YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 13, 2012

Dumbing down: when did it begin?

William James drawn by S. Woldhek

I. I have been mulling over the deterioration of public speech and what passes for social and political theory for some time, trying to pin down a date or social movement that I can identify as chief perpetrator of the Great Dumbing Down. (For the second installment of this blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/22/3760/: The Great Dumbing Down (2). Perhaps we (and everyone else) have always struggled with mass stupidity and the temptation of the dark passions, but if one studies the writings of the Founding Fathers of the U.S., one must be struck by the quality of their argumentation and the deep knowledge of European history that each brought to the debates that eventuated in the Constitution. Moreover, many of these men were all too aware of humanity’s dark side, so they looked to the law and to the ordering forces of religion to produce what has come to be known as “American exceptionalism.” Although Biblical Christian fundamentalists (the “traditionalists”) have emphasized the divine origin of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, secular students of history have read enough late 18th century American history to recognize the materialism and scientific attitudes that many Founders deployed to construct a representative republic that fostered “liberty” and “meritocracy”—at least for white males.

Still, we are left with the ambiguity that surrounds the questions of free will and determinism. What exactly do we mean by human “freedom”? Not to explore the strongly divergent meanings attached to “liberty” is fatal to education in a would-be representative republic. And Hamilton’s notion of popular sovereignty, what he called “the consent of the people” or the voice of the people as the source of political legitimacy (see Federalist #22), was obviously dependent on a quality education for everyone who voted. Hence the disaster of the Great Dumbing Down. Charles Sumner and Walter Lippmann were two important Americans, who, in either the 19th or 20th centuries, fully understood the danger of poor schools.

Note that I use Hamilton’s language in describing our political structures. He was afraid of mobbish democracies, and I cannot blame him. Liberty is a much abused conception that can be annexed by divergent ideologies, as we have seen in the controversies of the day, but it is necessary to strictly historicize each raging issue.

For instance, the U.S. Constitution, a timeless document for many,  was framed in the context of a mostly agrarian society, while European empires looked longingly at the Western Hemisphere for expansion and wealth. Much of our political and economic history cannot be understood without seeing the vulnerability of the new republic to invasion by rival European empires. Since that time, industrialism, urbanization, continental expansion, changing patterns of immigration, and ongoing rivalries between developing countries have drastically changed the meaning attached to our key words, just as these changes called forth social movements to defend entrenched interests, or in many cases, to challenge them with modifications that anyone would deem to be revolutionary in their implications. Such was the case with social democracy, communism, and fascism. In post-Civil War America, it was first populism that challenged capitalism, then progressivism (that co-opted populism) that dominated. With constant interaction between America and Europe and the other major states, the terms of social theory became weapons in the hands of ideologues, using words and comparisons to suit their particular propaganda requirements. This website has been devoted to sorting out such confusions. See for instance https://clarespark.com/2010/04/08/racism-modernity-modernism/.

II. What progressivism, socialism, communism and fascism have in common is their statism and collectivism. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish “right-wing social democrats” from the other authoritarian doctrines that have typified human history (for a definition of “right-wing social democrat” see my comment below or go to https://clarespark.com/2009/12/16/perceptions-of-the-enemy-the-left-looks-at-the-right-and-vice-versa/). For instance, some persons on “the [far] Right” think that everything a progressive does is either socialist, communist, or fascistic. Social democrats do the same thing when they use the term “totalitarian” to conflate Soviet Communism and the various European fascisms that developed after the first world war. Indeed, London’s Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, an outpost of the British Labour Party (though there is no formal linkage), will host a conference later this year investigating psychoanalytic theory and practice in the “totalitarian” regimes (see http://historypsychiatry.com/2012/03/13/psychoanalysis-in-the-age-of-totalitarianism/).

“Totalitarian” is a made-up word that no historian or political theorist should espouse. That is why I think that social democrats of this stripe are responsible for dumbing down public discourse, hence undermining the Enlightenment—the Enlightenment that produced the doctrine of natural rights—a conception that was much abused by the Jacobins of the French Revolution.

Keep in mind that progressivism in the United States was bipartisan and reacting against populism and/or the labor movement in the late 19th century.That is why hip scholars approve of the philosophy of the hugely influential William James, 1842-1910 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James). Once you go for Jamesian pseudo-pluralism, stability and social cohesion over 1.the search for truth and 2. the best ways to level up/create wealth, you are left with ambiguity and confusion, what I call the anti-ideology ideology or “pragmatism” of “the moderate men.” You have donned the steel helmet, the perfect object admired by Goebbels. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/01/25/the-state-of-the-union-stinks/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/04/22/links-to-blogs-on-military-psychiatry/.

pragmatists Peirce and James

Moreover, these populist-progressives believe that “Wall Street,” is monolithic, and will undoubtedly play both the race card and will delve into antisemitism to beat “the big money” (“finance capital”) that they, along with some social conservatives, are already associating with Mitt  Romney. And yet, a significant number of financiers remain strong Obama supporters, while others have broken away and support Romney. The latter believe that the Keynesian “demand-stimulus” solution to recession is ineffective and are upset over the mounting deficit, hence they worry about bankruptcy as has been threatened in European social democratic regimes.

What can parents and other concerned readers do? Silent acquiescence and going limp are not options. Study, fight back, use public libraries and the resources of the internet, and ask your children and students and friends what they mean by certain words. Draw them out and don’t be harshly critical, but stay with the subject until differences are clarified. We will even find agreement over some basic values, different though we may be at the outset. Start a book club. Study the curricula of your children and young adults and decode their agendas. (For part two of this series see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/22/3760/.)


  1. […] by such as Alexander Hamilton (not that Hamilton was an American Candide). In that blog (https://clarespark.com/2012/03/13/dumbing-down-when-did-it-begin/), I fingered William James and other “pragmatists” as major figures in the deterioration of […]

    Pingback by The Great Dumbing Down (2) « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 22, 2012 @ 9:46 pm | Reply

  2. Clare, I am reading and I see … problems.
    Since when Social Democrats are … right-wings? I looked into the mirror and I didn’t see any “right-wing” there.
    The founders were educated. Nice. Give me ten slaves and I’ll be educated too. OK, I am actually educated without slaves. How can you compare exceptional individuals in one period with the average ones in a different one? I found your son’s mentioning of Hamilton in the context of “it’s a great country – an orphan can become … Hamilton” problematic too. Throughout history in all societies there was a certain mobility: shepherds became kings, prostitutes became empresses, not to mention countless other smaller progresses. So? Why Social-Democrats are responsible for dumbing down public discourse? Something tells me that it was much dumber before. All the talk about witches seems to be dumb. All the talk about 3/5 humans seems to be dumb. All the talk about “the rich are rich because they deserve to be rich” (uniquely American) seems to be as dumb as it can be, but it is the one which has survived. It can continue forever, but this isn’t my blog.

    Comment by anna — March 13, 2012 @ 11:20 pm | Reply

    • “Right-wing social democrats” is a term used by Marxists, to distinguish what I call corporatist liberals (authoritarian liberals) from “left-wing social democrats” such as Rosa Luxemberg. The latter type believe that socialism can only be realized in an advanced industrialized country where the industrial working class is prepared, strategically and psychologically, to take power. And yes, I do believe that the progressive movement dumbed down public discourse and education. You don’t have to agree. But do read my glossary of political ideologies here: https://clarespark.com/2009/12/16/perceptions-of-the-enemy-the-left-looks-at-the-right-and-vice-versa/. You will find how various factions of both Left and Right view each other, with a useful glossary of terms.

      Comment by clarespark — March 13, 2012 @ 11:25 pm | Reply

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