Book-dumb or street-smart: Which would you rather be?

Neil Howe has an op-ed piece out on The Washington Post (Who Is the Real ‘Dumbest Generation’?) with some interesting statistics about how those Americans born between the late Fifties and mid-Sixties “performed the worst on standardized exams, acquired the fewest educational degrees and been the least attracted to professional careers” yet may just be the right ones to lead us through these dark times.

They’re practical and resilient, they handle risk well, and they know how to improvise when even the experts don’t know the answer. As the global economy craters, they won’t keep leafing through a textbook. They may be a little rough around the edges, but their style usually gets the job done.

As interesting as Howe’s citations, however, is the backlash in the comments from members of the group Howe discusses: those late-Boomers and early X’ers whom are marketingly (how’s that for a new word?) labeled Generation Jones™ (a name that defies foolishness and short-sightedness, to say nothing of the fact that it hardly comprises a full generation, but I’m digressing for the moment), and which would include 1961-born President-elect Obama (says here he’s a Generation X’er, but let’s continue to digress for the moment, OK?).

I’m prone to take Howe at his word (I’ve been following his stuff for 15 years) so perhaps I’m biased in assuming his stats and conclusions are correct (if you’re not in my camp on this, you might as well skip the rest of this and go to my Anthony Mason and Wu-Tang post).

If you get past the headline-grabbing “Dumbest Generation” gauntlet and reflect upon what Howe is writing throughout the entire article (which many of the commenters seem incapable of doing), he’s calling this group book dumb and street smart. Which would you rather be? By street smart, I mean pragmatic, able to make the best of any situation, able to think on your feet — someone who is successful in spite of the odds (and often without due credit), a self-made man or woman. That’s our lot and our burden as members of Generation X.

Yes, it sucks we didn’t have the classical education those that came before us did — it pisses me off, too. As Howe notes, it’s hardly our fault. Our generation came up mostly with burned-out teachers, a latch-key self-reliant childhood, higher divorce rates, higher abortion rates, and an overall negative view of children, as Strauss and Howe have noted in the past (and some of the WaPo commenters note, too). Most of our generational members will have an overall lower standard of living (compared to our parents at the same age, and don’t give me Bill Gates-like exceptions). And my cohorts who were born in the Sixties and even the tail-end Boomers born in the late Fifties had it worse than me (I was born in the early Seventies).

Yet here we are, with a president-elect who made election history simply by who he is, ready to clean up the messes left by the older generations to make the world better not so much for ourselves, but for the younger Americans that follow us. Maybe that sucks for us, but call this cynic naïve: I think that’s not a little heroic, no?

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2 Comments on “Book-dumb or street-smart: Which would you rather be?”

  1. Dr. Bob says:

    One explanation I did not see considered for this fall & then rise of SAT scores is that it correlates pretty well with the rise in lead exposure from paint & leaded gasoline followed by its banning. This generation (1960-1964) probably had the greatest cumulative exposure. The primary reason for the banning of lead was its effect on the mental development of children.

  2. Wek says:

    Since the babyboomers like to dangle their ‘intelligence’ in front of us, I’ve wondered how many of their male cohorts earned a college degree to receive a draft deferment? I have my suspicions that many older/mid boomers all of a sudden felt like going to college rather than risk the Vietnam War lottery.


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