Sunday, November 28, 2004

Dumbing Down (Cherie)

Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip Mining of American Culture
Eds. Washburn, Katherine and John Thorton
Copyright 1996
Pages 329
Good for all area of study

This book admonishes the “dumbing down” of American life and culture. The essayists argue that while they were hung-up over the events of the Vietnam War, studying Middle High German, or minoring in Women’s Film Studies - they were actually counting on someone else to maintain what they had inherited. They state that we as a society have become creatures of the marketing masses with countless investigations into our lifestyles and preferences. Ultimately, they feel that we have as a society squandered knowledge, tradition, and competency. They hope to arise some awareness through the culmination of these essays, however they never produce a singular cause or solution. There are good points in these essays; however they often fall under the complication of their own admission of looking back to a “better time.” It is a romantic retrospct that fails to see the events that were probable causes for the very things they denounce. I decided it would be easier to brake down the essays into short synopses, since there are many diconnected views in this book set off in five sections.


John Simon
He argues that there is a prevalent dumbing down in the fields of art, theater, and science. He cynically (and somewhat accurately), states that all other animals except the humans are getting smarter. This cynicism is driven by the love of culture and sense of loss. He points to many ideas of standardized “culture” and feels that they are simply lost; ranging his arguments from ideas on language use to classicism. To John Simon popular culture has overridden historic classics, “art and ephemera are indeed not comparable.” Any reference to history or the historical is understood only by a handful of “Luddites and desperadoes.” The reflection of society is ultimately the image seen between a computer monitor and a television screen.

Gilbert Sewall
His essay is on the postmodern curriculum changes in academia. He feels that academic programs are a failure, existing of a collage of relativism and radical individualism. He exaggerates the exploitation of oppression and feels it is a weakness of the overly virtuous and sensitive. In age of diversity and multiculturalism, it is the Western “feel-good” subjects that are invading the program instead of the hard sciences and grammar.

Cynthia Ozick
This essay argues about speech and the formulation of the filtered American voice through a tale of a young girl and the weaning out of anything outside of the prescribed status of “good” accents. Through twists and turns of speech to literature it ultimately boils down to inheritance of manners and who shapes culture. She uses Henry James to exploit that his world revolved around the written word and that today’s culture is not a reduplication of his era. It is instead a place where language is fluid and is not bound by the walls of literature, and cannot be judged by the buildings of the past.

Heather MacDonald
MacDonald argues that the teaching of writing and similar skills has been replaced with expressionism. The basic skills are not taught for literacy and the expectation of skill is lowered. She argues that the scholastic system is too worried about getting in touch and not worried enough about getting the facts and skills right.

Steven Goldberg
This essay is one of many that he has written about the aspects of the logic and the empirical sciences on social issues. The central theme surrounds the psychological and ideological needs for science over the actual reality of the event or hypothesis. I feel his quote summarizes the piece best. “In other words, the very purpose of science, the separation of the true from the non-true – and the limitations on belief that this entails – is jettisoned.” I guess watching the Oprah show doesn’t make me a humanitarian after all (said with sarcasm). That is because truth and education are not handmaidens, but the ultimate goal for any individual seeking fulfillment and understanding. “It is precisely the fallacy on which the conservative view of cultural relativism rests.”

Brad Leithauser
His essay is a focus on the loss of rhythms and vocabulary necessary for the understanding of poetry. A solution he proposes is that the educational system should turn back the clock and teach the Classic skill of memorization and grammar. The true reward is the exonerating moments of the poem that remain long after death.

