Does Millennial illiteracy leads to socialism?


Here at The Daily Chrenk we ask all the important questions.

Firstly, the recent scary study:

Researchers from San Diego State University recently analyzed four decades’ worth of data from an ongoing, nationally-based lifestyle survey studying teens. The data, which provides insight into the daily habits of over a million adolescents, shows the enormous impact of digital media over time.

The meteoric rise of internet-based activities cannot be understated: between social media, texting, gaming, and surfing the web, the average high school senior spent six hours a day online in 2016 — double the time from a decade earlier. Eighth graders (4 hours a day) and tenth graders (5 hours a day) didn’t lag far behind.

Naturally, many of these hours have come at the expense of traditional media, including books, newspapers, and magazines. In the early 90s, a third of tenth graders reported reading the daily paper — this figure dropped to an astonishing two percent by 2016. During the late 70s, 60 percent of 12th graders read a book or magazine almost daily, but only 16 percent did by 2016.

Interestingly, TV- and movie-watching has also declined in the face of new technology, although not as precipitously. Twenty-two percent of eighth graders reported watching five or more hours of TV a day in the 90s; only 13 percent watched an equivalent amount by 2016. Moviegoing held steadfast until recently; time spent has not decreased so much as mediums have shifted.

It’s not that our youth doesn’t read because they can’t read – though the declining school outcomes in the English-speaking world don’t paint an encouraging picture here either – they just read different things and read them differently. Instead of traditional long form writing contained in books, magazines and newspapers they seem to consume snippets of writing in the form of now-280 character (up from 140) tweets, Facebook status updates, Instagram captions, and the article equivalents of 1 minute noodles. The video content dominates above all, with its very limited written component. These varied bits of cognitive acquisition actually come to be very much less than the sum of its parts: if you read 200 tweets it’s not going to be as beneficial and constructive as reading a book chapter, never mind that no one will actually read 200 tweets in a row because that would require more than the now standard goldfish-like attention span. All this, of course, has practical – and negative – consequences, as the study’s lead author notes:

Twenge suggests that today’s teens are no less curious or intelligent than previous generations. Many simply don’t have experience delving into long-form texts. Learning to do so is imperative, she argues, as it lays the groundwork for developing critical thinking skills and understanding complex issues.

Herein lies the rub. You can’t gain wisdom from tweets and status updates; at best these are the equivalent of slogans, high on rhetoric but short (literally) on substance. There is no way to acquire either in-depth knowledge on any issue or indeed, as Twenge suggests, critical thinking skills, without delving and diving into substantive pieces of writing, which contain facts (however contested), context, analysis, evaluation, and expose us to arguments and counter-arguments and ways of analysing and assessing claims.

I have an inkling that that goes a long way towards explaining this in Australia:

In further evidence the young are lurching to the left, a YouGov Galaxy poll commissioned by the Centre for Independent Studies has revealed that 58 per cent of millennials — those born between 1980 and 1996 — viewed socialism favourably. Support was even higher among university graduates, at 63 per cent.

Similarly, 59 per cent were of the view that capitalism had failed society and 62 per cent believed Australian workers were worse off now than they were 40 years ago, notwithstanding the economic data suggesting otherwise.

Yet despite the millennials’ embrace of socialism — a system whereby the government has ultimate control for the economy and society, where the promise of equal opportunity and a welfare safety net comes at the cost to individual freedom — few respondents were familiar with some of its most famous historical figures.

Of the 1003 people polled, only 21 per cent were familiar with ­Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Zedong, 26 per cent were familiar with Vladimir Lenin and 34 per cent knew about Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Combined, the trio are responsible for causing the deaths of more than 80 million people.

And in the United States:

Forty-four per cent of Millennials would to prefer to live in a socialist country, 7 per cent in a communist country and 7 per cent in a fascist one. Only 42 per cent opt for capitalism…

These are the results of a second annual study commissioned by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and conducted by YouGov. The survey also shows that while young people totes heart socialism, most of them have trouble actually defining ideologies like socialism, communism, fascism and capitalism.

So we have a generation where somewhere between half and two thirds of the cohort believe that capitalism have failed and that socialism has the answers. But most of them don’t know what socialism actually is and what it involves, just as they are ignorant of its history, which happened a long time before they were born, so it’s not really real. This sounds exactly like one of the results that the Millennials’ functional illiteracy would produce: socialism sounds great even if we can’t actually explain it; “The Capital” reduced to five tweets. True, at least some of the hard core of socialist activists at our universities arguably still read a lot the traditional way, but the overwhelming majority of their generation, who share in their beliefs, doesn’t.

What are the implications we can draw from all this? Socialism has traditionally been the religion of youth (“He who is not a socialist by the time he’s 20…” and all that) so one one level the recent developments are not surprising. However, while it used to be true that the majority of socialists were young, now the majority of the young are socialists – there is a clear upward trend. Socialism might not actually work anytime it is actually tried, but clearly it is much better at sloganeering than capitalism and liberalism. The left is able to make great appeals to emotions that can be contained in a meme, a tweet or a status update. And that’s really all that’s necessary, because most of their target audience is not interested – and indeed not capable – of processing any more complex information and analysis. Today’s positive sentiment towards socialism might be as wide as the ocean but it’s only as deep as a puddle. Still, one can drown even in an inch of water.

This is one reason why the right side of politics is making a huge mistake by ignoring and not engaging in popular culture and popular discourse, such as it is. While always arguably working under a disadvantage when young people are concerned, we need to do much better at selling our message in a form that can reach, appeal to and be absorbed by the Millennials. The traditional school of thinking finds comfort in thinking that young people when they “grow up” and starting paying taxes and having families inevitably move to the right. But that could well be an old paradigm. What if the young people of today never actually grow up? What if their formative educational (or un-educational) experiences leave them stuck in the original mode and incapable of – because unequipped to – to borrow from the Good Book, leave the childish beliefs behind?

Hopefully I’m too pessimistic; maybe the rewiring of our brains by the information technology and the consequent shift in our abilities and habits will in turn meet some new corrective mechanism. But I don’t think the right risks anything at trying to engage now rather than waiting for the nature to take its course. The distance between today and another repeat of the mistakes of the past is only 280 characters.