifically, but Millennials are now all in their mid-20s or well into their 30s by now. I’m 23 and from the cusp of Millennial/Gen Z, meaning almost a current college students are actually Gen Z. “Millennial” somehow became slang for “entitled/immature young person,” but its demographic doesn’t even meet that description anymore! A small detail, I guess, but it drives me nuts. (Again, that’s nothing on you–some of the studies you cited are from 10 years ago, when Millennials actually were college kids! It just doesn’t describe the current college population.)

    …if this comment is somewhat incoherent, I apologize–I’m exhausted, but wanted to drop my two cents and wasn’t sure I would remember or be able to relocate this tomorrow 😅

    1. Thank you for clarifying many points. It’s a bad time for the liberal arts in general, so it is good to hear from an enthusiastic humanist. Bravo for book lovers! I appreciate your thoughtful comment.

  2. I suppose I must be a Millennial, as I was in my teens around the late 90s/early 00s, but I think the real shift in children and teenagers’ reading habbits and materials have only really occured within the last 10 years or so. I don’t remember being aware of YA literature in my teens–I think I just went from children’s fiction to adult literature, including classics, but the YA market seems to have become a brand in itself, and is probably lumped together in the same way some people talk about all classics. Personally, I reckon there is a place for everything, but I think my own life would most likely have taken a slightly different direction if I had never been exposed to classic literature at a young age.

    1. Alyson, things have changed very rapidly in the 21st century. I do remember Laura Miller’s writing an essay for The New Yorker on Y.A. literature, which then was growing more popular and even read by adults That and the prevalence of the iPhone have changed things. So you have a good point about the distinctions between the generations.

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