David Slavitt
This self proclaimed elitist essay brings up the issues of the “better life,” and mixed blessings found within technological and social advancement. The possession of classical learning and high culture has disappeared. He remarks on the change of socialization of the country after the Vietnam War. The ability to go to college became easier and the requirements for learning dropped. It has devalued the diploma in a societal goal of “middle class,” an egalitarian sense started by the need of Theodore Roosevelt. His argument is that the desire for learning is only within the procurement of jobs and economic wealth at the college level. The joy of learning in a person’s youth becomes the bitter reality of a set curriculum with an ultimate destination of a mediocre job. I think he paints a good and realistic argument; however the outcome is rather bleak. The pages of Marx, Freud, and Proust are often left unturned in a modern college classroom for the attempt to give everyone a fair shot has rotted into a loss of learning anything at all.

Arts and Science

Ken Kalfus
Ken Kalfus takes us to childhood and tours us through the amazing planetarium of his youth. How fascinating everything was become of science. It was explainable and attainable, and that is what made it amazing. Now in adulthood, he shows us that science fiction has taken over for fact. The imagination must have no limits in fact, and the most important thing to rely upon is the hope of the next Star Trek movie to tell us how to dream. Even these fantasies have taken over the minds of the youth and the place of “real” science in the museums. He feels it is a reflection of a pop culture and confusion that is spread throughout the American landscape. The science of the museums is pretty buttons that launch unexplainable objects (I laugh as I think of how true this is) and fake television screen to replace the actual presence of the stars. This is a good essay on the departure of the universe into the realm of the technological mind.

Robert Park
His essay explores the postmodern “new era.” His claim is that the purists want to destroy all the scientists since technology is taking over, but technology as he shows is a benefit and that there is no appeal in return to the dark ages of death and human sacrifice. It is a movement of anti-science where the ideological rules. Fantasy and homeopathic healing rules the minds of the masses and the scientists are afraid of being cast into intolerance. Basically, he feels the scientific mind is a reducing commodity an the only way that can identify the benefits of our universe.

Anthony Decurtis
“The native intelligence and an open mind are insufficient tools for maintaining a culture of endearing values.” He argues that there is no simple or pure understanding, and the elite are not made of those who have intelligence or merit. He merits popular culture alongside of high culture and stands behind the argument that it is society’s opinion that to be truly great must follow aesthetic values of the past. However, it does not accept these as means of attainment in our modern culture. Therefore he believes they must be placed on a level field to be enjoyed and used to enrich and not elevate.

Philip Lopate
This essay focuses on modern film. He argues that it is a marketable farce with an absence of skill and language. It simply is an explicative and has no sense of reality. It glosses our views of that which we criticize in a false state of empathy. He agues against such movies as I.Q., True Romance, Forest Gump and Pulp Fiction stating there are simply a celebration of nothingness and mindlessness. It is the allure of the impossible pipedream. This is a very interesting article for anyone interested in modern movie criticism and offers a wide arrangement of film critique.

Joseph Epstein
As a former member of the NEA, Joseph Epstein attacks the very system that funds this board. His strongest argument is that we produce teachers of art and not artist. We no longer understand high art, instead replacing middle art (with its inner confusion) within that heightened group. He attacks the universities for promoting the propaganda by employing those poets and artists who need to teach others there own works. Lastly, he shows the ironic state of the NEA. To become great or unique, you must be marginalized and make a statement against the political system, just so that you may attain money from that system. The government should not be a part of fueling individual art, only if this takes place can some great creations be made that do not follow what he believes to be the ‘shock them’ factor.
The Media

James Twitchell
This essay deals with what James Twitchell calls Adcult: our culture dependant upon advertising. He states that money is valued over time and that has gone to the advertisers advantage. “We consume the products as much as we do the advertising.” He states that the Industrial Revolution was a result of our love of shopping and attaining stuff, and it has been that way since the ancient Egyptians. He points to pure advertising as it started in books, then developed into magazines such as Colors and Sony Style, then onto the TV, and then finally the internet. He continuously shows how the advertisers target the youth and their unending time and money, time being the more powerful of the two. His solution is to cut the kids purse strings and try Colgate on your next shopping trip instead of Crest.

