The Case against Dumbing Down

I don’t know about you, but I’m totally against dumbing down subjects or language use before my students. I believe, for example, that if the undergraduates sitting before me in a class have limited vocabularies (and they all invariably do), it’s not time for me to match-up my vocabulary to theirs, reinforcing their language use habits. Instead, it’s time to start expanding their vocabularies by talking exactly the way that I do all the time. In other words, I get them hearing words they’ve never heard before, and I start expecting them to use  those words. I’m talking serious adult academic vocabulary; words like these: metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics. Yes, I think that new college students, including those just getting a serious handle on their basic skills for college, are ready to run like this—ready to start using “big words” in both their papers and class conversations. So, when I’m talking about an essay, I don’t say, “How does the author know what (s)he is talking about in this passage?” Instead, I might say something like this: 

What’s the epistemology underlying this author’s claim? 

Of course, I’ve told them what epistemology means before I start doing this through the course of a semester, but you get the point. And I think students appreciate it. Who doesn’t appreciate being talked to like an adult?  

So I want the students in my classes to demonstrate that they’re actually growing as new college students and not being catered to. College culture, after all, is a culture. The new college student is trying to figure out whether the professor has something that (s)he wants. So I give them what I have. Some, as it turns out, actually do want what I have; others find that they don’t. Both responses are okay. As one of my former colleagues used to say of those who didn’t get her, or who couldn’t tap into the interest that she had for her subject (which was English):

Everyone has their own journey through life. 

In his recent book, former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges provides some fodder for my anti-dumbing down views, and so I share a taste. Here he is, from page 44 of Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle  (Nation Books, 2009):

We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality. We have traded the printed word for the gleaming image. Public rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a ten-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level. Most of us speak at this level, are entertained and think at this level. We have transformed our culture into a vast replica of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, where boys were lured with the promise of no school and endless fun. They were all, however, turned into donkeys—a symbol, in Italian culture, of ignorance and stupidity.

Posted by Santi Tafarella

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to The Case against Dumbing Down

  1. I both agree and disagree. (Which means I agree? Iono. Shoot me.)

    I do believe in raising people’s knowledge/intellect/wisdom

    HOW we do that is another question. I think the “higher” one gets in academia the more difficult it should be. (Academia 101, Duh?)

    So how you talk to 1st year students will probably be different to how you talk to final-year students. Suck, ’em in and then milk ’em dry, right?

    Then again, I do see your point. Maybe academia is meant to be a Darwinistic survival of the fittest.

    I don’t know, I’m just gonna sit in the corner, drink wine and criticise everyone else 😉

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

    • santitafarella says:

      It’s a tightrope walk knowing when to bring students along to another level (in terms of vocabulary or anything else). And the student has to want it or whatever you do won’t work. People have to find passion and meaning in whatever they do; they have to find an inner drive for what they are doing. Carrots and sticks simply won’t sustain their effort. But once you find your Beatrice . . .

      —Santi

  2. cate says:

    … probably small fodder but i have found the lecturers with the deepest level of social engagement with the class (ie: stemming from the belief in their knowldge base and a lived passion for their knowledge base) are by far the most intellectually engaging.
    If they have got the lived passion and made the follow up (ie are consistently feeding their knowledge base so it doesnt stagnate) they are also seldom intimidated and actually thrive on others who are attempting to learn themselves.
    In terms of learning assimiliation you do as a student start to integrate their concpets… you dont “pinch” them in a cheap way, but you synthesise the learning and their use of terminology, if you have even a thread of the passion yourself I guess. 🙂
    No real news is it really, but that has been my experience too.
    These lecturers tend to occupy the minority post, but they take the laggers and the outliers with them- in both categories, UP, consistently.
    they are powerful gifts really to the learning body.
    Just some other food for thought. Cheers guys. 🙂

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