Are we dumb?

Kerri Miller talked today to Susan Jacoby, author of “The Age of American Unreason.” What follows is the live blog of the Midmorning. Here’s the archived audio (sorry, it’s RealPlayer).

According to her Web site:


America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by a popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic.

Back in the day, we would’ve said all that in two words: “you’re stupid.”

Jacoby insists that our culture carries with it a disdain for logic and she cites as evidence the focus on infotainment from TV and the Web.

OK, that’s easy. On the other hand, I see access to information being at an all-time high; I see YouTube offering college lectures for free, and I see people being required to know more information now than at any time in history. Oh, and public radio’s popularity is at an all-time high.

Jacoby says, “..a lazy and credulous public increasingly unwilling or unable to distinguish between fact and opinion.” I’m wondering which she thinks that is.

The trick in all this is to avoid the anecdotal. We can always find reasons to conclude that the culture has been dumbed down, or even — as I’ve indicated — that’s it’s not. Clearly the future of the country requires an informed — and intelligent — citizenry.

10:07 – We’re off and running with Kerri playing a sound byte of Robert Kennedy quoting a poem by Escalus (damn you, Shakespeare!) Aeschylus.

“In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

Kennedy was speaking following the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

Kerri quotes Jacoby as indicating the use of Aeschylus as him assuming the audience would have known who Aeschylus was. She also says nobody today would quote an Aeschylus. Jacoby says even our public leaders today would be afraid of being branded elitist. So much for the hope this isn’t a political discussion; she criticizes Bush for saying Obama “talks too good.”

Ronald Reagan quoted John Gillespie Magee when he delivered his famous eulogy at the space shuttle Challenger memorial service. Does that count?

10:11 -” We have just gotten lazier,” Jacoby says. “Only about half of America read a book last year.” Confession time: I didn’t read a book last year, at least the kind Jacoby is talking about. I did read a manual on electrical wiring and its principles. Does that make me dumber than someone who bought and read a book on Amazon?

10:13 – “Folks.” It’s a bad word, according to Jacoby. “It was not a word that was considered suitable for presidential speeches.”

10:22 – Following up on above. This is an interesting question, whether the evolution of the English language is an example of dumbing down.

Consider this:


Thus much, gentlemen, I have thought it incumbent on me to observe to you, to show upon what principles I opposed the irregular and hasty meeting which was proposed to have been held on Tuesday last – and not because I wanted a disposition to give you every opportunity consistent with your own honor, and the dignity of the army, to make known your grievances. If my conduct heretofore has not evinced to you that I have been a faithful friend to the army, my declaration of it at this time would be equally unavailing and improper

Is that really more intelligent merely because it uses an older form of the English language? It came from George Washington.

Several generations later, a — arguably — dumbed down form of English resulted in this:


Throughout America’s adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among people and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people. Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt both at home and abroad.

Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world. It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings. We face a hostile ideology — global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger is poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle — with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.

That would be Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex.

10:26 – We’re into the full Bush bashing over Iraq and I won’t get into that debate. “The question is why is are we so willing to be lied to.” Well, no, we’re not willing to be lied to, nor is being lied to by a government a product of our current media age. Gulf of Tonkin anyone?

And does the lie of the treaties with Native Americans indicate a previous level of intelligence?

Secondly, I would submit the analysis of the run-up to the Iraq war may be the most researched, documented, and widely available investigation of an event ever made available.

10:30 – We’re now into criticizing Wikipedia “and its online errors.” This is an old argument (she’s actually arguing encyclopedias in general are not a proper reference for term papers but that’s beside the point). In 2005, a study was conducted of Encyclopedia Britannica (once considered the bible of encyclopedias), and it found Wikipedia was just as accurate.

10:33 – Jacoby touches on an interesting point — one that I often gassed on about when I wrote Polinaut: the tendency to seek out the news (and assume as “truth”) that which mirrors what a person already believes. I believe, obviously, she’s write about this and this is clearly a side effect of the increase in choice that Americans (and others) have in information. But I also wonder whether people are equally quick to label as “dumb” or “uninformed,” that with which they disagree. And does that poison the climate for intellectual discussion in this country that the two guests in today’s first hour of Midmorning touched on?

10:37 – Question: How many of you have been in a school recently?

10:40 – I’m ignoring the political talk. Here’s an interesting story from late last week in the U.K. about a report that is about to come out on the Internet generation.


Far from being dumbed down by the information age, we are smartening up. Jim Flynn, a New Zealand professor, has charted year-on-year rises in IQ scores across the world, and tests show that Britons’ average IQ has risen 27 points since 1942. True, school leavers might know nothing of Clement Attlee or the nine-times table, but that’s the fault of our education system. The cognitive labour demanded by games and assimilating detail is linked to better mental dexterity. Our brains have been reprogrammed.

10:41 – “It takes away the space that was reserved for more reflection and introspection,” Jacoby said on the information that is now available today. An online commenter said “no wonder we’re dumb” because we’re bombarded with information. Here’s my present problem: we’re assuming we are dumb. Prove it.

10:44 – Kerri invokes the wisdom of Stevie Van Zandt. Excellent. He apparently laments that musicians today don’t understand the history of their craft. Van Zandt, of course, played a part on the Sopranos, one of the cultural phenomenons of our time.

10:47 — No one wants to work for their knowledge. Say again: prove it. “Boys and girls should have desk and they shouldn’t be allowed to talk to each other,” Jacoby said. The caller to whom she was responding said “kids today” (or “folks” if you prefer) are “passive” in their learning. Isn’t that “I’ll talk, you listen” method of education the definition of passive?

10:53 Says a commenter here:

Instead of picking at culture let’s look at all that is happening. I get tired of the criticizing of the culture. Let’s look at the powerful stuff that is happening. Kids are so technologically advanced that they leave adults in the dust. Kids are discovering reading through graphic novels and genres we older ‘folk’ don’t get. And on and on and on…..

Smackdown, Jacoby replies to the idea that kids are smarter:


“No they’re not. Any kid who can use a computer better than most people. It doesn’t tell us anything. The computer is a tool. One of the things that’s very wrong. What techies talk about is if the computer and digital universe and the Web is some kind of godlike new way of thinking. The idea that because kids can use a computer means they’re smarter than us is ridiculous.”

She then says that when we say kids are smarter, we’re saying kids can use a computer better. Well, there’s a lesson in intellectual dishonesty: change the assertion to a different one and then rebut that one.

In fact, kids are smarter (more knowledgeable) than previous generations. The difference is they’re not knowledgeable about the same things. And the computer, by the way, while it is a tool, has also created the environment for creativity that has come from it. The computer is not an entertainment tool. It is a tool that can be used for multiple purposes.

One can use a pen and paper to write a poem or paragraph from Aeschylus, or one can write Mein Kampf.

10:58 — All in all, the debate pretty much mirrored that of generations past. I’ll match this anecdotal evidence with that anecdotal evidence. In a way, it’s a shame we think so little of our kids and have so little hope in what they can — and have — accomplished.