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IDIOCRACY: Is America getting dumber?

Essay By: Xavier Morrison

The following is part 1 of a 5 part essay on the growth of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism in America.

There has been some confusion about what I am trying to say in this essay. Some reviewers have taken the views expressed as my indictment of technology, specifically digital media. I would like to clear the air. I think the proliferation of digital media is a wonderful thing, and provides opportunity to experience the world and expand our minds that is unrivaled in human history.

However, I do believe that people’s misuse of it and over-dependence on it has led to them being less capable of critical thinking. This is the fault of society, not the technology. I think jelly donuts are great, but if you eat them all day long you'll be overweight and have high tri-glycerides. That's not the donuts' fault.

It's not a question about whether technology is good or bad. It holds unquestionably positive potential. It's a question of how it is used in a narrower context, and is the impact of that usage (social media e.g.) a positive or a negative.

Submitted:Jul 15, 2011    Reads: 802    Comments: 20    Likes: 6   

IDIOCRACY: Is America Getting Dumber?

The rise of anti-intellectualism in America

Part 1:

On the surface this may seem a ludicrous proposition. The growth of the internet and the un-precedented, and instantaneous, availability of information would argue for the possibility of the most informed society in American, maybe even World history. But statistics are indicating just the opposite.

A recent poll among public school students commissioned by The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs generated the following results:

  • 77% of students did not know that George Washington was our first President,
  • the same number could not name Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence,
  • and only 2.8% could actually pass the citizenship test, the very one given to immigrants applying for citizenship.

These results are not an aberration, as the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix realized similar outcomes with only 3.5% of high schoolers passing the citizenship test. Results for Math, Science, and Language proficiency are similarly disappointing.

In a 2006 study by The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the average score for15 year old US students in mathematical proficiency was 474 (score range of 1-1,000), lower than the average of 498, ranking 23rd out of 29 countries involved in the study.

In reading literacy, only 30 percent of U.S. students scored at or above proficiency level 4. Level 4 is the level at which students are "capable of difficult reading tasks, such as locating embedded information, construing meaning from nuances of language and critically evaluating a text".

What may be more disturbing is that these results have been trending downward. Many experts believe that the growth of digital medium may be directly responsible.

The nature of digital communication and its' impact on interpersonal communication is a major concern. Does digital communication, with its' abbreviated, acronym, and symbol driven vocabulary adversely affect a child's development of proficiency in basic language and compositional skills? The poor results above do empirically suggest just such a relationship.

"Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print culture (and by video, I mean every form of digital media, as well as older electronic ones); a disjunction between Americans' rising level of formaleducationand their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism." Susan Jacoby, author ofThe Age of American Unreason,says in an article in theWashington Post.

Some experts also believe that evidence of a pattern of anti-intellectualism can be seen in the interactions of high school students, where well-educated and intellectual students are referred to as "nerds", "dweebs", "dorks", and "geeks", and are frequently harassed for openly displaying intellect. These attitudes are not reflected in most European and Asian countries, where educational levels are equal to or have surpassed that of the US.

Whether the critics and experts are accurate, or overstating the case, and whether it does reflect a tradition of anti-intellectualism, is open to argument. But whatever your opinion, these trends in educational performance should give us concern, it can be easily argued that if they continue they will have a serious affect on our economic and social future.


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