There’s a little known thinking crisis going on in our country. Sometimes called the “dumbing down of America,” it began roughly in the1980s, and, not surprisingly, coincided with a long downslide in the intellectual and moral standards of both our media and education systems—including higher learning.
The 1976 movie Network, which exposed the degradation of TV news into a slick, ratings chasing form of entertainment, was a powerful harbinger of things to come. But a similar dumbing down process was also underway in education. The resulting one-two punch to the American body politic may be a big reason why, as a recent Princeton study revealed, America is no longer a functioning democracy.
A big problem in education has been the drifting away from a once deeply held faith, espoused by the great Enlightenment thinker Thomas Jefferson, that an educated population is a bulwark against tyranny. It was this same civic concern, to nurture good citizenship, that prompted Horace Mann to suggest a mass public education system in the 1840s; and John Dewey to create his famed laboratory school in Chicago—the first progressive school in the nation—in 1905.
Dewey influenced a generation of educators who came after him to care about things like dialogue, a sense of community, critical thinking, the key role of art in human learning, and yes, the deep linkage between education and democracy.
Following Dewey’s lead, the 1960s and 70s saw a flourishing of bold experiments in education (fueled by the writings of Paulo Freire, Neil Postman, and Herb Kohl) that reflected the great social movements percolating in society at the time. The wonderful idea even took hold that we ought not teach simply to replicate the unfair, unjust status quo (plagued by racism, sexism, inequality, and unjust wars) but for a better world that “might be”: a more fair, loving, and peaceful world.
Such idealism has sadly fallen by the wayside. Tell me, during the recent Senate hearings for Betsy Devos, was the word “democracy” even uttered once? For too long, education has focused narrowly on science, technology and jobs—an endless drumbeat about educating for the marketplace—to the neglect of deeper concerns for the human soul, community, and the greater public good.
So, how can we make things better? Building on the great success of the historic Woman’s March, itself an amazing lesson in democratic reawakening, I propose a national conversation on how to re-imagine education as a force for civic good. In part, this idea is inspired by my work with actor Richard Dreyfus, who’s spearheading a movement to reactivate the teaching of civics.
I’ll also continue to work with my wife Claudia on our non-profit TV show “Public Voice Salon”: equal parts university, talk show, and good dinner party! Resisting the anti-intellectual trends in both our media and education systems, we hope to foster a more humane, democratic, and joyful world that still might be. Please google us and consider supporting our efforts if you like.
Public Voice Salon