On Dumbing Down

A friend of mine on Facebook pointed me to this article this morning.

No, really; go and read it.  It won’t take you but a minute or two.  I’ll wait…..

….. Back?  Okay, good.  So, remember how I keep telling you that the Universe has a way of putting things in my path at just the right moment?  Well, later on this afternoon, I came across this.  No, really; go and read this, too (it’s even shorter than the Ebert piece, and there’s a video of the moment at the end).

All of this has got me thinking about the expectations we have for education, and about the attitude that some of us in the culture have developed as relates to what it means to be an educated person.

Exactly when did it become uncool to be smart?  At what point did we decide that ignorance – in speech, in manner, in comprehension – was a virtue?  When did it become okay to mock smart people, and to treat educated people with, at best, disdain or, at worst, antagonism?  Since when did “educated” become synonymous with “elitist”?

For all the lip service we give as a nation to the idea of education, one would think we’d be better than this.  We’ve got all kinds of accountability measures, we talk a great game about competing with other intellectually forward nations, we lament “brain drains” happening to our smaller cities (and our nation as a whole) and rail at teachers for failing to truly educate our kids.  We so aspire to send our children to college that we’ve reached a point where applications to those institutions are so numerous that even the best students have trouble finding places to accept them (trust me on this; every spring, I watch as seniors lose their collective shit over essays and applications and acceptance letters that sometimes don’t come).

The reality on the ground, though, under the buzz of all the rhetoric, is very different.  We (the collective ‘we’ – present company excluded) don’t want to push the kids too hard, lest we damage their self-esteem.  We don’t ‘make’ them read or study or perform, and when some of us try, we’re reprimanded by administrators who are getting pressure from parents who want to make excuses for why their kids “can’t” do whatever it is we’re requiring of them.  As teachers, we’re told not to expect too much, to settle for what we get, and to try to make the best of what the students are willing to give us (which, most of the time, isn’t much).

It’s this sort of culture that produces the monstrosities that Ebert is railing against.  From my (admittedly limited) perspective, everything from comic-book interpretations of great works of literature to a politically-correct scrubbing of Huckleberry Finn (to the watering down of curriculum in virtually every other subject, as well) is a symptom of an attitude of “what’s the least I can do?”

Granted, this is not a new thing – my generation had Cliff’s Notes, and I’m reasonably sure that some other shortcuts existed before that – but when I was a student, at least, utilizing those kinds of resources was looked down on as a variation of cheating.  Now, though, we’re publishing books for use in schools that don’t even put up the pretense of challenging our students; we’re marketing these sorts of bastardizations and modifications as legitimate substitutes for the real thing.

Look; I don’t begrudge anyone having to look up the word “perspicacious.”  It’s a doozy of a word, and I’m betting that very few people who aren’t English teachers or avid crossword solvers wouldn’t have to look it up; it’s not exactly something one drops in casual conversation, is it?  I appreciate straightforward speech as much as the next person – I’m not (always) of the opinion expressed by Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett in The West Wing that, “anyone who uses one word when they could have used ten just isn’t trying hard enough.”  I will say, though, that I’d rather have ten words than live with this:

No; what I object to is the seeming disdain that came with the Amanpour’s vocabulary choice.  The fact that the incident has drawn as much attention as it has – and that the word has been labeled as “fancy” with what I perceive as no small tone of sneer – is what I object to.  I continue to be horrified by the attitude of students when I hand them a book that I expect them to read; the look of utter shock on their faces infuriates me every time (“But, Mrs. Chili; this book has, like, TWO HUNDRED PAGES!  You can’t really expect us to READ all that, can you?!”), and forget expecting them to look up words they encounter in that reading that they don’t already know. I object to the attitude that being smart is something to be avoided.

When we have a rich and nuanced vocabulary, we’re able to express ourselves with depth and clarity.  When we know “fancy” words and are able to use them correctly to people who understand them, we open up avenues of communication that make wondrous things possible.  Haven’t you ever been frustrated by not having the words to describe an experience, or by being unable to convey an idea with the kind of clarity that satisfies you?  Wouldn’t having access to a richer and more comprehensive vocabulary have helped that situation?  Why, then, do people resist learning new ways of saying what they think?  Why are people who use words with relish looked down upon as snobs and elitists?

