Thursday, February 21, 2008

Dumbing of America?

There was an interesting article in the Washington Post a co-worker forwarded to me. It makes the argument that Americans are losing out by not reading more.

Of course the Washington Post being a print media the author looks at the decline of reading printed materials as a sign of declining intellectualism. But if reading as measured by books, newspapers, and magazines is an indication of such an erosion, why are there still a plethora of books being published? Someone has time to research and write these things even if publishing books and selling books are two separate matters.

The author did offer this “nugget:”

This is the last subject that any candidate would dare raise on the long and
winding road to the White
. It is almost impossible to talk about the manner in which public
ignorance contributes to grave national problems without being labeled an
"elitist," one of the most powerful pejoratives that can be applied to anyone
aspiring to high office. Instead, our politicians repeatedly assure Americans
that they are just "folks," a patronizing term that you will search for in vain
in important presidential speeches before 1980. (Just imagine: "We here highly
resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . . and that government of
the folks, by the folks, for the folks, shall not perish from the earth.") Such
exaltations of ordinariness are among the distinguishing traits of
anti-intellectualism in any era.

I wonder why the year 1980 was chosen? Seems somewhat arbitrary. I scanned the article again, thinking maybe the author contrasted 1980 with 2000 to get a 20-year gauge. Nope, the author contrasts 1982 with “two decades later” (can I assume 2002? Or are the figures more recent than that?).

I might have chosen 1976 for a president that sought to be “one” with the common people. President Carter often wore sweaters sans tie in radio and informal TV talks (he sought to recreate the “fireside chats” on TV as FDR did on radio). He sought to portray himself and his presidency as folksy, homey, and down-to-earth.

President Reagan, meanwhile, elected in 1980, sought to elevate the office once again. He dress up for formal dinners and sought to bring dignity and class back to the Executive Mansion.

What is interesting is a contrast in presidencies in World War II and today. Franklin Roosevelt in his fire side chats urged Americans to get out their maps as he traced the battle plans and supply lines in the Pacific. He felt if the American people understood the enormity of the scope of battle, they would be willing to accept bad news.

I doubt that would happen today. Reagan often bypassed the media and spoke in such terms to the American people. But few other presidents have.

And many Democrats today offer sound bites and fan the flames of bad news to stoke the American people to hate the Iraq War, maybe even Afghanistan (but not a peep about Bill Clinton’s war still going on in Kosovo). And herein lies a dilemma. If Americans actually did read at the rate they allegedly did in 1982, the Democrats lose in a landslide.

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