Chronicles readers may be rather tired of hearing about “dumbing down,” but the ugly term is just now starting to attain cliché status in Britain. Conservative newspapers like the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have begun to talk about dumbing down recently, in reporting, for example, that almost 200,000 children entering British secondary schools (11- and 12-year-olds) could not spell “difficult” and that almost one in ten believed that Victoria was the queen who so resolutely opposed the Spanish Armada.
Newspapers on the left, such as the Guardian, also use the term, though usually to deny that the phenomenon exists. But while it is certainly possible to overreact to dumbing down, or to use the phrase as a mask for intellectual and social snobbery, the evidence that ideologically motivated or incompetent teaching has, in the words of the quondam head of the United Kingdom’s Office for Standards in Education, “betrayed a generation ” is simply overwhelming. And, of course, the phenomenon is not confined to schools, but affects virtually every aspect of life in Britain.
While dumbing down is attributable to several factors, the most important cause is the decline of “high culture”; to use the term today identifies you as an eccentric, snob, or even a dangerous reactionary. Nowadays, large numbers of people (at least in the media, the arts, and the universities) seem prepared to accept that watching football is as “valid ” as watching Shakespeare, and that the Millennium Dome had its good points.
The middle- and upper-class people who administer arts ensembles and join local symphony orchestras are losing their self-confidence as “anti-elitism,” political correctness, and commercialism creep into every corner of cultural life. Even their Received Pronunciation accent is starting to vanish, as they try to fit into Tony Blair’s “People’s Britain.” Blair himself drops his aitches, and in a recent interview said that he had met one of his “mates” the other day. (He did not acquire these election-winning phonations at his elite private school.)
Echoes of the old suburban self-assurance can still be heard at the meetings of such bodies as the Royal Institution or on BBC Radio 3. But such organizations are ever fewer and more embattled, fighting a continual rearguard action against diminishing audiences—which trend they try to buck by introducing more “relevant” programs, outraging the faithful without making many converts. High culture is now held in such low esteem that few even among the newly rich bother sending their children off to the conservatory or to Paris. On the contrary, prime ministers now pretend to be interested in soap-opera characters and football. The drab “classless society” sought by John Major (who wanted to equalize everyone downward, to assuage his own feelings of social ineptitude) is close at hand.
Dumbing down is also helped along by egalitarian politicians and cultural prominenti seeking to open up cultural life to the “socially excluded” (another contemporary cliché, normally used to describe potential clients or voters). According to these people, the human ides, the arts, and polities are unjustly under the control of unrepresentative elites. These elites, they allege, have so structured their respective fiefdoms that it is extremely difficult for sexual, economic, or racial outsiders to penetrate into the charmed circles they presently control. Forcibly opening these fields to others, they argue, will help to ensure equality of outcome and, thus, eternal bliss (cue ambient music and heartwarming Watchtower pictures).
These days, the evil elitists are invariably members of the “white middle classes,” whose dominance in the arts was decried by “Gerry” Robinson, Labour’s appointee as chairman of the Arts Council. (“Gerry,” like “Tony,” is yet another sign of New Labour’s false bonhomie, itself an aspect of dumbing down.) Reduce everything to its essentials, demystify everything, replace the old administrators or intelligentsia with new ones, and everyone will participate in cultural life on equal terms (or so the argument goes). “Social exclusion” will be a thing of the past, as will that blackest of modern evils, “institutional racism.”
The great problem with this pleasant theory is that not everything can be simplified. Complex ideas are complex ideas, however you dress them up (or down). Learning certain things should require mental application, as Alexander Pope’s cautionary words remind us. Furthermore, loose talk about “exclusion” and selfish elites breeds division. Many people will never have any interest in going to museums or symphony concerts—however “accessible” something is made to seem, or however many cheap tickets are made available. (Accessibility and cheap tickets are, of course, very different things. After the Royal Opera House’s £45-million refurbishment, designed to make it less “exclusive,” the cheapest seats actually became more expensive.) So why not let these people be? And why force those who are interested to subsidize those who are not?
It is also undeniable that the created illusion of everything being universally comprehensible and attainable makes everything feel somehow cheap and tawdry. As Rivarol said, “It is the dim haze of mystery that lends enchantment to pursuit.” This mania for mediocrity was seen in an exaggerated form at the opening of the Dundee Museum of Modern Art, whose first resident artist worked under the condition that the public would be able to watch him at work and make suggestions about his paintings. Behind the craze for easy comprehensibility is sometimes the ignorance of the governing class itself. For example, an early Labour administrative reform was to rename the Department of National Heritage the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport—the choice of words revealing that the government views sport and cultural activities as being of equal dignity and importance. The present head of this department, “Chris” Smith, has stated that there is no qualitative difference between Keats and Bob Dylan.
Removing one unrepresentative appointee means that an immediate need arises for his replacement—a new appointment! Like the renaming of the Department of National Heritage, the government’s laughable, short-lived plan to withhold funding from museums that failed to attract an appropriate quota of black visitors was intended as a means of melting down cultural homogeneity—real or perceived. The results of this generalized discrimination against intellectual endeavor, inventiveness, and individualism are plain to see—except to Guardian columnists and Tony Blair.
