REVIEWSrnThe StupidrnCountryrnby Herbert I. LondonrnDumbing Down: Essays on thernStrip-Mining of American CulturernEdited by Katharine Washburnrnand John ThorntonrnNew York: Norton;rn329 pp., $25.00rnAccording to a recent Roper poll, onlyrn13 percent of the college graduatingrnclass of ’96 could pass a simple quizrnon material suitable for elementaryrnschool students. Ninety-two percent ofrnthose taking this quiz failed to identifyrnthe author or the document that is thernsource of the phrase, “Government ofrnthe people, by the people, for the people.”rnAt his “Million Man March,” LouisrnFarrakhan claimed he was beamed up torna spaceship where he was provided withrninsights about life on earth.rnA leading environmentalist said if thernAmazon rain forest is destroyed therernwill be no oxygen left on earth, evenrnthough 98 percent of the oxygen is producedrnat sea.rnA Senate committee on agriculturernasked Jane Fonda, Jessica Lange, and SissyrnSpacek to testify because they had appearedrnin films about farmers.rnThese items are not offered as definitivernproof of social depreciation, but asrnthe authors of the essays in DumbingrnDown well realize, they are testimony tornthe direction we are headed. While thisrnbook does not identify a single culprit forrnour cultural decline, speculations on thernpassing of civility, on anti-elitism, undifferentiatedrneducational standards, andrnslovenly speech point to radical egalitarianismrnas the primary villain. In a remarkablernturn of events, equal opportunityrnhas been transmogrified intornequality of result, and equality before thernlaw has been translated into equality ofrnguilt and innocence. In no institutionrnare these conditions more demonstrablernthan our schools, where, as HeatherrnMacDonald explains, teachers of Englishrncomposition emphasize the cultivationrnof “self esteem over competence and ofrnself expression over the discipline of syntax.”rnGilbert T. Sewall writes movinglyrnof the insinuation of relativism into everyrncrevice of basic education.rnThis American disease of the spirit isrnnot entirely surprising. As George Kennanrnpoints out, Alexis de Tocquevillernargued in the 19th century that excellencernwould be the casualty of advancingrnegalitarianism. It is now taken for grantedrnthat elitism is a pejorative, a sign ofrnhaving lost touch with the commonrnman. Mass culture is the instrument ofrnegalitarianism, turning everything in itsrnpath into homogenized pabulum digestiblernby all people, satisfying to allrntastes. High culture has been crucifiedrnon the cross of democratization.rnWhile the essays in this book are uniformlyrnlively, and some of them are exceptionallyrngood—such as Cynthia Ozick’srn”The Question of Our Speech: ThernReturn to Aural Culture” and ArmstrongrnWilliams’ “1 Feel Good to be a BlackrnMale”—several suffer from misplacementrnand others from questionablernjudgment. John Simon, for example,rnchallenges Joseph Epstein’s argumentrnfor discontinuing the National Endowmentrnfor the Arts by noting, “Any support,rneven to the wrong artists, is betterrnthan none; at least it stirs up controversy,rnand makes an inert public more awarernthat the arts exist and matter.” Really?rn1 prefer to buy my own tickets ratherrnthan have some government bureaucratrntell me how tax dollars should be spentrnon the arts. Sven Birkerts criticizes thernInternet as a virtual wodd cut off fromrnreality, atomizing relationships and thernnatural rhythms of life. Here again,rnmy own experience is different. Withoutrnexaggerating the importance of thernNet, which houses as much trash asrnarchival emeralds, a communicationsrninstrument touching millions of livesrncould be accessible in every home tornbreak the communications monopolyrnthat once impeded the free exchange ofrnopinion.rnDavid Klinghoffer offers a persuasivernargument against kitsch religion—religionrnthat is so secularized it regards NewrnYork Times editorials as more spiritualrnthan the Bible or the Torah. But if mainlinernProtestant religions and ReformedrnJews are losing congregants to orthodoxrnfaiths, as is the case, this trend wouldrnseem to run counter to the book’s thesis.rnSimilarly, Carole Rifkind’s piece onrn”America’s Fantasy Urbanism: ThernWaxing of the Mall and the Waning ofrnCivility” conflates a diminished sense ofrncitizenship with private and commercialrnvalues. 1 would make almost exactly thernopposite point: private property is continuallyrnencroached on by the spread ofrnpublic space, usually under the banner ofrnenvironmentalism, thereby challengingrnthe traditional nature of citizenship.rnAnd 1 am startled to read the claim thatrn”eating out is normally not at its best inrnAmerica today.” Nahum Waxman, whornmakes this point, must be living in anotherrncountry. Sure McDonald’s andrnBurger King are nothing to brag about,rnbut in my judgment there are more finernrestaurants, more gourmet treats availablernin modern America than was everrnthe case anywhere in history.rnMy difference of opinion with severalrnessays has not diminished my heartfeltrnappreciation for a book that tacklesrnAmerica’s “dirty secret” directly. Asrnsomeone who has taught in the academyrnfor three decades, 1 am well aware of thernsocial signs that bear testimony to a diminishingrnsense of genuine accomplishment.rnIn far too many academic quarters,rnideology has replaced criticalrnjudgment and democratization of thernspirit has undermined good breedingrnand character. My ears are sensitive tornthe sound of student grunts and “yarnknow,” and I long for the day when languagernwill be the inspiration for upliftingrnideas. But that is not a day I will soonrnsee. The inertial force of dumbing downrnis an avalanche that will not retreat on itsrnown. All one can do is avert one’s gaze,rndream of noble moments, and hope forrnthe best.rnHerbert I. London is John M. OlinrnProfessor of Humanities at New YorkrnUniversity.rnDECEMBER 1996/33rnrnrn