The Dumbing of America
Already I have proven my point in the title to this essay. First of all, "dumbing" is not a legitimate word that is recognized by any of the dictionaries I checked. The experts would say that people who use it are dumb. It is ironic that it is predominately used by people complaining about others getting dumber.
The word "dumb" originally referred to someone who lacked the ability to speak. It was the German word (dumm) that was brought here and evolved into "dumb" as in "stupid." But when the word "dumbing" is used, it is usually used with the word "down," as in the "dumbing down" of someone or some group. To me this seems redundant. Also redundant is the expression "smarten up" or "wise up." Does "dumbing up" make you smarter?
What got me thinking about Americans becoming dumber was not all of the bad reports about our education system or its comparison with those of other countries. What did it was a phone call from Verizon. I don't normally answer calls when my caller ID indicates that they are solicitations, but Verizon is my phone company (cell and home), and I use their FIOS system for Internet access. I thought that perhaps they needed to speak with me about my service or billing. Wrong! They wanted to sell me their fiber optic cable service. I politely told the man that I don't watch TV, I don't like TV, and I don't want to watch TV. I had to tell him this three times before it registered with him. Evidently he had never encountered anyone who didn't watch TV. He apologized and said goodbye.
There is no question that TV can be entertaining. There is also no question that smoking marijuana can be entertaining, but for some reason marijuana was outlawed, while TV was not. I think they made a serious mistake – whomever "they" are. While I did not conduct an official study, it seems apparent to me that TV has done a lot more harm to our society than marijuana. However, I've not been an active participant in either of these activities, so I can't base it on personal experience. I have done illegal things that I believe to have been more fun than either TV or marijuana, but that's another story -- and we were both underage.
TV is addicting because it is there in front of us, it offers us lots of options, it requires no effort, we can avoid doing other things that need to be done, and we can eat while we watch it. Thus much of America is being unproductive and getting fat in the process – as well as unhealthy.
The A. C. Nelson Co. has gathered some shocking statistics. According to them, the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day, which is 28 hours/week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year. In a 65-year life, the average American will have spent 9 years glued to the tube. It took me only seven years to get my MBA and my doctorate. Jeeze, I could have been watching TV instead.
Their statistics get even scarier. Americans rent 6 million videos daily, but only half this many books are checked out from libraries. By the time the average child has completed elementary school, he or she has seen approximately 8,000 murders. By age 18 people have witnessed 200,000 acts of violence, and each year they have watched approximately 20,000 commercials. Fifty nine percent of Americans can name The Three Stooges, but only 17% can name at least three justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. They estimate that the dollar value spent watching TV, even at a low wage of five dollars per hour, is S1.25 trillion dollars a year. Okay, enough statistics. There is a plethora of information out there about this problem. Unfortunately, none of it is on TV, so most people don't know about it.
Watching TV is a lot like going to the 99 cents store. Everything is crap, but if you look long enough, the chances are you will find something. You won't be better off because of it, but you will feel better. And isn't that what "dumb" is all about?
In today’s New York Times, University of Chicago professor Mark Lilla offers a disquieting historical essay, Church Meets State. In his conclusion, he says:
The leading thinkers of the British and American Enlightenments hoped that life in a modern democratic order would shift the focus of Christianity from a faith-based reality to a reality-based faith.
American religion is moving in the opposite direction today, back toward the ecstatic, literalist and credulous spirit of the Great Awakenings.
Its most disturbing manifestations are not political, at least not yet. They are cultural.
The fascination with the ''end times,'' the belief in personal (and self-serving) miracles, the ignorance of basic science and history, the demonization of popular culture, the censoring of textbooks, the separatist instincts of the home-schooling movement -- all these developments are far more worrying in the long term than the loss of a few Congressional seats.
No one can know how long this dumbing-down of American religion will persist. But so long as it does, citizens should probably be more vigilant about policing the public square, not less so.
If there is anything David Hume and John Adams understood, it is that you cannot sustain liberal democracy without cultivating liberal habits of mind among religious believers. That remains true today, both in Baghdad and in Baton Rouge.
To be sure, a reality-based faith is unquestionably the preferred option. But some of the things Professor Lilla bemoans can be seen as understandable reactions to the dismissal — indeed, the demonization — of faith in anything other than secular humanism.
Read it all.