The dumbing down of society — who is to blame?

A few weeks ago I was on a plane travelling from Johannesburg to East London. In the row in front of me were three young men, probably around the age of early university. I didn’t take too much note of them until we began commencing our descent, and I had to put my laptop away. With nothing else to do, I eavesdropped in on their overly loud conversation.

They were speculating as to where Jeffrey’s Bay is in relation to East London. One of the youths ventured that it was 200km up the north coast side of East London. The other disagreed, saying that it went East London, then PE, then Jeffrey’s, as you moved northward up the coastline.

These guesses were obviously all wide of the mark, but it did make me wonder how university students of a clearly privileged and affluent background could be so blissfully unaware of the positioning of a couple of major centres in their home country. I’ve never set foot in Kwazulu Natal, and I didn’t do geography in school, yet I know for example that Margate is a couple of hundred kilometres south of Durban, and Ballito is slightly north of Durban, with Richards Bay quite a distance further up the coast. I don’t know why I know this, I just do. And I should.

I keep getting reminders like this about the intelligence of the world, which keep disturbing me. Of course, I could rattle off a whole array of stats and percentages on how intelligence is declining and how people don’t know simple things about history or the physical world they live in. These points would no doubt be true, and rather unsettling. But I’d rather focus on what I’ve personally experienced in day to day life.

About 5km from my house, they’ve just built the Mall of Africa. It’s the largest single development shopping centre in the Southern Hemisphere, or something like that. It has the full array of the big retailers you’d expect, along with international luxury brands. It also contains one of the first Starbucks in South Africa, and the Woolies is the size of a small shopping centre. One or two brands have made their stores into flagship outlets. But there’s one glaring absentee from the store directory — there’s no bookstore. Not even an Exclusive Books. An Exclusive Books, or any bookstore for that matter, is pretty much guaranteed to exist in any decent sized mall. But in this new mall, which is one of the biggest in the country? No. The mall has everything you can think of, except books.

On the subject of books, I was a big fan of George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. It’s the book series upon which the Game of Thrones TV show is based on. Each volume was a mammoth 1000 pages or so, but it was some of the best, intriguingly complex and most entertaining fiction I’ve ever read. Only one or two people I knew had discovered the series, so there was this element of pride that I had that I’d discovered this gem that no one else had in my circle.

As we know the TV series created from it has been a massive hit. But deep down I’ll always begrudge the TV series a bit (or maybe a lot). It had to take summarising of 1000 page works of beauty into a series of one hour episodes on TV for it to gain popular appeal. That’s the real tragedy for me. The TV show scratches the surface of something incredible, yet most people will never experience this. The even bigger tragedy in all this is the fact that the TV series is now leading the plot because they’ve caught up to where the author is in the book development. This could cause the rather nightmarish scenario where the TV series reveals the ending rather than the books.

When it comes to TV, that’s another thing that bugs me. A few years ago a big budget superhero action movie would be fairly rare. Maybe one every year. Now there are about 5 or 6 big productions per year. It’s hard to keep up with them. From Superman to Fantastic Four to Antman to Avengers to Incredible Hulks to Batman VS Superman. And all of these boil down to the simple premise of some action hero defeating a villain with a series of action scenes designed to entertain you mindlessly. There’s a line in Pink Floyd’s song ‘Not Now John’ where they ironically sing ‘Who cares what it’s about as long as the kids go’. This is a very valid point. Hollywood obviously make all these moves because they make money. That’s the troubling part. It’s entertainment over substance.

I have DSTV at home, and I make a point of seeing what movie the Mnet channel is showing every Sunday at 8pm, since this is the ‘premiere’ and usually the best new movie they have. I can honestly say that three quarters of these movies are movies that seem to be targeted at 10 year olds.

We’ve created a culture where Justin Bieber can hit world fame and popularity with a song that has a chorus of “Baby baby baby oh”. We idolise pop stars and call them ‘artists’ even though for the most part they don’t even write their own songs or music. Half a century ago, a young guy called Bob Dylan rose to fame. At the age of 21 he was writing some of the most intellectual and influential music of his generation, around themes such as social change, economies, alienation and death. Nowadays if you’re a young musician trying to rise to fame, you need to be making shitty pop music and singing about hooking up with girls in the club.

People sit and watch episode after episode of rich celebrities living their daily lives. And this desire to be entertained starts eroding the moral fibre of a society when you have series like the Bachelorette, where a woman will fraternise and frolic around with a bunch of different men at the same time. And yet as ridiculous as this concept sounds, it’s been running for 12 seasons. You’d assume that a large part of the audience is between 12 and 18. What message does this send them?

