Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

The Dumbing Down of America

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Booksellers and publishing firms are using a peculiar tactic for selling how-to books today.  Anybody who has browsed through bookstores in the last few years must have noticed it.  Lots of how-to books are being published with titles that appeal to the customer’s ignorance and  low self-esteem. 

I first noticed it some years ago when I went shopping for  a computer manual.  The only one I could find on the piece of software I had was entitled something like Database III Plus for Complete Idiots. 

I suppose there is some justification for putting people’s mind at ease about difficult subjects.  And computers have had the reputation of being difficult since day one.  In the early days only young geniuses were thought to be able to use computers properly. 

But today every subject under the sun has been considered too difficult for the average American.  Another publisher has a series of books with titles like Knitting for Dummies.  And many of these books are about what I thought were very simple subjects.  I’m expecting any day now to see one entitled Putting on Shoes for Dummies.  I saw one like that recently.  It was on a subject that has customarily been considered “doing what comes naturally.”  It was Sex for Complete Idiots.

But I figure it’s a part of a national trend to make people feel comfortable with their inadequacies.  Television and movies are doing their part.  We are more satisfied with ourselves after watching Bevis and Butthead.  The movie Dumb and Dumber allows us  to laugh at someone who is actually dumber than we are. And, once we see Forrest Gump succeed in life without really trying, we think, “Great, if I keep going the way I’m going, my ship (or shrimp boat) will come in too.”

Being intelligent hasn’t been anything to brag about in quite a while.  In November 1991 the Atlantic Monthly published an article “The Other Crisis in American Education” by Daniel J. Singal. Among other things the author says that in the 1960’s a trend of downplaying academic achievement began.

“In every conceivable fashion the reigning ethos of those times was hostile to excellence in education.  Individual achievement fell under intense suspicion, as did attempts to maintain standards.  Discriminating among students on the basis of ability or performance was branded ‘elitist.'”

He goes on to say that at the time “educational gurus” advocated “essentially non-academic schools, whose main purpose would be to build habits of social cooperation and equality rather than to train the mind. . . . To the extent that logic and acquired knowledge interfered with that process, they were devalued.”

Singal was told by one independent school that assignments are “age appropriate” which means assignments “that reflect their interests as adolescents, that they can read without constant recourse to a dictionary, and from which they can take whatever they are inspired to take.” Sounds ideal for people who are born with a large vocabulary.

Many good schools and teachers did not buy this philosophy, of course.  They persisted in trying to maintain higher standards.  But it’s a matter of speculation how much harm has been done by the general trend.  It’s a fact that many foreign- born students have to be recruited for math-and-science-intensive jobs in the United States.

But some of that recruiting is done by employers to get cheaper labor.  The Associated Press reported that “Studies show that the average annual wages of computer programmers and engineers working in the United States on the [H-1B work] visas are 15 percent to 33 percent lower than those of U.S. citizens.”  That explains why “requests for visas to hire foreign workers increased last year, despite lay-offs that affected more than one million workers.”     

Still, many jobs in the U.S. have gone to foreign applicants because those applicants were better qualified in math and science.  Maybe it’s time we stopped supplying books for dummies and idiots to our citizens.

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Written by polemicscat

June 22, 2008 at 10:44 pm

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