I say it’s time we start countering that attitude.  We need to stop limiting ourselves (and our children) by elevating “down home folksy” (which, to me, is a euphemism for ignorant) to an ideal.  Smart matters.  The more you know, the more you’re able to do – and the less other people can take advantage of you.



Filed under about writing, Civics and Citizenship, concerns, critical thinking, dumbassery, ethics, failure, frustrations, General Griping, I can't make this shit up..., out in the real world, parental units, really?!, rhetoric, self-analysis, Teaching, That's your EXCUSE?!, You're kidding...right?

17 responses to “On Dumbing Down

  1. Pingback: Quick Hit: Thursday Bug « The Blue Door

  2. Brilliant blog post.

    I’ve been told that I need to modify my vocabulary when I’m talking to students (up to and including 18 year old students who are planning on going to Oxford) as they do not understand what some of the words that I use mean.

    I don’t consider my vocabulary to be that esoteric, but it is apparently too “high-brow” for my students. I remember being set a number of books to read a term (both free choice and from a reading list) and it was expected that we would make a list of words that we hadn’t understood in the back of our exercise books with two definitions next to them. What the dictionary said and what we understood it to be.

    I have a vast number of books in my classroom (I teach maths, not English so it’s seen as a little odd) and I try desperately hard to draw students into borrowing them and discussing what they think about them. Little chance. Reading is a totally “keeno” activity.

    Is the understanding of the English language going to subject to the same attitude as maths, where it’s now seen as socially acceptable (at least in the UK) to freely admit that you “don’t do it” and have “never understood it”.

  3. Patti

    You can’t learn stuff you’re not exposed to, so dumbing down makes it harder to learn, not easier. When I taught preschool we were encouraged to use the correct term for things. If we set up something with a scientific basis, we used the scientific terminology in context while talking with the children. When done in a developmentally appropriate way, kids learn without any stress. Now that I’m in elementary schools, I use the same philosophy regarding my language. I use the words that make sense in context so that kids who don’t know them can figure them out.

    My mother-in-law is extremely well-read and had a classical education in Europe. She spends a good deal of time with my children, who have inherited from all of us a love of reading, and from my mother-in-law excellent vocabularies (which, of course, made it easier for them to learn to read in the first place, but I digress). Yet my son found out last year that having a good working vocabulary isn’t an asset in school when his teacher joked to me about the words he uses in class. I know for a fact he doesn’t throw big words around, so imagine my surprise to find out that his teacher thought that other second graders couldn’t understand what he was saying much of the time. WHAT??? She said this in front of him. He has plenty of friends, so I’m wondering if maybe SHE didn’t know what he was talking about. How sad, that such belittling starts so early.

    I do have to say that I don’t particularly care for belittling in the other direction, either. That same mother-in-law has friends who comment frequently on the small vocabularies of the people around them and purposely choose big, fancy words when dealing with people who are unlikely to know them. The nice people at fast food restaurants just don’t deserve such insulting treatment, even if they might not be there if they had more words to use.

    Thanks for the post, it got my dander up!

  4. That Ebert piece made my jaw drop. First Tom Sawyer, now this?? Egads!

    Great Thursday Bug!

  5. Anonymous

    I have a hunch the last time it was “cool” to be smart (if it ever was) was sometime before the French Revolution (the sans-culottes made it hard to get ahead). (sorry)

    One belief I find especially pernicious (insert pop-up definition here), is that children shouldn’t read anything that they can’t “relate to.” In other words, let’s kick out all the works of the dead white men because modern inner-city kids wouldn’t understand. Good-bye, Scarlet Pimpernel!

    On the contrary–books and stories take us places we could never go physically (either geographically or historically), as well as expanding our views of our world and ourselves. Teenagers in particular do not need any more help being inward-focused; they need literature that expands their minds and their horizons.

    (rant off — sorry!)

    • The above comment is mine — I had tried to log in through WordPress (http://tothemathlimit.wordpress.com), but it’s ignoring me.

