Reading Wrecked My Social Skills

A couple weeks ago, I read The Dumbest Generation (it has a really long subtitle that I’m not bothering to write out here) by Mark Bauerlein,* and it confirmed a theory I’ve been holding for a long time: the theory that “adolescent” culture is destroying the brains of the youth in America.

Most kids spend their summers with other kids or at various camps or somewhere where they can interact with human beings. My brother and I spent our summers at home, with our action figures, books, the family computer, Pokémon cards, and our imagination. This was probably because we didn’t want to spend time with other kids, but that’s neither here nor there. Honestly, going to camp with a bunch of other kids would probably have given me nightmares. In short, we were weird kids growing up. All the reading I did during summer breaks turned me into a huge nerd and completely wrecked my eyes. (Seriously, if you ever want to totally disable me, just hide my glasses somewhere.)

Reading taught me lots of big words and took me to interesting places but messed up my social skills. In eighth grade, before school officially began, the students were gathered in the cafeteria so teachers could supervise them and they wouldn’t run amok. One day, there weren’t many students for some reason, so I turned to the girl sitting beside me and said, “It’s really sparse in here today.” Blank stare. “What?” I rephrased: “Like, there aren’t many people here?” “Oh.” There were many other instances when I unintentionally confused people by speaking the way I normally did, and I remember being confused by the fact that they were confused.

Pop culture confused me, too, because I never knew what the kids in my class were talking about when they discussed the latest movies or TV shows or musical artists. References like Mr. Hankey, “Run, Forrest, run!,” “Hello, Clarice,” and “Wazzap!!” were totally lost on me. I never felt like I could converse with most people my age. My best friend in eighth grade was as big a nerd as me and actually understood what I talked about when I used words like “discombobulated,” so we were two peas in a pod… but we were rare, and we were teased.

All this reminiscing brings me back to The Dumbest Generation, where the author laments the fact that kids don’t read anymore, mostly because other forms of entertainment occupy their time and their minds. Who wants to open a boring old book when you have TV, the Internet, and pocket-size electronics? In the author’s mind, kids who don’t read are going to have a hard time getting ahead in life because they won’t have the skills they need to interpret and analyze world events, and they will remain ignorant of history, allowing them to make the same mistakes that previous generations have made. After all, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (variously attributed). Kids whose focus remains on superficial topics will remain perpetual adolescents, never entertaining adult ideas or ways of thinking. In the author’s view, this has led America to become a land of silliness and mindless celebrity worship. (I mean, really. Take a look at Facebook. The number of people who actually know how to engage in intelligent debate is tiny.)

The author acknowledges that in a person’s teenage years, there is great pressure to do what one’s friends are doing, which usually involves following the latest pop culture friends. Teenagers who read are less likely to get involved in all that, which sends them to the bottom of the social ladder. I know that this is true from experience, but I remember not particularly caring about pop culture when I was in high school, beyond the small bit I knew about music, and I did not care about socializing either. I rode the bus to and from school, and that was more than enough socializing for me. When I did want to actually have a social life in my junior and senior years of high school, I was woefully behind, and I was never the “favorite”—the go-to person everyone wanted to hang out with.

Would I have traded all the reading for a social life? Probably not. I might have tried harder to get my friends/acquaintances to read a book so we could discuss it… or talk about something more deep than the latest superhero movie. But it does make me sad when I realize that kids who read books really are a dying breed.

I teach CCD classes at my church, and at the beginning of the year, I ask my students what they like to do in their spare time. Video games? Yeah! Sports? Yeah! Girl Scouts? Yeah! Boy Scouts? Yeah! Reading? Eww! Writing? Eww, I only do that for school! Then I was talking one on one with one of my students, and she asked me, “So what do you do for fun, Miss Maggie?” So I said, “I like reading.” She gave me the strangest look, as if I said I liked to howl at the moon. “Reading’s boring,” she said. I told her that I hoped she would change her mind.

What can be done? My prevailing theory on children is that their parents have a great deal of influence over them, more so than school and teachers, and more so than peers (at least until they reach middle school). So if parents read to their kids and encourage them to read and be informed citizens, the kids will grow up to enjoy reading and knowledge. Parents have the power to restrict the amount of TV and the kinds of shows and movies their kids see, and they can choose what kinds of video games to allow in the house and at what age they should allow their kids to have a cell phone and other pieces of technology. I think that in these days, parents have relinquished their power to other entities like school, peers, and technology companies, whether they have realized it or not.

*While reading the book, I had the odd suspicion that the author was a Catholic. Sure enough, when I looked up information about him, I discovered that he had converted from agnosticism/atheism in 2012.