Saturday, November 29, 2014

Dis Town


The dumbing down of smart -- and Washington.

Americans have an uncomfortable relationship with smart. They are perfectly happy to celebrate genius, provided it doesn't make them uncomfortable or require too much of them. They are more concerned that their children get into college than they are that those kids are graded against the kind of tough standards that might ensure understanding of important concepts. Once in college, students often really have to screw up to get a D or an F. I taught graduate school for a number of years, and I practically had to alert psychological counselors if I gave anyone anything below a B.

This phenomenon was once described as "the dumbing down of America." And in recent years, the trend has accelerated. One particularly odious element of it is what might be called pop intellectualism. Big, buzzy ideas are boiled down into short books that provide more cocktail-party conversation than significant concepts that require a little work to grasp. Think The Tipping Point and The Black Swan. (For real heavyweights, there's always the biography of Steve Jobs or recent, popular volumes by Thomas Piketty and Henry Kissinger to leave on the coffee table and make an impression. Because let's be clear, more people buy these books as fashionable accessories, not for what's on their pages.)

Worse still is the whole TED talks phenomenon, which offers the intellectual equivalent of diets in which someone can lose 10 pounds in two weeks without giving up ice cream sundaes or pizza. In just 18 minutes, a person can be exposed to breathlessly earnest genius -- a slickly marketed brand of chicken nuggets for the brain. The talks enable non-scientists and non-technologists to feel smart, but that is not the same as actually being smart or, alternatively, feeling dumb in the way that hard ideas sometimes make you feel -- and should -- when you first encounter them.

Perhaps worst among the consequences of the dumbing down of America is the hyper-politicization of discourse. This has led to the rise of media outlets and debates that are tailored to specific audiences who seek out viewpoints that support already-held beliefs. (The notion that beliefs are more important than actual knowledge is a byproduct or perhaps a driver of all this.) So people watching or reading the news tend not to see both sides of any issue -- much less issues that have more than two sides. Litmus tests and the ability to articulate already-popular views are valued more than what is really new or challenging.


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