    • I agree with you, there is so much emphasis on making sure that students relate to everything. Even in maths every topic has to be made relevant to students and their daily life. I agree with ensuring that students understand how maths can be applied and applying it themselves, but the idea that it is only of worth if they can see a direct link to their life is ridiculous.

      The same applies to literature, on the surface it may appear that there is no way at all a student could enjoy or relate to a particular book, but they can. We did and according to UK exam results students are getting brighter so …

      The fact that classic books (not high brow, but children’s classics) such as those written by Enid Blyton, are being edited to include modern language and currency is just silly. Don’t dumb down. Students are just being sold short!

      Badly written rant over!

  6. Two things:

    1. Count me in. I refuse to accept dumbing down for myself or my family or to even remotely consider apologizing for not being an idiot or for being a smacktard that actually goes around flaunting their refusal to learn.

    2. It must be in the air because I put a link on Facebook today about teachers cheating on tests on behalf of their students. That’s what it’s come down to. “You don’t have to learn. I’ll just take your test for you.”

  7. Maria, I wonder whether it MATTERS what topics we teach, really – isn’t the ability to communicate effectively necessary in all of our human interactions?

    I think you’re right about its becoming more and more acceptable to just shrug and say “I don’t get it,” and to leave it at that, though. There’s always going to be SOME of that, I think, but the seemingly overwhelming attitude (at least, among our politicians) that it’s BETTER to be ignorant than smart is what scares me. I keep going back to Goering’s quote that “an educated person is a future enemy.” I wonder if that’s not what our politicians are thinking, too; that it’s easier to rule stupid people.

    Patti, I think that part of the problem IS that there’s disdain on both sides of the question – for all the aggression and hostility about “elitism,” there’s also a lot of disrespect from people who consider themselves educated toward people who were content not to pursue higher education. I work to make sure that I’m profoundly respectful of those people (when they deserve it – there’s more to character than an education) and I’ve written here – more than once – about how we need to value more the people who work with their hands more than with their heads.

    Kwizgiver, thanks; I owe you for the Thursday Bug idea.

    Ms. Miller and Maria, don’t even get me STARTED on the “they can’t relate to it” thing. I am a loud (and occasionally hostile) opponent of only giving kids what they like. I go back to the “if you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always gotten” adage, and I’m INSISTENT (notice the emphasis) that they venture past zombies and video games to learn about things they otherwise wouldn’t bother to investigate.

    UGH, SW. Honestly; this stuff brings my heart rate up, and NOT in a good way.

  8. needsatimeout

    Interesting post. I see this uncool to be smart with a few of my after school students. Granted they are only in second grade but the “I don’t know” in a sing songy voice while I am trying to help them with homework drives me up a tree.It’s not funny or cute that you can’t figure out how to find the answer especially when the answer is on top of the page. Especially when I know you do know that you know. If you can’t and you are confused then let me help you but I am “on to you” =) Or when I am talking to my students asking them what they did over the weekend and they can’t tell me or just want to not have a converstation. When students come to me and tell me “I dont’ get this” I always ask “what don’t you get” I am not just giving answers
    life. Yes you do know what you did over the weekend stop and think.

    • needsatimeout

      apparently my wordpress went nuts so scratch out that last sentence. Anyway I am not just giving out answers, so it doesn’t give you the answer in the paragraph above that means they want you to think!
      One day after trying to explain an answer but not give away all the answers to one of our after school students she looked at me and said ” I don’t get this I think I will just use my free homework pass and not finish my homework” *smash head on table*

  9. Anonymous

    Ya gotta love Dennis! 🙂

  10. “nhfalconfalcon”? WTF?!

  11. I’m totally with you on the vocabulary issue: my students are entirely complacent when encountered with words they don’t know, preferring to give up on the material altogether instead of looking up the words. Even if they do look the word up, most often they snatch the first one that pops up on Dictionary.com whether it’s A. correct for this given context or B. they understand the definition itself!

    Also, that truncated Gatsby edition is a travesty, a blasphemy, a horrific aberration.

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