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A culture of low expectations

All the fuss about 'dumbing down' appears to assume that people are becoming more stupid. On the contrary, says Frank Furedi; it is society's elites that have lowered their standards and embraced the banal

'Dumbing down' is one of those confusing concepts that obscures as much as it reveals. People in general are probably no less interested in ideas than they were three or four generations ago. Although there is a lot of crass culture about, it is possible to find great books, watch inspiring films and even encounter great music. Visit a decent bookshop and you will see dozens of customers leafing through heavy-looking tomes. Most kids you meet are curious, imaginative and open to new ideas. At least when they begin their courses, the first-year university students I teach are passionate about learning and aspire to a first-class education.

In as much as it means anything, dumbing down does not refer to the intelligence of most people. Rather it is about culture - or more specifically about the elites who influence and regulate the flow of cultural ideas.

Strictly speaking one should not even call these people an elite today, since they self-consciously instruct the rest of society that elitism is wrong and that the institutions of culture and education should be made more relevant to everybody's concerns. That might sound admirably egalitarian. But in many respects an elite that refuses to acknowledge its status is even worse than one that revels in it.

The old elitist snobbery has been replaced by one that masquerades as anti-elitism. This new snobbery regards anything that is truly challenging and demanding as way beyond the capacity of 'ordinary people'. The new snobs demand that people should be taught only what is deemed to be relevant to their little lives. Their message is that we should not expect too much of ordinary people. Competition and examinations are often indicted for being divisive, by which they mean that it is wrong to stigmatise failure or praise achievement. The elitism of the new breed of cultural populist is strikingly manifested in the conviction that they know what is best for others.

Dumbing down in contemporary society is not simply about the lowering of standards. Its distinctive feature is the transformation of knowledge into a commodity that can do little more than serve the self. Knowledge is no longer really seen as a means of understanding the world outside yourself. Instead it serves no purpose higher than that of personal coping and survival. That is why, sadly, many of the people leafing through the latest publications in bookshops are probably searching self-help books for answers to their personal problems. Since ideas need serve no cause that transcends the individual self, it is perhaps unsurprising that we are not living through a period of bold intellectual experimentation or a renaissance in culture. The individuation of knowledge, like the reduction of understanding to 'self-awareness', renders it utterly banal.

In one sense the current debate about dumbing down represents a recurrent theme in modern Western culture. It seems that every generation discovers a new education crisis and examples of falling standards. Throughout this century the cultural elites of one generation have reacted to those of the previous era, and declared that their view of the world offered a better way forward than the old-fashioned ways of their predecessors. Conservative critics of mass society have always been particularly sensitive to manifestations of cultural decline. In turn, radical thinkers have persuasively argued that the traditionalist defence of standards is often nothing more than a self-serving argument for protecting the unearned privileges of a powerful minority.

So at least superficially nothing has changed. However, look more closely and the debate about dumbing down today has little in common with those of the past. Critics of tradition focused their attack on a system of education which was unfair because it excluded those who were potentially more able than its mediocre beneficiaries. They criticised the dominant culture on the grounds that it was banal and pedestrian. Radical critics did not simply demand a more accessible or user-friendly culture, but one that was more experimental and dynamic than their exhausted target. No doubt the nineteenth and twentieth-century avant garde could be accused of being earnestly pretentious and promiscuous in its commitments, but in its own way it offered a vision of human advance and achievement.

What is truly frightening about the discussion on dumbing down today is the absence of any competing visions of the future. For the cultural populists there is in any case little to worry about. Their concern is merely to break down the last pretensions of elitism - provide a bit more access, a bit more diversity, pepper it with a measure of life-long learning and offer a guarantee of skills counselling. On the other side, those genuinely anguished by contemporary trends often seem to do little more than sneer about the dumbing down of the BBC or some other hallowed institution. Well-rehearsed platitudes about standards and excellence and a few nostalgic references to the good old days tend to exhaust the pessimistic repertoire. Dumbed-down critics of dumbing down can easily be dismissed as pathetic yesterday's men by today's tuned-in facilitators.

The debate about dumbing down has little in common with the big controversies in the past for the simple reason that there are no issues of substance at stake. Why? The old elites have vacated the battlefield of ideas and of culture. Traumatised by changes that they do not understand, they are entirely preoccupied with holding the line rather than looking forward. But in a changing world no line can be held indefinitely. The mere suggestion that the Royal Opera is out of touch with the people of Burnley, or that Oxbridge is elitist, now provokes protestations of innocence from the old guard who appear embarrassed by institutions which would once have been their greatest sources of pride. That the old elite has failed to hold the line on virtually every issue can be seen in the rather sad spectacle of a monarchy that cultivates the image of a dysfunctional suburban family, an Anglican Church whose most potent symbol of ritual has become a teddy bear, and a Tory Party leader who thinks it is cool to dress down.

Unlike the old guard, the new purveyors of accessible culture are in the privileged position of having no line to hold. These buyers and sellers of education and the arts have no principled views about any of the fundamental questions that affect our lives. They are characteristically pragmatic and opportunistic, and tend to regard any public display of loyalty and commitment as terribly gauche and old-fashioned. They are also instinctively relativistic, seeing any claim to truth and knowledge as naive, if not impertinent. It has become fashionable to slag off the Canon. The phrase 'nobody has a monopoly on truth' trips off the tongue as a prelude to claiming that everybody's views are equally valid. So Western science is denounced as arrogant and elitist, no better (and often worse) than the magical rituals practised by Native American rainmakers.

In a world where knowledge cannot claim to offer big truths, only partial insights into the individual psyche, the realm of ideas can only be of limited relevance to people. Rationality, scientific logic and abstract reasoning have to vie with more pedestrian ways of making sense of the world, from astrology to agony aunts. The popular media scorns the highly educated. The truth of the child, the intuitive insights of autistic personalities and Forrest Gumps are apparently more relevant to our lives than the theoretical elaborations of high thinkers.

Of course there is nothing entirely new in this populist celebration of homespun truths and folksy ignorance. Marginal cults have always been fascinated by primitivism and other romantic currents. The difference today is that these sentiments are not confined to the margins. Even institutions of higher learning pride themselves on their ability to 'demystify' claims to objectivity and truth. Those who search for answers are treated with derision and big ideas are treated with suspicion.

There was a time when university students were challenged to question their commonsense view of the world. A good university education sought to equip students with an ability to think critically, to acquire an understanding of the world that would be inaccessible through their direct personal experience. Today such an education is denounced as elitist and, worse still, as irrelevant to people's lives. On the contrary, students are encouraged to talk about their experience and tutors are instructed to offer courses that are relevant to their teenage customers' experience. Instead of learning to question their commonsense assumptions, students are taught to become sceptical about the wider claims of truth, objectivity or of any big idea.

Such a strongly anti-intellectual climate inevitably flatters mediocrity. In the past reactionary elites never tired of criticising public education on the grounds that a 'little knowledge' could be a dangerous thing in the hands of the semi-literate masses. For all their faults they did recognise the power of a higher education - that was why they were determined to keep it for themselves. Today's cultural elites are not so much against a 'little knowledge'. Indeed, their policy is to offer access to a little education for all. The aspiration for higher knowledge, however, is off the dumbed-down agenda.

Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999

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