Dumbing Down : Essays on the Strip Mining of American Culture


Passionate observers across the political/intellectual spectrum confront the downward spiral of American life, art, and thought.
With vigor, wit, learning, common sense, and urgency, twenty-three essayist—including John Simon, Cynthia Ozick, Phillip Lopate, George F. Kennan, Sven Birkerts, Joseph Epstein, and Brad Leithauser—examine aspects of our pan-cultural "dumbing down" and offer both diagnoses of and ...

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Passionate observers across the political/intellectual spectrum confront the downward spiral of American life, art, and thought.
With vigor, wit, learning, common sense, and urgency, twenty-three essayist—including John Simon, Cynthia Ozick, Phillip Lopate, George F. Kennan, Sven Birkerts, Joseph Epstein, and Brad Leithauser—examine aspects of our pan-cultural "dumbing down" and offer both diagnoses of and possible cures for this wasting disease.

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Editorial Reviews

Lisa Zeidner - Philadelphia Inquirer
“What distinguishes this collection is its breadth, its liveliness. This valuable book provides much ammunition for . . . unrepentant elitists.”
Florence King - National Review
“A collection of savagely witty essays by a hardy band of cultural commentators who believe things are bad, really bad out there, and are not at all reluctant to say so.”
Neil Postman
“Provides the best picture we have of the declining and embarrassing condition of discourse in America.”
William J. Bennett
“A terrific book. It is unsettling, arresting, and compelling, and its publication is a public service.”
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
It is a tribute to this engaging, cranky collection that critic Simon's introduction registers disagreement with the essays defining rock and roll and calling for more orthodox forms of religion. Among the essayists, David Slavitt laments that university students are now "more socially ambitious than intellectually curious," Robert Park condemns our acceptance of scientific illiteracy and Heather McDonald deconstructs the declining standards in the teaching of remedial writing. George Kennan reminds us that we need "an elite of service to others." Some essays-on psychiatry or sex or the social sciences-offer too-limited takes on broad topics. But this book, thankfully, has no neat ideological wrapper: James Twitchell reminds us of the ubiquitous influence of advertising, while Carole Rifkind describes how the mall compromises public space. Literary critic Sven Birkerts worries that the computer and the Internet may become our new deity: his fear may be exaggerated, but his solution-real engagement with books and ideas-is surely worth adopting. Thornton is a literary agent; Washburn is a freelance editor. (June)
Library Journal
The editors of this collection believe that an infection of thoughtlessness has placed American culture in a terminal condition. Washburn, a writer and translator, and literary agent Thornton have edited essays by several generally like-minded critics, creative writers, and social scientists. Most have a particular ideological complaint: America is dumber because it has abandoned its standards to accommodate affirmative action for the multiculturalist, feminist rabble. Many intelligent readers may not move deeper into the book after encountering John Simon's premise that smart people always chose opera over rock. The lone writer from an African American perspective is Armstrong Williams, Strom Thurmond's protg. If ever a collection purporting to be cross-representational had a narrow political vision, this is the book. Still, the writing is often very good and always provocative. While voices from the Right dominateGilbert T. Sewall, Heather MacDonald, and Joseph Epstein are exemplarsAnthony DeCurtis and Ken Kalfus, with a few others, contribute notions that do not simply translate as "blame the liberals." Recommended for libraries that want to document important currents in American culture.Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., Pa.
Mary Elizabeth Williams
For a book ostensibly about the decline of American culture, Dumbing Down is a real no-brainer. This collection of dire warnings points its fingers in the usual directions -- television, advertising, the Internet -- and does so with an unseemly amount of egotistical posturing. Editors John Thornton and Katharine Washburn's basic premise is that we are on the slippery slope to mass stupidity, and they've plenty of corroborating expert testimony.

Dumbing Down smugly divides the world into Them and Us; it might as well be called, If You're Reading This, You're Better Than Anybody Else. There's no allowance for subtle distinctions -- a person who subscribes to the New York Review of Books would never clutter up the kitchen with those silly modern cookbooks, and a Mozart fan would never listen to U2.

Ingenuously flaunting the bourgeois assumption that high culture is not out of reach of the lower class, the contributors neatly duck the reality that those who are poor and overworked don't always have the luxury of enjoying a day at the museum. They also forget that mediocrity has always been with us, and that what remains of the idealized past is it highest achievements. The real problem may be that our current mass media makes it harder for the elite to insulate themselves from shallower entertainments.

Michael Vincent Miller could certainly take Madonna to task for any number of crimes against taste, but instead he's offended because he "can't imagine anyone's mucous membranes being much dampened or erectile tissue becoming engorged by watching her performances." Nahum Waxman mourns the simplicity of days gone by, noting the scientifically precise directives of recipes today and railing against the horrors of convenience foods. It's difficult to comprehend how those times in which women -- and rest assured it was women -- stood by the stove all day mashing peas porridge did anything to elevate the culture. But Anthony DeCurtis casts a few meaningful lobs in defense of pop music, and Cynthia Ozick loves both the written and spoken word enough to give a loving tour of aural culture. Her precision with regard to the pros and cons of pronouncing the "r" in "mother" make her essay the most enjoyable few pages of the book.

