There’s almost nothing I can disagree with in Dennis Prager’s latest jeremiad from Tuesday. I don’t know if we share a generally pessimistic disposition — certainly an occupational danger for an historian like me — but sensing decay and seeing how we fail to counter it is impossible to ignore for someone immersed in the lessons of history. Being Jewish probably doesn’t hurt, either.
So while I have nothing to add to Dennis’s laments, his piece did remind me of an equally prescient warning, delivered by a source not at all disposed to conservative thinking. Comedian Steve Allen, he of the pre–Johnny Carson Tonight Show, penned a book entitled Dumbth: The Lost Art of Thinking back in 1990 (an LA Times story on Allen and the book is here). While Allen took his predictable potshots at Republicans and conservatives, he nailed the crumbling of the American mind, our collective ignorance, and the rapid disappearance of critical thinking. The results of this collapse on our society and culture is also now inescapable. Allen was too wedded to liberal nostrums to point his finger away from Bible-huggers and towards teachers’ unions, but as an anthropologist or a diagnostician, he was unimpeachable. And we have the data, decades of it, to prove it.
Since then, things have only become far worse. The dumbing down of media reporting, the rise of 24/7 cable and much of talk radio, the assumption of positions of influence by those who themselves were taught by substandard teachers and grew up in an intellectually flaccid environment, all of this has simply defined dumbness down, to appropriate Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase. That, in turn, has infantilized our politics and large swaths of our culture.
It’s probably harder for us today — certainly those of us under 50 — to realize just how low our collective intellectual capacities have dropped. Teaching in a university is a great if depressing way to run into examples of American sloth at almost every turn, as is working in Washington, D.C. But as Allen wrote, and Dennis notes, you don’t have to be located in the corridors of power to see how degraded our culture has become, or un-rigorous our minds. Those are things that unite us as Americans.