Dumbing down is the deliberate oversimplification of intellectual content within education, literature, cinema, news, video games and culture in order to relate to those unable to assimilate more sophisticated information.
The phenomenon has plagued the literary community for decades, and even more so in recent years when fast news and byte-sized information bits are the order of the day. Many schools across our country are no longer teaching spelling and writing is relegated to personal narrative. I have three graduating seniors in one of the most acclaimed school districts in the state of Texas. They have written nothing but poetry and personal narrative in English class from sixth through eleventh grade. They’ve never written an expository essay, a literary critique or, God forbid, a research paper, replete with footnotes.
And vocabulary? That’s where the dumbing down is most prevalent. I remember memorizing page after page of vocabulary words throughout my school years. Did I ever use the word “pulchritudinous” in real life? Of course not, but I do know what it means. And by knowing that, I can also discern what other words with the root “pulchrit” might convey, as well.
Language is fascinating, so why do we seek to tone it down at every turn? There are some compelling arguments for dumbing down speech, written or otherwise. Have you ever read a legal document with it’s “wherewithals” and “soforths”? Feast your eyes on this example:
As stated heretofore, the landlord’s conduct created, caused, and resulted in serious bodily harm and massive injuries, to wit: a broken and mangled left leg, lacerations to the aforementioned leg, and several broken digits on the foot attached to said leg, in witness whereof was the spouse of the injured party.
Huh? How about: “The landlord broke the injured party’s leg in front of his/her spouse”. It’s quicker to read, easier to understand, and less likely to be misunderstood.
The aforementioned (heh, heh, couldn’t resist) example is the reason why I’m okay with some elements of dumbing down. For example, I hate to use the word “utilize” when “use” is simpler, cleaner, and, in my opinion, more explicative. Can you imagine someone in an emergency screaming “Utilize your oxygen mask! Utilize your oxygen mask!”? No, because use gets the job done quicker and with less chance of misunderstanding. But too much focus on language simplification means we risk taking variety and nuance out of our spoken and written word.
Today’s fiction is an unfortunate victim of literary simplification. But just as the classics (e.g, Jane Eyre, A Tale of Two Cities, Crime and Punishment) may have seemed clunky and slow to our school-aged selves, some current fiction has the same effect on today’s technologically distracted and internet-connected youth. The public’s tastes are changing and literature, like other art forms, must change with the market and the times. This is why no one writes like Dickens any longer.
Still, as a writer I think it sad that some beautiful words will fall by the wayside if this trend continues. If most college freshmen are reading at a 7th grade level, we have no choice but to write to be understood. It’s not for us to pontificate on the finer points of language, but to expand our readers’ horizons with tales that take them on fantastic journeys of the mind.
But in my opinion, if they learn a few new words on the way, that, my friend, is a pulchritudinous thing.
See you on the next page!