Dumbing Down or Smartening Up?


Chicago. -- I was called by a newspaper reporter to comment on the dumbing-down of America. That is the latest worry cultivated by our worriers-of-the-day. The Oscars won by "Forrest Gump" make people fear a rush of dumb-is-good movies, one already begun with "Dumb and Dumber" and "Tommy Boy."

Other evidence is cited to show that we are turning into idiots: polls proving that people cannot recognize famous events; the silly things said by callers on radio talk shows; our alleged shorter attention span; the replacement of print by visual stimuli, and so on.

Well, there is always enough dumbness to go around in any collection of human beings. But my answer to the question "Are we getting dumber?" is: "Dumber than when?" Or, to say the same thing: "Dumber than what? Dumber than who?"

If we have a dumb Gump to admire, our predecessors had bumbling or downright stupid stars like Jerry Lewis, Lou Costello, Stan Laurel, Harry Langdon. Dopey people are a staple of comic art, back to the time of Aristophanes in ancient Greece (whose comedy "The Clouds" was built on a father's agony that his son had become as stupid as the horses that were all he cared about).

Democracies especially wonder about sinking to the lowest common denominator, since popular government has to appeal to, address, listen to "the common folk." Cicero wrote a dialogue in which a great orator begs his friend not to listen in when he goes campaigning -- he has to sound as if knows next to nothing. Even earlier, according to Greek scholar Josiah Ober, the rhetoricians of ancient Athens had to pretend that they knew no more than their audiences.

I call this "the Safire effect." William Safire, the speech writer for President Nixon, praised Ronald Reagan for making mistakes that put him on a level with other people. It is the "heck, b'gosh, b'gum, yuk-yuk" approach cultivated by Will Rogers and satirized by Stephen Leacock.

Often, what journalists think of as new is what historians see as part of a long-standing pattern. Actually, signs of intelligence are not lacking in our time. No electorate has been as well-informed as ours, as well educated, as capable of seeking information. CNN and C-SPAN have large audiences that would have stunned observers in the past. Call-in shows put some silly people on the air, but at least they are discussing ideas.

My interviewer thought the attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities might be anti-intellectual in motive. But intellectuals are leading that attack. All the following people have earned a doctorate: William Bennett, Lynne Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Richard Armey, Phil Gramm. God knows a Ph.D. is no guarantor of wisdom. But the arguments mounted against the endowments are moral ones, not anti-intellectual ones.

On both sides of the political process, leaders show an interest in ideas and a familiarity with them that was not common in the past. Just compare President Clinton with Lyndon Johnson -- or Newt Gingrich with Joseph McCarthy.

We are all, always, dumb, and need to get smarter. But we are not, at the moment, dumbing down; we are smartening up. These are the good old days.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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