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This Headline Caught My Eye

On the Great Dumbing-Down

The other day I was reading one of the many and frequent news stories that describe the decline in American education, as measured by basic competencies in reading, math, and so forth. This has been going on for decades, and everyone deplores it, and great sums of money are spent with at least the partial justification that they will make it better. Yet it continues to get worse. 

This is not a surprise to me. One of the factors at work--only one, but apparently a significant one--is that black students in particular tend to be behind those of other races (I think ethnicity is a better word than race, but let that go). I was, very briefly, a participant in one of the efforts to overcome that disparity.

It was in the mid-'70s, roughly a decade after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and some years into serious school desegregation. I was still living in Tuscaloosa, the town where I had gone to college. I was almost unemployable, having only an undergraduate degree in English to offer employers, and I took a few part-time jobs here and there. One of them was tutoring in what was called the "writing lab" at the university, the purpose of which was to assist students, especially new ones, in improving their writing. I thought that seemed a very worthwhile endeavor, and, since I was always something of a compulsive writer, maybe even interesting, possibly even enjoyable.

My first student was a black girl. I can't remember now exactly how the session proceeded, but it involved a specimen of her writing. And I don't remember its subject, only that it was barely comprehensible. What I remember very distinctly is the way it slowly dawned on me that she had no knowledge of basic concepts: the sentence, the paragraph. A sort of panic came over me, as I fumbled around trying to find some way to help her, some kind of place to start. And I could see something similar happening to her, as she struggled to grasp what I was talking about.

She was as nice as could be and she was willing, and I don't think she was stupid, but it was hopeless; I couldn't do it. And by that I mean that I couldn't do it. A gifted and very patient teacher with experience in similar situations could perhaps have found a way. The girl could be only described honestly as semi-literate, and I had no idea how to proceed from that starting point, how to open the road to full literacy for her. 

I quit the job after the one session, if I remember correctly. I have a mental image of myself as literally running away in shock and dismay. Actual physical flight did not actually happen, but that was the way the situation felt. The writing lab was obviously not the place for me. I was astonished that someone could be admitted to college while lacking such basic competency. For that matter, how did someone who did not know what a sentence was graduate from high school?

It was no genuine service to this girl to admit her to college with a handicap so massive as to make it very unlikely that she could do the work. Well, maybe she could have gotten by in some area of study where little reading and no writing was involved. (I'll set aside the question of whether any such subject ought to have a place in a university curriculum.) Perhaps she was actually very good at math and could manage something that required much more math than language, but that's a pretty big "perhaps." If her high school education had been the failure in every subject that it plainly was in language, it was probably a failure all around. 

I have no idea what became of her. Maybe she was smart and diligent enough, and more fortunate in her next tutor, if there was one, than she had been with me, to catch up and do at least well enough to earn an honest degree. Maybe she was overwhelmed, despaired, and dropped out. Or maybe her teachers, not wanting to be the bad guy and not knowing what else to do, just passed her along, giving her passing grades, until she graduated with a degree that did not certify what it claimed to certify. 

Judging by various accounts I've read over the years, that last scenario has been far too common. It's only one factor in the general decline of education, but it's probably a significant one. The segregated, separate and extremely unequal education system that put so many black people in the position of my student was gravely wrong, but the response was a mistake. Perhaps in 1975 it was not an instance of "the soft bigotry of low expectations," a term put forth by some speechwriter in the second Bush administration, but to continue it for decades surely was. And inevitably the indulgence was granted to any student, of any ethnicity, who couldn't or wouldn't meet formerly expected standards, and thus the standards were simply lowered for everyone.

To admit people like that girl to college was well-intentioned, but it was misguided, perhaps in the short run and surely in the long run, and bad for both the people involved, teachers and students, and for society as a whole. 

And then there's the equally, or more, gloomy picture of ignorance at the next level up, the level at which one ought to know, for instance, the basic concepts and structure of the system of government outlined in the constitution--and, maybe more important, why it's set up that way. It's not just young people there: I know people my age or close to it who seem to really think that because we describe the U.S. as "a democracy" there is something hypocritical and unjust in the fact that a simple numerical majority of the whole country does not decide every important question. Those people are much more culpable than the young, because they were probably taught otherwise in high school.


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Here is an ngram of the phrase "tyranny of the masses." It only looks in Google Books. I don't know what it says about the point that our forefather set up a republic in order to, in some way, avoid the tyranny of the masses.

With the internet and instant everything, people probably think, "Why not just vote on everything? It would only take a minute."

I didn't know what an ngram is, but now I do. Interesting. Looks like it reached the previous high of the late '40s around 2002 and mostly kept going.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I had that "just vote on everything" idea back in 1970. I can be specific about the year because for some reason I remember discussing it in a place I haven't been to since then. I don't think I even speculated about an internet-style facility. I thought the state of communication as it existed then was enough to make it possible. And if we could do it, then we ought to: I remember the rationale of "if this is really supposed to be a democracy...."

Idiot. And I had an excellent high school civics teacher. I also remember saying Nixon was a fascist.

Was talking to a few friends last night, one in his early 40's and the other two, mid 30's. None is religious or conservative. They are very worried about the current under-30 crowd (the Tik-Tokkers, they called them) because of how growing up with smartphones has affected their perceptions and their mental abilities. One of the guys said that it seems to be creating a generation of what we used to call "simple" people -- people who are "nice" but mentally slow. What causes him alarm is that they are our future leaders. One of the others suggested the possibility of their growing out of it, but he wasn't so sure if the damage could be reversed. He offered up some of the popular weirdness on Tik-Tok as evidence.

They'll be ideal subjects for demagogues in service to technocracy.

We're witnessing a large-scale historical tragedy in which a pretty effective system of self-government is rotting away, or being deliberately destroyed, and being abandoned. The phenomenon you're describing is a big part of it. The fundamental problem underlying our others is that we don't have a citizenry capable of or very interested in self-government.

In the world of government and corporate leadership it's difficult to imagine that "the cream rises to the top" anymore. I can't exactly describe who does, but it's not the brightest and best. More like the most active and committed, which is definitely not the same thing.

Tik-Tok apparently has this popular series of videos of people doing very random things, including talking, very quietly. These are supposed to be calming, but my 30-something acquaintances find them, and the whole phenomenon, unsettling and "creepy." And there is a parallel series of people simply doing mildly violent things, like breaking pencil points over and over, or tearing up paper. These, I take it, are intended to provide catharsis via stress relief. So we've come to a place where you don't relieve stress by squeezing a stress ball, but by watching someone else squeeze one. I'm sorry, but what the hell?

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