Instagram is rapidly moving ahead of Twitter in popularity, because people prefer looking at pictures and sharing memes than taking in different thoughts and ideas. You’ll struggle nowadays to find a teenager reading a book of their own accord, yet millions would rather delight in taking and sharing Snapchat filters giving them dog ears and a dog’s tongue.

Even the way our political leaders are elected, and how they campaign has been dumbed down. I’ve held strong alternate views on Donald Trump, which I stand by, but even I have to say that the process of electing him as a Republican nominee showed the shallowness and lack of depth in the world today. There were better nominees competing with him, with clearer ideas, more complex knowledge, more intellect and ability. Yet these candidates were drowned out by someone who used sensationalism and who grabbed all the headlines and floorspace. This is the world we live in. Nobody wants to hear from the quiet intellectual. They’d rather read headlines. Even during Bernie Sander’s short lived fame, nobody in his large support base stopped to think Wait a minute, all these promises of free stuff — how on earth it even possible?

We’ve created a world where the great leaders of our time sit in companies, while governments contain mediocre minds, at best. In 161 AD, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote ‘Meditations’, where he poured out his own personal philosophy to life and living. It’s still referenced in psychological and philosophical theory today, and indeed many units are still sold each year. The book went a long way to developing the philosophy of Stoicism. This was written by the Roman Emperor — someone with more power than we could even imagine in today’s world. Yet now, 2000 years later, I think you’d struggle to find a political leader capable of writing anything beyond their memoirs, and even that would be penned by someone else. You certainly wouldn’t find them writing complex philosophy or progressing philosophical theory.

There’s no nice way of saying it, but the world is being dumbed down. I always wonder, is this a concerted effort from governments to create uninformed masses who don’t think, question and reason? Or is it just a natural regression due ironically to innovation and technology. I do strongly suspect that some governments, if not many governments, are quite satisfied with a population that doesn’t think or question things. Ruling parties that can keep the people uninformed and uninquisitive are more likely to keep voter loyalty. But beyond this idea, we need to look at ourselves.

Perhaps entertainment is undermining intellectualism because the world is becoming tougher and life is getting harder each year? Our incomes don’t go as far, we stress about kids, will we still have jobs or companies a year from now? Do we see and feel enough hardship, struggle and stress that escapism is actually a necessity for some level of sanity? Perhaps in the dark waters of our minds, we all have much needed guilty pleasures to keep us going, and perhaps the Kardashians, superhero movies and Britain’s Got Talent are just the most socially acceptable.

The schooling system needs to take at least some blame. When the system is based on getting people to fit in to a certain style of thinking and way of doing things, you get a society that doesn’t think for itself. When you teach kids in order to pass an exam instead of critically think, you don’t build a culture of lifelong learning. A recent study showed that 42% of American graduates never read a book again after graduating. Surely a teacher’s highest achievement should not be to getting a learner to master subject matter, but rather to instil a mindset of constant curiosity with the world?

Then there’s technology. Have smartphones done the opposite and made us dumber? Has our reliance and addiction to technology made us sloppier thinkers? I’ve met some people in Johannesburg who still use a GPS to get to well-known landmarks, even though they’ve lived in the city all their lives. Perhaps all the clutter of the modern world and everything going on in our heads has made us less observant. In amongst all the stresses and worries of living in this world we’ve maybe lost touch with actually noticing what we’re doing, thinking or going. The act of ‘busyness’ is creating a sense of thoughtlessness. If we noticed more around us in life perhaps we’d know where Port Elizabeth is in relation to East London, or allow us to find an area without a GPS, simply because we took note of it the previous time.

The pace and demands of the modern world also mean that parents are probably spending less time with their children than a generation ago. The days of the luxury stay at home mother are over. Money doesn’t go that far anymore. Children who spend less time with their parents are less likely to have valuable life lessons and values passed down. There’s less opportunity to learn from the example of your elders. As a result, children are learning more from TV, social media or friends than they ever have before.

Indeed, it’s within the home where the battle for future generations will be lost or won. If we allow the world outside and the ‘system’ to be our children’s primary teacher, then society’s downfall will continue to accelerate. But if we can take the time as parents to nurture the most difficult aspect of all — Thinking — we can at least feel that in some small way we’ve done our bit for society. It doesn’t take a village to raise a child. It takes strong family values and two calm parents who can take the time to inspire thinking rather than teach knowledge.

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