Sven Birkerts
Intriguing essay. Sven Birkets presents an essay on the realities or shall I say the ‘unrealities’ of the NET. He uses metaphors and images of life and religion to demonstrate the growing human metamorphosis to an online mentality. This very balanced argument also brings into question the boundaries of law. For example what would be the restrictions on entry of zones, rape, and murder? Are there such things? Lastly, he presents Nietzsche’s vision of deitism: when we become Gods, and how we slowly approach that collectively through removing the boundaries of time and space. How valuable is the presence of the body next to you? Does it make difference in the evaluation of what is real?

Kent Carroll
This essay calls for an authentic voice to filter the fantasy and lies that are delivered to the general public as truth. Ha calls them gatekeepers. The problem is that the reading public desires the fantasy and the publishers want the money. It is ultimately what the public wants. There is no need for the classic authors to build our fiction, the T.V. and movies have built up enough shocking deplorability that it is not necessary to have it in books when it instantly surfaces on the screen. It is a “measurable and quantifiable” corporate business that does not seek talent, but the dollar returns from a housewife who has decided that she can write the next great romance and then does.

Public Life

George Kennan
This essay explores the ideas originally presented by Alexis de Tocqueville. Equalitarian and democratic are synonymous features of American cultural desire. George Kennan questions the desires of the general public through the explorations of equality, elitism, and representative government. His ideas are not focused on the individual, but the society as a whole. Today’s society is lacking the leadership that makes great man and the individual leaders who will make tough choices without consulting the will of the crowd.

David Klinghoffer
Art and Kitsch culture take a twist in this essay on the multiculturizing of religion, particularly the Catholic and Jewish faiths. The Church like the public media redefines themselves on the simplicity of process. People do want the complications of understanding that are required of the Orthodox practices however they do not like the current state of practice and that is why so many youth are leaving these less substantial “new age” churches in return of what they think is the true religion. He finally makes the point that the short cuts do not define transcendence.

Carlole Rifkind
The shopping mall is the artificial reality of American reality. Carole Rfikind explores this fantasy environment from its inception up to modern times, and breaks down the falsified towers of this ‘central and safe social suburbia’. She states that “the mall is the TV you walk around in.” This private realm is controllable and not social and is as controlled as an advertisement.

Jonathan Rosen
This essay surface the question of reduplicating tragedy and human suffering, in particular the Holocaust. He states that the Disney like surroundings of carefully laid out museums and happy ending movies cause more harm than good, and do not adequately translate the experience of tragedy. It is simple a symbol that is often misinterpreted by the audience who experiences it. He particularly shows this effect in regards to Malcom X. American culture wants to experience the hero, not know the horrors that only leave twisted minds and hatred.

Armstrong Williams
Through the issuance of a letter Armstrong Williams blames the young “black American” problems on self-esteem. The messages from role models such as Malcom X have incited violence and a struggle for identity among these youths. He feels the responsibility is not simply about change, but knowing why that change is important. He does expect the receiver of the letter to be “changed by his message,” but seeks to recover the sons and daughters for the future. This essay is largely about instilling desire for goals and cultural values among youth.

Private Life

Paul McHugh
This essay discusses the problems that arise as psychiatry tries to place a story on mental illness. Through cases examples and colleague reviews Paul McHugh reveals his fear that today it is far easier to classify problems or repression onto a cultural narrative that blames the surroundings rather than the illness. It is a problem of overgeneralization and mixed metaphors that tend to loose its subject amongst the masses opinion, since that is far easier. This essay oversimplifies the problem, but does bring to head the attempts of most people to look for a blanket answer rather than seek individual enlightenment.

Michael Vincent Miller
This essay explores the diffusion of passion in society, taking the word “fuck” as its metaphor. No longer are the days of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, the word itself has been dumbed down by overuse. It is a collapse of the passionate erotic life an emergence of the desperate pathway to find ourselves as he puts it “out of breath.”

I have to admit, I used to say “She wants to have her cake and eat it too.”


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