Dumbing Down is an anthology of 29 essays from an eclectic range of authors, from deceased conservative philosophers and sitarist Ravi Shankar to a left-wing Labour MP. It is one of those annoying books that makes you realize how much there is that you still have not read—and probably never will. But then, that is all the more reason to be grateful to editor Ivo Mosley for bringing such neglected, important writings to our attention.
Mosley’s own writing displays occasional inelegancies (e.g., “we may be doubly stitched up”). But he is a bold and original thinker who combines Green politics not with the usual politically correct neuroses but with an awareness of how “the abolition of traditions and therefore the past and “the creation of a new and ersatz national identity” act to unsettle people. His familial connections—he is Sir Oswald’s grandson—are a cause of some embarrassment to him, but he does not make the mistake of trying to overcompensate (although he does describe jazz and Motown music as “a new form of high culture from one of the Earth’s most disadvantaged nations: Black America”). And he notes the central paradox of dumbing down: the double standards of the left-wing elite who
[pretend] in public to believe that the people are the source of all wisdom; but among themselves. . . say the people do not know what is best for themselves and need to have their interests interpreted for them.
That simplifying things in order that the masses can understand them is fundamentally patronizing and elitist in itself seems to escape both the patronizers and the patronized.
There are weaknesses in this volume, of course. The aforementioned Labour MP deplores that government by soundbite has replaced the civilized “government by conversation” characteristic of earlier Westminster eras. Naturally, he seems never to have considered how his own brand of polities has helped to oust the public-school elite who made the old system work because they were cut from the same cloth and understood each other intuitively. (Ironically, he is himself an Old Etonian.) His essay would have been more interesting had he examined how politicians play to the gallery, dumbing down polities by reducing complex issues to slogans like “Save the NHS.” His essay, the defense of soundbites by Adam Boulton, and Redmond Mullin’s call for state funding of voluntary bodies are the least convincing contributions to this collection. Roger Deakin’s piece about the National Lottery seems a little over the top: “The Lottery . . . is a patronizing wheeze, premised on immoderate greed.” (I write as someone who would not dream of buying a lottery ticket.) Helen Oppenheimer’s piece on truth-telling seems slightly out of place, although she and Mosley would doubtlessly argue that moral relativism is an essential ingredient of dumbing down. Demelza Spargo insists, quite correctly, that we can only revive society by living more modestly, in greater harmony with nature—but again, the essay does not necessarily belong with the others. So much is packed into this book, finally, that it becomes a little disorienting. Although there are hardly any typos, no biographical details are provided for one of the authors.
But such hiccups are more than compensated for by the wealth of good things the volume contains. There are classic pieces by Michael Oakeshott (“The Masses in Representative Democracy”), Michael Polanyi (“The Eclipse of Thought”), and Cyril Darlington (“The Impact of Man Upon Nature”), and less well-known reprints that certainly merit resuscitation. A good example is Philip Rieff’s 1983 article on “The Impossible Culture,” which uses the trial of Oscar Wilde to launch a fascinating discussion about how Wilde’s grungier, less witty successors are still striving to create a society both “socialist” (by which Wilde meant universally rich) and “free” (by which he meant universally expressive).
There are also many excellent new essays, notably those by Anne Glyn-Jones on sensationalism in entertainment, which includes an interesting mini-history of classical theater, and Mark Ryan’s “Turning on the Audience,” to which I am indebted for the Dundee anecdote above. Robert Brustein, theatre critic of the New Republic, attempts to chart a way forward for culture-bearers, between a left which is “mired in sentiment or paralysed with guilt” and the traditionalist right, whose “moral correctness” can likewise stifle high art, and he wonders gloomily if Tocqueville was correct in his supposition that high art and democracy are incompatible. Claire Fox, former publisher of Living Marxism, claims that the massive expansion of university education that began under Margaret Thatcher has not been thought through properly. (Blair has said that he wants half of all Britons to obtain university degrees, but he is unwilling to back up his fine words with more money—nor are the degrees as worth having as they used to be, since top universities are now “encouraged” to select applicants by postal code instead of ability.)
Finance writer Dominic Hobson deplores today’s prevailing ideology, which is more concerned with efficiency and novelty than with passé concepts like liberty or the national interest. From this economically reductionist market perspective, he says, most dumbing-down initiatives flow. But Hobson takes an optimistic long-term view, applauding those who operate within the ever-growing “black economy” and insisting that it will allow more and more people to escape from the bureaucrats and extortionists of central government.
And so Dumbing Down proceeds—page after page of wise insights, acerbic observations, and (mostly) demonstrable propositions, impelled by a keen sense of indignation about what is happening to our civilization and to human beings more generally. As a primer on the phenomenon of meretricious repackaging and the commodification of life, it is likely to rule unchallenged for a long time to come.
[Dumbing Down: Culture, Politics, and the Mass Media, edited by Ivo Mosley (Bowling Green: Imprint Academic) 328 pp., $19.95]
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