Dumb and dumber

14th February 1997 at 00:00
DUMBING DOWN: ESSAYS ON THE STRIP MINING OF AMERICAN CULTURE Edited by Katherine Washburn and John F Thornton Norton Pounds 19.95. Is American education making children stupid? Scott Bradfield has doubts about yet another right-wing jeremiad

According to the essays collected in this book, America (if not the world) is getting stupider. High school students can't find their own nation on a map. Purportedly well-educated young corporate executives end their sentences with prepositions. Half-baked Black novelists are being taught in graduate literature seminars even though they don't measure up to important white male ones. And everybody's so busy learning to feel good about themselves as human beings that they never take time to learn anything from the so-called "elite" intelligentsia (the editors of this book, for example).

The general premise of Dumbing Down is fairly straightforward: that modern technology and social values are all contributing to a sort of intellectual laxity in American life.

But what's annoying about these specially-commissioned essays, written mostly by academics and journalists, is how often the same bogeymen are marched out on trumped-up charges to take blame for the whole ugly mess. Television, shopping malls and multiculturalism seem to be the favourite targets, and while all three certainly can be pretty stupefying at times, it's still strange to hear them described in the same demonising language usually applied to serial killers, child molesters, and Newt Gingrich.

The keynote essay by Gilbert T Sewall will give you a good idea of where this collection is headed. Sewall comes out of the gate ranting about "13-year-old girls, dressed like hookers" at the local mall, the National Organization for Women pestering everybody about sexual harassment, and something he (and many other essayists in this book) refers to as "self-esteem education".

What Sewall seems to mean by this term is what he sees as a concerted effort by educators to teach children to respect one another's racial and sexual differences at the expense of teaching them to read, write and add up.

Unfortunately, this argument never comes together. For while many readers might agree with Sewall that students should graduate from their respective universities with some shared knowledge, it doesn't necessarily follow that this knowledge can't include a "diversity" (to use the contemporary catchword) of cultural voices and opinions.

It's true that so-called multiculturalism often goes awry in today's American school system. It's just as true, though, that whatever one thinks of the novels of Alice Walker, or the poetry of Leroi Jones, studying either or both of them won't make anybody more stupid than they already are. But then there's little logic in Dumbing Down, and lots of vitriol.

As with today's American right-wing DJs (such as Rush Limbaugh or G Gordon Liddy), most of these writers describe any attempt at kindness with a sort of loathing.

So Sewall will snidely refer to the "curriculum of caring" which tries to "improve student mental health, self-esteem, sexual experience, and gender sensitivity". Or the editors will deride Vietnam demonstrators in the 1960s as self-centred brats who would have been just as well off "minoring in Women's Film Studies" or "mortgaging the piano for a rock guitar". Under the guise of academic discourse, Washburn, Thornton and Co. often sound like they're just letting off steam about their own ungrateful kids and failed careers.

This is a book deeply influenced (or perhaps "incited" is a better word) by Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, which argues that education should be restricted to only the best and brightest students, as well as rigidly standardised. (In other words, everybody should finish school knowing what Allan Bloom thinks is important.) The most irritating thing about this book, though, is that most of these writers (and the editors as well) write the worst sort of stilted academic prose imaginable,the sort of stuff Orwell lambasts in "Politics and the English Language".

The old-crank award should go to Sven Birkerts for his contribution, "Homo Virtualis", which waxes wroth about how surfing the Internet melts your brain, even though Birkerts confesses he's never actually used the Internet himself. He's only "watched" people use it.

Having said all that, one shouldn't make the same mistake as most of these writers do by tarring everybody with the same brush. Despite its generally awful nature, the book does include a number of pieces that are worth reading.

Brad Leithauser offers some useful and well-thought-out ideas about teaching poetry appreciation in the university; Carole Rifkind describes the psychic architecture of malls; and David R Slavitt puts his fellow cranks to shame with one of the funniest pieces you'll ever read about the decline of today's English departments. But five or six decent articles out of 22 isn't a convincing argument that we should look up to these people as the new elite.

Scott Bradfield is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut. His latest novel is Animal Planet (Picador)

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