Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Are we becoming a nation of idiots?

This piece from the Dallas Morning News looks at several major factors in the dumbing down of public discourse, and gets it exactly right:

Susan Jacoby: Is America getting dumber?
[...] Dumbness, to paraphrase the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print (and by video, I mean every form of digital media); a disjunction between Americans' rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.

First and foremost among the vectors of the new anti-intellectualism is video. The decline of book, newspaper and magazine reading is by now an old story. The drop-off is most pronounced among the young, but it continues to accelerate and afflict Americans of all ages and education levels.

Reading has declined not only among the poorly educated, according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1982, 82 percent of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later, only 67 percent did. And more than 40 percent of Americans under 44 did not read a single book – fiction or nonfiction – over the course of a year. The proportion of 17-year-olds who read nothing more than doubled between 1984 and 2004. This time period, of course, encompasses the rise of personal computers, Web surfing and video games. [...]
(bold emphasis mine) Americans are reading less and less. The lines between news and entertainment are becoming blurred, into a mish-mash of "info-tainment". Focusing on video media instead of reading seems to also encourage shorter attention spans, which is even manifesting itself in the way presidential campaigns are conducted:
[...] As video consumers become progressively more impatient with the process of acquiring information through written language, politicians are under great pressure to deliver their messages as quickly as possible. Harvard University's Kiku Adatto found that from 1968 to 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate – featuring the candidate's voice – dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, it was down to just 7.8 seconds.

The shrinking public attention span fostered by video is closely tied to the second important anti-intellectual force in American culture: the erosion of general knowledge. [...]
It's not my imagination the electorate seems to be getting dumber and dumber. A growing number of people seem to lack the most basic kind of knowledge. But it isn't just the lack of knowledge that is the the problem:
[...] That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place.

Call this anti-rationalism – a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation. [...]
Exactly. How are people who don't even understand the basics of the earth's physical relationship to the sun going to be able to even begin to understand debates about the weather and so-called "global warming"? They won't bother to understand; they'll just follow their "feelings". I find this pretty scary stuff. It's a kind of Brave New World that we don't need. This article goes into a lot more detail, and is well worth reading. Identifying the problem properly is the first step to begin turning it around.

And clearly, it DOES need to be turned around. The facts are appalling:

Only 1 of 2 students graduate high school in US cities: study
[...] "Only about one-half (52 percent) of students in the principal school systems of the 50 largest cities complete high school with a diploma."

Based on 2003-2004 data, the report said that across the country the graduation average for public school students is 69.9 percent, with the best success rate in suburbs -- 74.9 percent -- and rural districts -- 73.2 percent.

Asian-Americans score the highest graduation rate, at 80 percent, with whites at 76.2 percent and Hispanics at 57.8 percent.

Women graduate at a much higher rate than men, 73.6 percent to 66.0 percent.

In the country's city schools, the study found that in urban areas generally, just 60.4 percent graduate, and in the principal school districts of the top 50 cities, barely half graduate. [...]
And as if these figures are not bad enough, consider that many of the students who do graduate are "functional illiterates". They can read traffic signs and labels on packages at the supermarket, but they can't understand newspaper or magazine articles, comprehend written instructions, write letters or balance a checkbook. A high school diploma is worth less and less. Nowadays many employers consider applicants with less than two years of college to be unemployable.

All of this is fixable, but we need to start reversing it now. Political correctness and Self Esteem BS be damned.

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