Dumbing Down of America?

There’s a Washington Post article that came out recently about “The Dumbing Down of America”, and the general sentiment also came up in the last Windows Weekly podcast, and I feel like addressing this issue.

First and foremost, I have always been of the opinion that American society in general has always gotten better from generation to generation. I think of that as a nearly incontrovertible constant. But there’s also another constant: the previous generation refuses to believe that the following one will be better. ‘Oh, my kid will be fine, but the rest of society? Not a chance!’

That’s certainly not a good argument against the specific issues brought up by Paul Thurrott (Windows Weekly) or Susan Jacoby (The Washington Post), but it’s good to always be aware of the fact that the older generation has always thought less of the next generation, and to my mind, they have always been wrong.

I think it best to lay our biases on the table up front.

I won’t bother with the specific issues brought up in Windows Weekly, because I don’t have a transcript, and the issues Paul brought up specifically were actually rather vague. So, let me dig right into The Washington Post article:

Reading has declined not only among the poorly educated, according to a report last year by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1982, 82 percent of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later, only 67 percent did. And more than 40 percent of Americans under 44 did not read a single book — fiction or nonfiction — over the course of a year. The proportion of 17-year-olds who read nothing (unless required to do so for school) more than doubled between 1984 and 2004. This time period, of course, encompasses the rise of personal computers, Web surfing and video games.

Nice, simple, and verifiable facts. It’s too bad they don’t mean jack.

In this paragraph, she contrasts the decline of recreational book reading, with the rise of interactive media, and web-based reading. You’ll forgive me if I think it takes a little more abstract thought, and creativity to work out how best to find exactly what you’re looking for on the web with a Google search, than it takes to find a comfy place to read. I’m of the opinion that it takes considerably more logical and mechanical thinking to get through the game Portal, than it takes to work out the basic mechanics of turning pages in a book. You’ll also need to forgive me if I think Final Fantasy 7 probably had a more intricate story than most of the trash fiction those 17-year-olds she references were likely reading. And, of course, the lack of book reading doesn’t indicate a lack of reading in general. Thanks to the internet, people can spend entire days reading non-stop, and not crack a book once. No, she makes a horrible comparison here, no matter what the average bibliophile might think.

She does, however, move on from that comparison, to make a more important contrast with television and movies, sighting that “babies between 8 and 16 months recognized an average of six to eight fewer words for every hour spent watching videos” (note that her definition of “videos” in this article encompasses interactive media as well, though the study she sights likely does not). I can’t argue with that. Television is a terrible detriment to mental growth, if utilized incorrectly. I won’t argue that point at all. In fact, I think her entire argument against modern media would be immeasurably strengthened if she limited herself to non-interactive media.

In fact, her insistence on lumping these distinctly different factors together makes for some rather muddled logic in this paragraph:

I cannot prove that reading for hours in a treehouse (which is what I was doing when I was 13) creates more informed citizens than hammering away at a Microsoft Xbox or obsessing about Facebook profiles. But the inability to concentrate for long periods of time — as distinct from brief reading hits for information on the Web — seems to me intimately related to the inability of the public to remember even recent news events. It is not surprising, for example, that less has been heard from the presidential candidates about the Iraq war in the later stages of the primary campaign than in the earlier ones, simply because there have been fewer video reports of violence in Iraq. Candidates, like voters, emphasize the latest news, not necessarily the most important news.

She’s at least willing to admit that going into a hidey-hole and reading a trashy novel doesn’t inform someone about current events any more than going into a hidey-hole and playing Halo. But, what that has to do with the rest of the paragraph is a bit confused. An inability to concentrate is not the result of either the Xbox or Facebook (one could argue the reverse more easily).

Then, halfway through the paragraph, she again makes an argument against television media, that has nothing to do with the interactive media she started off with. If she’d just skipped the first two sentences and stuck with the last two, she’d be on far stronger ground.

The infotainment that passes for news on television these days is a travesty. The 24 hour news stations are clearly designed for people with less than a 15 minute attention span, and it’s the largest reason why I refuse to pay for cable news stations. They’re all guilty of pushing the sound bite culture far more than the internet, in my view. The only truly reliable political news station is C-Span. They don’t contribute to sound bite politics in the slightest, and you can watch them online without paying a thing to a cable company.

I’ll admit, I enjoy watching MSNBC on occasion, but I do so with the full knowledge that it’s entertainment and commentary; not necessarily real news.

I think her arguments about television contributing to the dumbing down of the country in general are fully valid. It’s the biggest reason why I went four or five years without any form of television streaming into my apartment. However, with the rise of interactive media, television viewership is going down (1, 2, 3, 4). Yes, television has played a notable part in dumbing people down, but I see that as a short trend, that is being usurped by the more intellectually stimulating interactive media.

Of course, she doesn’t just stop there, but the arguments she makes that I felt most compelled to address do stop there. She makes references to general lack of knowledge, like the declining interest in memorizing geography… Anyone else think that’s related to the rise of better maps? She sights Google maps as a partial cause, but I’d blame maps as a whole for it. When you want to go somewhere, you just whip out a map and a highlighter; you don’t need to have the planet memorized. I don’t see that as a bad thing. As far as the other generalized lack of knowledge she complains about: she fails to compare it to previous generations, so I don’t see those arguments as very solid.

She also discusses the anti-intellectual movements in this country, and I fully agree that it is troubling, but I don’t see it as anything new. The opinion that it’s okay to be stupid, as long as you’re smart about what matters (ex: stuff that you make a living with, and/or personal spirituality) isn’t new, it just wasn’t as publicly expressed as it is today, because the intellectual threshold needed to gain access to the media these days has dropped significantly. It’s not new, it’s just more visible.

In short: I don’t see a greater reason to be concerned about American intelligence than there used to be.


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