Recently, at my writer’s group, a fellow writer who is beginning her chosen art form told me that she was advised to not write above an eighth-grade level. I remember several seconds of stunned silence between us before I asked, “Who told you that?” Based on her troubled countenance, I don’t doubt that the horror of this suggestion came through in my tone. I’ve also been told that my facial expressions convey exactly what I’m thinking, so I hope I didn’t overwhelm the poor woman with my response. I wanted her to run screaming, just not from me. If I didn’t scare her off, I’ll make sure I soften my reactions when discussing such matters in the future.
Still, I am shocked that this type of bad advice is floating around writer’s groups. The last time I checked, there were still twelve grades a student in America needed to complete. Somebody please tell me if the progression of education stopped at grade eight. That would mean my child, currently a senior, has read nothing beyond an eighth-grade level for the past four years. That’s insane. Then again, I recall the small heart attack I experienced when I saw Stephenie Meyer’s The Host on the high school reading list. Which piece of classic literature found itself guillotined at the inclusion of that piece of tripe?
I have suspected for a long time that the art form of writing was under attack. My fellow writer’s comment confirmed this. So when did the dumbing down of American literature begin? I don’t know if I can actually pinpoint the precise moment it occurred, but I can tell you the moment I became aware of it. (And shame on me for not being more vigilant if it took place sooner.)
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.
I remember the day I saw a t-shirt printed with the statement “underachiever and proud of it.” I had another moment, not quite as intense as that with my fellow writer, but one in which I was completely baffled. I could not fathom a person or society comprised of people who willingly settled for mediocrity in anything and a world in which one did the bare minimum to get by. There is no hope of success when one functions under such a principle.
And yet, this is exactly where we, as a society, have fallen twenty-five years later. It’s as if those who bullied the smart kids for hanging out at the library weren’t content to just harass their fellow students. They wouldn’t stop until the smart kids not only condoned but encouraged this stagnation of the intellect. If you don’t get on board—don’t hold yourself back from seeking knowledge or temper your drive and ambitions—you’ll be labeled a snob in the least and intolerant at the worst.
So again I ask: why this attack on art? Because art is dangerous. Art tells the truth. Artists are freethinkers who challenge the status quo. It was a novelist and playwright who said, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” A gold star to anyone who can tell me who said this. Here’s where the problem of proud underachiever comes in. The generation in which this concept became acceptable doesn’t care enough to find out who said the above-mentioned quote or what the quote even means. They are too lazy to want this information for themselves and are disdainful toward anyone who does. If it isn’t required of them in school, and based on the poor quality of curriculum in American schools I doubt that it is, they won’t reach out and grasp the knowledge.
That’s pathetic when you consider that we live in an era where knowledge is readily accessible. No more searching through the card catalog or plowing through large volumes of encyclopedias. You don’t even have to go to the library. Just ask Alexa, Cortana, or Google what you need to know from the comfort of your couch. Be sure to wait until the commercial or you’ll miss the best part of your favorite recorded TV show.
What troubles me about his indolent attitude is that it’s creeping backward and contaminating older generations. Hopefully it won’t pollute the writing of those already established and feeling pressured to churn out more or older writers just beginning to pursue their passion. As for me, I am personally committed to fighting this process of dumbing down by writing the best literature I can and by seeking to improve myself in every way. I am not afraid to compete, to go for the gold. After all, why run the race if I don’t intend to win?
I’ll most likely be among the first to die if America ever succumbs to an oppressive regime because we all know how much tyrants fear artists. But If I can leave behind a written work that the next generation, possibly the survivors, smuggle from home to home and hold up as an example of what they should strive for, then my art—my writing—will not have been in vain.