Are Americans Becoming Dumber?

Are Americans becoming dumb and dumber? Or is it just the Christians, and not the Jews and Hindus? Eva C. Schweitzer has a theory about that.

Susan Jacoby is a stern looking woman who dresses in a suit and wears glasses. She could well pass as a librarian or a high school teacher and she is, in fact, something quite similar. The New Yorker is author of the book “Dumb and Dumber-–Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?” She complains, “Our children are getting dumber and dumber.”

Jacoby is very feisty. This week, she introduced her book at a Barnes & Noble store on the Upper West Side. Barnes & Noble, just north of the gourmet emporium Zabar’s, is the cultural heart of the Upper West Side along with Makor, the Jewish cultural house on West 67th Street. Movie fans will recognize this Barnes & Noble branch from the film “You’ve Got Mail,” where Tom hanks drove sweet little Meg Ryan into bankruptcy.

Shortly after 9-11, Jacoby overheard two men in a bar. One said the attack was like Pearl Harbor. “What’s Pearl Harbor?” asked the other. The first man replied, “That’s when the Vietnamese bombed us and started the Vietnamese War.”

And that, says Jacoby, is when she decided to write her book.

The customers in the Barnes & Noble branch were, to be a bit callous, old. All educated, older people in expensive sweaters and woolen coats who nodded concernedly. The fault for this sad situation, says Jacoby, is ever more shallow television as well as an education system more concerned with graduating students than ensuring that they learn anything. That, and religious fundamentalism that teaches that dinosaurs (or was it UFOs?) roamed the earth just 6,000 years ago. Guilty, too, are the hostile feelings toward science that many Americans harbor.

Jacoby’s book made it onto the New York Times best-seller list. The Times put up a message board that received nearly a thousand hits. Most of them agreed with the author. Some, on the other hand, saw it as a part of a liberal conspiracy. “America brings jobs to the whole world and we fight their wars for them,” said one reader.

Another opined that America “was number one in every category and had the highest standard of living in the world.” Is that true? Perhaps on the Upper West Side, where the average income is higher than anywhere else, but not necessarily in the Midwest. That’s where the people live who can’t afford an airplane ticket, not even to Quebec.

Jacoby’s not the only one with concerns. Jay Leno, host of the “Tonight Show,” regularly features “The Battle of the Jaywalk All-Stars” in Los Angeles, where he brings together young people, preferably budding academicians, who are particularly dimwitted. He brings them into the studio and lets them compete with one another.

Sample: “Amy, who did the USA fight during the Second World War?” Amy: “Korea?” No, it wasn’t Korea says Jay, “What was the name of the guy with the moustache?” Amy: “Boris Yeltsin?” Later, Amy guesses that maybe Einstein or a guy named Verizon invented the telephone. Meanwhile, her opponent, Jessica, confuses Nancy Pelosi with Laura Bush and doesn’t know when (or where) the invasion of Normandy happened or whether Normandy even actually exists.

Despite all this, I’m not really sure if Jacoby is right. Are Americans really becoming dumber-–or is it perhaps only the Christians? I have never met a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu who didn’t believe that education wasn’t all-important. But Jacoby says that’s unfortunately not so. “Jews are becoming dumber, too. Just have a look at Bill Kristol and compare him with his father, Irving.”

A few days later I had a chance meeting with Hussain Ali-Khan, property manager for the New York Times (in a bar, and it wasn’t really by chance) and he said he agreed somewhat with Jacoby’s book. But, he said, there were a lot of Jews at the New York Times who weren’t intellectuals. They were printers and typesetters. I asked, “Do they tell their children it’s fine with them if they don’t go to college?” “Naturally not,” he replied. His own children, by the way, will also go to college someday. Of that he was certain.

Meanwhile, I’ve developed a new theory about the educational plight in the USA: It’s all Ronald Reagan’s fault. When I was a child-–and that was at the time Bobby Kennedy was assassinated-–I was attending a school in southern California. It was as different from a German school as the Apollo space capsule was from a beetle. We went on field trips, saw films in which a cartoon cricket explained how ice was formed, there was a piano in every classroom and free after-hours tutoring for every student having difficulties.

I recently made a return visit to that school. Half the classroom instruction took place in metal containers and everything appeared run down. I talked with a teacher who smiled bravely and said, “You know, this is a rough part of town now and we have to make do with what they give us.”

On the Upper West Side, I can assure you, it’s much different.

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