A friend of mine hands me what looks like a business card. It says, “Don’t Die Stupid.”
Evidence of the dumbing down of America is everywhere. Some of it is chronicled in a new book, “Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America,” by Daniel J. Flynn.
Flynn contends popular culture has divorced itself from the life of the mind. He has plenty of examples in case television, texting, video games and improper use of English are not enough.
Flynn calls the digital age that has sped up the process by which we receive information “Idiotville,” because it has made us less intelligent.
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“Stupid is the new smart,” writes Flynn. He says we arrived at this lower level of brain activity because as recently as the last century, “the everyman aspired to high culture and … intellectuals descended from the ivory tower to speak to the everyman.” Today, he says, “Those who pursue the life of the mind have insulated themselves from popular culture. Speaking in insider jargon and writing unread books, intellectuals have locked themselves away in a ghetto of their own creation.”
That has left the nonintellectual class to fend for itself. One library in Portland, Maine, rather than leading, is being led by the unformed teenage mind. “Video gaming is just a new form of literacy,” says the “teen librarian.” If so, what’s the new form of illiteracy? Ignorance about how to use a joystick?
Flynn quotes from Steven Johnson’s book “Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.” Sure, and sugar makes us slimmer.
Johnson says, “Reality shows … challenge our emotional intelligence.” Emotional intelligence? In an age when feelings trump everything and too many reality TV programs feature well-heeled housewives and love-starved bachelors, “emotional intelligence” is a contradiction.
“A mind is a terrible thing to waste” is the slogan of the United Negro College Fund. It certainly is.
Here’s a potent example of what Flynn means when he writes about the destruction of our minds: “At the tony Cushing Academy in western Massachusetts, $40,000 in tuition doesn’t even get you a library anymore. ‘When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’ the prep school’s headmaster notes, adding, ‘This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451.’”
“It is, and ‘1984,’ too,” comments Flynn. “In place of the 20,000 discarded books, the school spent $500,000 on an Orwellian ‘learning center’ complete with three giant flat-screen televisions and a cappuccino machine. School officials guessed that only a few dozen books had been checked out at any one time.”
The solution? Get rid of the books. Don’t get kids interested in books when they’d rather play “World of Warcraft” or, if younger, watch cartoons, which can’t be that different from “The Canterbury Tales,” right?
Our intellectual depth increasingly resembles floor wax: shiny on top, but lacking depth. A muscle atrophies if it is not used. Similarly, a mind becomes lazy if it is not well-fed. And a weak mind dumbs down our politics. We elect people we come to dislike because too many of us require no more of them than we require of ourselves. We then wonder why little seems to work and the country soon suffers.