Dumbing Down


The term Dumbing down describes the deliberate diminishment of the intellectual level of the content of schooling and education, of literature and cinema, and of news and culture. The idea of and the term dumbing down originated in 1933 as slang, used by motion picture screenplay writers, to mean: ‘revise so as to appeal to those of little education or intelligence.’ Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu noted cultural capital as a means of social mobility, which is diminished by the processes of dumbing down.

The occurrences of dumbing down vary in nature, according to the subject matter under discussion and the purpose of the simplifier, but the dumbing-down usually involves the over-simplification of critical thought to the degree of conceptually undermining the intellectual standards of language and of learning of a society; by such simplistic means the writer and the speaker justifies the trivialization of cultural, artistic, and academic standards, as in the case of popular culture.

Nonetheless, the term dumbing down is subjective, because what a person considers as a dumbed-down cultural artifact usually depends upon the taste (value judgement) of the reader, the listener, and the viewer. Hence, in ‘Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste’ (1979) Bourdieu proposed that, in a society in which the cultural practices of the ruling class are rendered and established as the legitimate culture of that society, that action then devalues the cultural capital of the subordinate social classes, and thus limits their social mobility, within their own society.

In the late 20th century, the increased number of students attending university, because of lowered scholastic aptitude standards, required the establishment and maintenance of intellectual distinctions; thus, in 2003, the UK Minister for Universities, Margaret Hodge, criticized ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees as a negative consequence of universities dumbing down curricula to meet ‘the needs of the market,’ degrees conferred for studies in a field of endeavour ‘where the content is perhaps not as [intellectually] rigorous as one would expect, and where the degree, itself, may not have huge relevance in the labor market,’ thus, a university degree of slight intellectual substance, which the student earned by ‘simply stacking up numbers on Mickey Mouse courses, is not acceptable.’

High school physics instructor, Wellington Grey, published an Internet petition, wherein he said ‘I am a physics teacher. Or, at least I used to be’; and complained that ‘[Mathematical] calculations – the very soul of physics – are absent from the new General Certificate of Secondary Education.’ Among the examples of dumbing-down that he provided were: ‘Question: Why would radio stations broadcast digital signals, rather than analog signals? Answer: Can be processed by computer/ipod’ to ‘Question: Why must we develop renewable energy sources?’

In ‘Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling’ (1991, 2002), retired school teacher John Taylor Gatto presented speeches and essays, including ‘The Psychopathic School,’ his acceptance speech for the 1990 New York City Teacher of the Year award, and ‘The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher,’ his acceptance speech upon being named as the New York State Teacher of the Year for 1991. Gatto speculated: ‘Was it possible, I had been hired, not to enlarge children’s power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy, on the face of it, but slowly, I began to realize that the bells and confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think, and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior.’

In examining the seven lessons of teaching, Gatto concluded that ‘all of these lessons are prime training for permanent underclasses, people deprived forever of finding the center of their own special genius.’ That ‘school is a twelve-year jail sentence, where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school, and win awards doing it. I should know.’

Increased business competition, and the introduction of econometric methods changed the business practices of the mass communications media. The business monopoly practice of media consolidation reduced the breadth and the depth of the journalism practiced and provided for the information of the public. The reduction of operating costs (overhead expenses) eliminated foreign news bureaus and reporters, in favor of publishing the public relations publications (news releases) of a government, a business, and a political party as fact.

Refinements in the tracking systems that measure approval-ratings and audience-size increased the cultural incentive for producers to write as simply and as simplistically possible, by diminishing the intellectual complexity of the argument presented in the program, usually at the expense of factual accuracy, logic, and complexity. Cultural theorists, such as Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Neil Postman, Henry Giroux, and Pierre Bourdieu, invoked these effects as evidence that commercial television is an especially pernicious contributor to the dumbing-down of communications. Nonetheless, cultural critic Stuart Hall said that the people responsible for teaching critical thinking – parents and academic instructors – can improve the quality (breadth and depth) of their instruction by occasionally including television programs.

The science fiction film ‘Idiocracy’ (2005) portrays the U.S. as a greatly dumbed-down society five hundred years hence; which low cultural condition was achieved with dysgenics, over-reproduction by people of low intelligence being greater than the rate of reproduction of people of high intelligence, i.e. the educated. Conceptually, the world postulated in ‘Idiocracy’ derives from the science fiction short story ‘The Marching Morons’ (1951), by Cyril M. Kornbluth. Moreover, the novel ‘Brave New World’ (1931), by Aldous Huxley, discussed the ways that society was effectively dumbed-down in order to maintain political stability and social order.

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