A few other pieces here are passionate and carefully constructed, emanating as much from a genuine appreciation of beauty and tenderness as from a disdain for the crass and cheap. But time and again the authors come across as naive, nostalgic, and rigid, operating from an implacable sense of right and wrong. Perhaps one shouldn't be too unkind to the creators of Dumbing Down and their good intentions, however. For, as Thackeray said, "You must not judge hastily or vulgarly of snobs: to do so shows that you yourself are a snob." And an inflated sense of superiority is just plain dumb. --Salon

Kirkus Reviews
Twenty-two sparkling essays defend the apocalyptic proposition that American culture "has somehow begun sliding down a long, steep chute into nullity."

Ever since Allan Bloom unexpectedly hit the bestseller lists in 1988 with his denunciation of cultural and intellectual standards in the US, publishers have cheerfully cultivated his theme. Bad news is good business, and the news in Dumbing Down is pretty bad: American religion has degenerated into kitsch; malls have helped erode our democratic concept of public space; museums have trivialized history and science; computers are destroying literacy; bad science is dumbing down good science; the quality of our language is sinking to an all time low. Even the New Yorker has been watered down to seem more like People. By now such news is not exactly news. Nevertheless, as dubious as this genre is becoming, it must be noted that Washburn and Thornton (she is a freelance writer and editor, he is a literary agent) have assembled an outstanding collection of essays on contemporary American life, with elegant contributions (most of them written expressly for this volume) from such well-known figures as Joseph Epstein, George Kennan, and Cynthia Ozick. Anecdote largely replaces argument in books of this sort. Novelist David Slavitt's recollection of his job at a major news magazine is typical: "When I was at Newsweek, it wasn't a magazine that most of the people who worked there would have read voluntarily. I mean, when they taught me that I was supposed to write `Plato, the Greek philosopher once said . . .,' it wasn't a joke. The identifying appositive had to be there. (I always tried to imagine someone out there slapping his forehead and thinking, Oh, yeah, right, that Plato.)"

Welcome to the apocalypse. If we end up in the toxic landfill of History, it won't be because the writers in this witty, wonderfully entertaining collection failed to warn us.

From Barnes & Noble
How did the America become so "dumb" and so numb to the phenomenon of "dumbing down" that is happening right under our very noses? Observers across the political, intellectual, and generational spectrums cast a worried eye on the accelerating downward spiral of American life, art, and thought. 23 essays by Cynthia Ozick, Philip Lopate, John Simon, others address every aspect of how a once-rich and burgeoning culture has gone from bad to worse, from the "curriculum of caring" in our schools that places self esteem above serious academics to the "carnivalization of culture" by the media. "Dumbing Down is a terrific book. It is unsettling, arresting, and compelling, and its publication is a public service."--William J. Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393317237
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/28/1997
  • Pages: 332
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

John Thornton was a book editor for many years and now works as a literary agent. He lives in New York.

Katharine Washburn is an editor and translator. She lives in New York.

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Table of Contents

Foreword by the Editors 11
Dumbing Down: Some Leading Indicators 23
Introduction 43
The Postmodern Schoolhouse 57
The Question of Our Speech: The Return to Aural Culture 68
Writing Down Together 88
The Erosion of the Social Sciences 97
The Saving Minutes 114
Circling the Squires 126
Last Night at the Planetarium 139
Voodoo Science 149
I'll Take My Stand: A Defense of Popular Culture 157
The Last Taboo 164
What to Do about the Arts 179
"But First, a Word from Our Sponsor": Advertising and the Carnivalization of Culture 197
Homo Virtualis 209
The Facts of Fiction and the Fiction of Facts 224
Egalitarianism and Diversity 237
Kitsch Religion 250
America's Fantasy Urbanism: The Waxing of the Mall and the Waning of Civility 261
The Trivialization of Tragedy 270
"I Feel Good to Be a Black Male" 281
Cooking Dumb, Eating Dumb 297
What's the Story? 308
Does Sex Still Exist? 321
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  • Posted April 15, 2013

    Great book! Don't believe the Mary Elizabeth Williams review. It

    Great book! Don't believe the Mary Elizabeth Williams review. It does not flaunt a them and us scenario, it merely states common sense. I'm assuming most of these essays were written by  mostly conservative writers. I , however, am very liberal and just can't help agreeing with them. Especially the argument made by the post-Dartmouth Conference crowd that classic literature and proper English are realms or  white oppressors and the ruling class. Suffice it to say, I escaped this social engineering program as it was making headway in the mid to late 70s. The quasi classic education that we all rebelled at in the early 70s has benefitted me greatly in today's world of "dumbing down". A required read for anyone, regardless of political stripe, that really values education. 

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