Dumbing Down America

Are we really that dumb?

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Photo by Tonny Tran on Unsplash

Politicians and academics alike argue that there is a war for our minds, a war between intellect and prejudice, judgment and open-mindedness, truth and false consciousness.

For example, during an interview with CNN, 2020 Presidential candidate Joe Biden said about President Donald Trump,

“There’s no question that his rhetoric has contributed to at a minimum of dumbing down the way in which we as a society talk about one another.”

Since the 1990s, prevalent cultural analysis and criticism have suggested that there is an almost conspiratorial attempt to dumb down America. As a result, we saw an influx of books that dealt with this topic, often coming from the right-wing or conservative writers who weren’t satisfied with the argument that there is a moral depravity in American culture, but argue that there is an intellectual depravity as well. But when Donald Trump became President, we saw a liberal perspective, such as Biden’s, that saw the dumbing down coming from Trump himself.

Whatever the political bent of the origin, there is a common refrain about this dumbing down cultural phenomenon. It is that we now have a culture of stupid people who would rather watch television or use social media than read a novel (and not a best-selling novel either — a novel that preferably has dust on its covers and comes from the library).

Dumb people are not just a nuisance, according to these cultural critics, but they reflect an epidemic, a sickness in our society, infected by the people (whether politicians, journalists, educators or entertainers) who control information.

On the one hand, there a certain political dimension to this “dumbing down of America” that un-self-consciously promotes an educated, elitist, and remarkably conservative agenda. Affirmative action, bi-lingual education, multi-culturalism, post-modern theory: all of these (read liberal or progressive) intellectual attempts are supposed to contribute to the dumbing down of America.

Returning to the classics, resisting pop culture, English First and English Only — these are the sort of practical steps that these conservatives say need to be taken in our culture so that we can avoid the Middle Ages we are obviously about to be sent into because of all the dumb people we are around.

On the other hand, we have a set of liberal pundits who argue that the dumbing down is the result of the conservative attack on truth (fake media), diversity (the “wall”) and our role in the world (America first). In this view, bigotry replaces the moral virtue of tolerance. And it’s argued that the dumbing down is driven by Trump and his cronies, who apparently have hood-winked most of middle America.

Dumb, dumb, and dumber people.

What amazes me about the rhetoric of the dumbing down of America, beyond the political aspect, is how often this claim is made. Are people as stupid (uneducated and non-informed, nor unconcerned not enough, but actually, really, really, not smart) as the dumbing down people seem to argue?

Presumably, academics are teaching the next generation who is, supposedly, the direct result of this dumbing down. This “dumbing down” perhaps can be seen in students who believe being asked to read a novel while enrolled in college is purposeless, and a nuisance on top of that. These sorts of students might be unhappy that there isn’t a movie for every novel. But does this suggest a lack of intelligence, laziness or both?

It’s not uncommon for teachers to hear groans from their students when they have to write a long paper. Teachers are vying for the attention of a plugged-in generation. But is this because Gen Z is “dumbed down?”

We have to remember many students, in order to avoid going into debt for their education, work full-time jobs while taking a full load, sometimes even having more than one job at a time. The economic insecurity this generation feels prevents them from having time for reflection or even, really, a lot of reading. They can’t always afford the textbooks they are asked to buy, a good excuse for not doing the reading. It’s no wonder that almost half of these young people are skipping college to go directly into the workforce.

The result is not as much as a dumbing down, but exhaustion. As a result, we see a numbing down, rather than dumbing down, of our culture.

But, if students aren’t the victims of dumbing down, what about the working class? This group would, some might argue, be victims of “dumbing down,” especially high-school graduates (or drop-outs) who work in blue-collar or service industry jobs (if they have a job at all), such as truckers, waitresses, and laborers. There is an assumption by a “liberal elite” that, since many in the working class segment of the population have not gotten a higher education, they must be dumber than they are.

And yet, one could argue, this a demographic of people who never were highly educated in the first place, so how could they be dumbed down in the first place?

It’s important to note that dumb is not the same thing as uneducated. Dumb seems to be a much more nebulous quality that doesn’t seem to be directly related to how much education — or book learning — a person has.

Others argue that real-life experience is more valuable than what is learned in college — back to one of the reasons a lot of Gen Z are opting out of the rite of passage.

This notion of dumbing down, no matter who identifies it, is rooted in arrogance. To claim there is a dumbing down is to position yourself as smarter than everyone else. It is like a teenager who thinks all adults are stupid — how different is the pundit or academic who argues that our culture is in danger of becoming stupider than it already is? How smart is someone anyway who calls everyone else dumb?

Perhaps what might be seen as dumbing down is actually a generational divide. The elevation of pop culture, in television, movies, or YouTube, means it is equivalent in value as high culture, in fine arts and literary works. It’s not far off to say that younger people are more likely to get their news from Snapchat than The New York Times.

Perhaps the dumbing down claim is a red herring to detract from real differences in world-views. You don’t have to take anyone else’s position seriously if you think it is stupid. But treating opinions as evidence of ignorance or gullibility makes any common ground impossible.

Going forward, especially looking forward to the 2020 elections, we need to see, across the political spectrum, an equal capacity for rational thought. Differences should not be rooted in beliefs that people are dumb and getting dumber by the day. Rather than a dumbing down of America, we have a fragmented populous.

Until we stop insulting each other’s intelligence, no one will be willing to listen.

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