The dumbing down of a generation

As I prepare to teach one of my spring courses, I am re-reading a book about 19th-century writer Mary Shelley, author of essays and novels, the most famous of which is "Frankenstein." When she and her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were not working on their respective writing projects, they and their friends read aloud to each other, discussed philosophy and studied foreign languages. They also took long walks, enjoying nature.

Today, however, we live in a different world. Few students study foreign languages, let alone Greek, as Mary Shelley did. And discussions of philosophy? Nature walks? Not likely.


College boards have been revamped, eliminating vocabulary "not in everyday use." And their scores have gone down, precipitating the "dumbing down" of the test, since high school students stopped routinely studying Latin, which is the foundation of language and provides good clues to uncommon words.

I know I sound like a curmudgeon; nevertheless, young people seem to spend all their spare and not-so-spare time with their smart phones. Talk about an ironic name; how smart are these devices?


They text, they Facebook (now a noun and a verb, like Google), tweet, and blog. How does this increase their knowledge, stimulate their brains? I recently had a young community college student helping me while I recovered from a hip replacement. Whether she was in the laundry room emptying the clothes dryer, in the kitchen rinsing dishes or in my bedroom changing the linens — three different floors — her smart phone was always at her side. The cell phone simply has become an appendage to many young people — who line up at 6 a.m. outside the Apple stores when a new version of an iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch, comes out.

How many people know about history, government, literature or science today? I still remember former Texas Gov. Rick Perry running for president in 2012. (He also threw his hat in the ring for 2016 but quickly dropped out.) When asked how many people serve on the Supreme Court, he hadn't the faintest idea. How many people can answer that question today?

Many of those same people obviously have no idea of the role Congress (the House and the Senate) plays in passing legislation. A Bernie Sanders president can no more fulfill his promise that every college student will get the $100,000 to $250,000 tuition paid for by the government for his or her education than can a Donald Trump president assure that millions of undocumented immigrants would be forced back to their countries of origin. (We don't have enough attics where people can hide!) A president Ted Cruz had not the faintest idea how many Muslims there are living in the United States; he just promised to police them "where they are." When New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton explained that there are nearly 1,000 Muslim police officers on his force, it must have been a shock to Senator Cruz. Indeed, knowledge can be helpful.

And speaking of knowledge and college educations (with easier college boards, even more students can go), I have spoken to English and history majors who say a seminar on Toni Morrison's novels is equivalent to one on William Shakespeare's plays. Doing a community service project gets a history major the same amount of credits as taking a course in Western Civilization. As important as those things may be, shouldn't community service and modern novel reading be spare-time activities? Think how much more, with a strong background in literature, one can get from reading a Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist — a novelist who, herself, possesses a strong background in literature.

College should provide a strong background to develop intelligence, to provide knowledge and to encourage creative thinking so its graduates can read more analytically and provide services more sensibly. Most of all, a college graduate should be able to contribute to society, to the increasingly complex world in which we live.

Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is