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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Dumbest Generation? A few others

Several people have e-mailed me regarding what I have been reading lately. Today, we begin a feature that I will update from time to time. It will be reviews of varying lengths of books that I have come across that might be germane to our readers interests.

Here are our first entries:

1) THE DUMBEST GENERATION by Mark Bauerlein (Penquin, 2008). This is written by a professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta. It is an angry book making many of the same claims that Allan Bloom made in 1987 in THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND. This book is far more passionate than "closing' and candidly more fun to read. Bloom himself wrote of it saying "an urgent and pragmatic book on the very dark topic of the virtual end of reading among the young."

There are some wonderul anecdotes in the book. Bauerlein states that college students today are "six times more likely to be able to name the last American Idol winner than Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. Most don't know who their governor, US Senators or Congressman are." When he mentioned this at a symposium a student yelled out "American Idol is more important."

He also tells a very interesting personal story. Back in 1977, he returned from UCLA for the Christmas holidays to his home in Maryland. He caught up with his high school buddies and played lots of basketball. With lots of time on his hands he watched some TV. At that time there were four stations plus PBS in the Washington, DC area. PBS was screening classic films every afternoon and with a choice of soap operas or the Gong Show, he began viewing the films. Over a few weeks, he saw La Strada, Rules of the Game, and The 400 Blows among others. When he returned to LA, he always checked out what was playing at the local art houses, as they were then known. This hit me like a freight train. As a teenager my sister introduced me to PBS and sometimes a lofty film. In college my roommate and I, along with a couple of other friends, took over the campus film society and began doing more serious entries instead of recent commercial films. We eased into it with some Bogart films but then moved on to an Orson Welles retrospective and finally a Fellini festival. In many ways, it changed my life.

Bauerlein's point regarding TV was that " If I had 100+ screen options to choose from as they have today, watching PBS would never have happened". It is an intriguing idea. In the late 1940's, many commentators thought that TV was going to be the greatest educational tool ever. Ohers said the same thing about the Internet 50 years later, although for the first several years, it appears that only pornographers made any real money. So, have we in the media unknowingly hurt the education of the young?

He also makes the statement that nine of the top ten sites visited by students are for social networking. That seems a bit hard to believe but I have never seen the research to back it up. Professor Bauerlein also is pessimistic as he says he cannot find intellectual pockets out there where groups of students are faithful to academic rigor.

As mentioned in previous posts, I speak on a lot of campuses and will really ramp up my speaking in the weeks to come. I would say the quality of students that I see has actually improved in recent years. Some cynics tell me that is due to the weakening economy and people stay afterwards to try to get job interviews or references. I must say, however, that the questions asked are far more insightful than in the past.

And, here is the ultimate irony. What school's students have impressed me the most? Emory University, home of Mark Bauerlein.

I do not argue that too many people are in college these days. And, all of us need to read more. This was brought chillingly clear to me watching the 2008 elections. Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska was a great speaker, attractive, obviously intelligent, and vivacious. But, she had a frightening deficiency in core knowledge of basic facts that all citizens should know let alone a vice presidential candidate. After the election, conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, who obviously liked her, said she "needs to go back to Alaska and read for several years." Retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor has started a Web site called Ourcourts.org to teach children some basis civics that they obviously are not getting at home or at school.

But Professor Bauerlein ought to follow me around into a few classes. Maybe he would see that the upcoming generation has some real stars in the making!

2) THE BIG RICH (The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes) by Bryan Burrough (Penquin, 2009)

I picked up this book for light reading but was immediately hooked. It had many themes--the "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves" odyssey that hit many oil patch families over three generations, the funding that the political right received from Texas Oil at crucial times, and how the survivors learned to diversify to survive and prosper.

Let me end with a simple personal note. In 1997, I moved to Dallas, Texas. At noon one day, I had a media lunch scheduled at a posh watering hole. At the next table, a couple of old impeccably dressed fellows were on their second bottle of Chivas Regal which sat open at the table. In walked a big stereotype--big smile, big belly, tan suit, business Stetson and bolo tie. He joined my neighbors and they talked for a couple of hours as I tried to do a bit of business. The big fellow left first and a limo (thankfully) was picking up the two well lubricated lunch buddies. While waiting for the valet to bring my Subaru up, one fellow said to the other. "Our Fort Worth friend has done well. He has three units." The other nodded in agreement. Months later I discovered that a unit was Texas talk for a hundred million dollars.

3) HOT, FLAT, and CROWDED By Thomas Friedman (Farrah, Strauss, and Giroux, 2008)

I love reading everything Friedman writes from his New York Times columns to THE LEXUS AND THE OLIVE TREE, LONGITUDES AND LATITUDES and THE WORLD IS FLAT. This book had the same energy and fire of the previous three but struck me as unrealistic. He spent most of the book discussing the need for renewable energy sources with a tone of just do it. I was surprised at how naive he seemed. It takes a lot of steel that we do not have to build 350,000 windmills or millions of new solar panels. And the cost of harnessing renewables will likely rise and sharply. Also, some significant energy needs to be used to get us to energy self-suffiency. Nevertheless, he is always worth reading. Separately, he is a passionate free trade advocate which is interesting to see given his other beliefs. I became a free trader at age 20 after reading Bastiat.

4) TAKE THIS JOB AND SHIP IT By Senator Byron L. Dorgan (Thomas Dunne, 2006)

The North Dakota Democrat never impresses me when I see him on CNBC or C-Span. I read the book only to test my free trade position. He surprised me with an emotional appeal discussing America before globalization and how small town America thrived prior to NAFTA. I have newfound respect for him as he cares about everyday Americans but I firmly believe that free trade opens far more doors than it closes.

5) TWILIGHT IN THE DESERT By Matthew R. Simmons (Wiley, 2005)

The author is a Houston based investment banker who specializes in oil related activity. This is an alarmist but brilliantly researched book. His main point is that the easy oil has been taken out of Saudi Arabia and right now they are maintaining heavy production only by injecting vast quantities of water into the wells to get sufficient yield. By 2013, he states they cannot keep the game going and we need to develop alternative sources NOW. The book is intensely difficult to read and a bit labored at times but his point is very well made. Even today with oil at roughly 1/3 of its high a year ago, he stubbornly maintains that, when the global economy snaps back, we will have the mother of all oil crunches.

For a contary opinion, try THE BOTTOMLESS WELL By Peter Huber and Mark Mills (Basic Books, 2005)

The thesis here is that "technology will trump geology" and we will continue to have all the oil we need as recovery of existing discoveries will only get better.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you can reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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