Feature: Is It Just Us, Or Are Kids Getting Really Stupid?

They don’t read. They can’t spell. They spend all their time playing computer games and texting and hanging out with one another on Facebook. But the problem is much worse than you think, because the way your kids live now is rewiring their brains

Still, it seems obvious that kids like Jake — meaning most kids — are spending way too much time at one thing instead of learning all they could. Isn’t it self-evident that my son would be a better student, better future employee, better human being, if he spent six hours a day reading Tolstoy and listening to Bach instead of playing WoW?

“Adults have always been afraid of their culture being lost,” Penn’s Sharon Ravitch declares. “Okay, so classical music may be lost, but what about the broader array of music I’m exposed to? We fear we’re losing the moral base. But the postmodern view is that the moral base didn’t resonate with a lot of kids. We have this mythological notion of what people used to know, but that’s male, white, Western-based knowledge. What is teaching? What is learning? What is the political basis of schools?”

Maybe I’m just crotchety because I had to read dead white men’s books instead of playing games. Maybe kids aren’t stupider at all; maybe the new ways of learning really are just different, not inherently worse. Maybe — oh, God — I should be on Facebook.

I need to talk to more kids Jake’s age before I can decide.

ON A RAINY NIGHT in September, the concession stand outside the fence surrounding Cheltenham High’s football field is a bright oasis of light. The game, against Quakertown, is tied. Beneath the stand’s sloped roof, Ally Gardiner, blond and blue-eyed and scrubbed-face pretty, is scooping hot dogs out of a vat of boiling water and laying them atop the rollers of an electric grill.

“Two more hot dogs!” her friend Dana sings out. Ally and Dana and a clutch of other student-council members are handing candy bars and Cokes to customers at the window and collecting cash in return. Ally ran for this year’s president of student council and won. Her platform, she explains, with the grill rollers once more full, was all about inclusion.

“I really care about the school,” she says, hair curling in tendrils from the hot-dog water. “I want to bring people together in spirit. More of a variety … a lot of … ” Her voice, usually clear and assertive, trails off for a moment while she regroups. “Everybody has an opinion about how the school should run. But people don’t feel comfortable coming forward. So we need to hand opportunities to them — to a wide, diverse range of students.”

Ally’s taking this on while taking AP Psychology, AP Statistics, AP Calculus, Anatomy, English Honors, gym — “It’s required” — Sports Leadership and Economics. She’s also a three-sport athlete — cross-country plus winter and spring track. She ran for president because she’s passionate about student government. That’s the only reason she does all she does, she says. She gets to school at seven in the morning and sometimes doesn’t get home till 10. She spends an hour or two a day online, maybe three if she’s doing research. Half an hour or so goes to Facebook: “I don’t use the computer often for recreational things.”