In Praise of dumbing Down

Sunday, October 17th, 2004

For the past few years the phrase ‘dumbing down’ has been applied liberally to just about every area of life. It is an insult, a quick and cheap way of shutting someone up by claiming they are oversimplifying something or don’t know what they’re talking about.

I’ve never been keen on the phrase myself – I think people who use it are lazy; dumbing down, in fact.

A regular columnist for The Times Higher Educational Supplement, Frank furedi, a professor of sociology, uses the term freely and implies it even more in his increasingly nonsensical articles and, just out, his latest book: Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting 21st Century Philistinism.

Furedi, and many like him, bemoan the rise of a world that pretends anyone can have access to knowledge and understanding. He unashamedly demands that universities be elitest, that the children of the working classes be left to be workers while people like him get on and think seriously all day about how best to increase the intellectual inequalities in society.

This whole dumbing down thing preoccupies me a lot at the moment. Since I started teaching I’ve been trying to find ways of taking subjects that traditionally turn people off and making them interesting. Unlike Mr Furedi I don’t think finding something uninteresting is the fault of the student, but of the subject and its champions. There is no subject in the world so complicated that it can’t be explained in plain English. It doesn’t stop it being complex to understand fully, but why should it be impossible to understand at all?

In the past few weeks I’ve been writing a book (due out next summer) about visual communication and I’ve been worrying a lot about it. The reason is that the book offers an opportunity for me to put something concrete on my CV under ‘publications’, something all academics need if they are to progress to the holy grail of a full-time post rather than, as I do at the moment, have to keep at least three or four jobs on the go just to make ends meet (which they don’t, incidentally). So on the one hand I have an audience in mind: my academic peers and masters. I need to produce a book that will help me gain entry into the ivory towers, so I need to make sure it is full of footnotes, brown-nosed cross references to the people who count, and essentially written in an impenetrable manner. The rule of thumb is that readability is inversely proportional to academic worth.

But my real audience is somewhat different: the book is aimed at first year undergraduates on practice-based design courses who traditionally view ‘theory’ as something to run away from as quickly as possible. Not because, as I say, the concepts are scary or impossible for them to follow, but generally because they are taught in such a way as to say ‘if you don’t understand this you’re thick’.

Let me tell you something. I’m a fan of Baudrillard, I find his theories bold and imaginative and not much different from my own ideas about the way the world works; but the man can’t write. I was reading some of his stuff last weekend and found myself having to re-read sentences several times. No wonder there’s such a market for ‘Baudrillard made easy’ books – and I admit to using them. If he could write like Douglas Adams we’d be living in a far, far better world.

So I’ve written this book in a way that those who’ve read drafts have said is clear and easy to understand. So I should be pleased about that, yes?

No. I’m actually worried about it because I know I’m effectively shooting my academic career not so much in the foot as the head – it’s terminal. The anti-dumbing down brigade is the equivalent of the intellectual mafia, shouting so loudly that they are in effect academic bullies determined to preserve ‘standards’ (rather than improve them) not by advancing their subjects but by making them impenetrable to all but the pre-vetted elite. That entry to this elite is determined by cultural and financial capital makes it even worse – how dare the self-taught son of a postman who never went to proper university dare publish a book that makes communication theory, cultural theory and even semiotics ‘easy to understand’?

I find the ‘dumbing down’ brigade reprehensible. The other day I gave a lecture on communication theory to nearly 80 first year students and did it in my usual way. I introduced Shannon and Weaver’s process model by running a game of Chinese Whispers, and prefaced semiotics by asking a student to draw things on the whiteboard while the rest shouted answers out Pictionary-style.

I suspect 80 students left with at least some understanding of basic semiotics and communication theory. Most will have left with a very good understanding and an enthusiasm for the subject that will lead them to read more on it and discuss it with their friends. But the ‘dumbing down’ brigade would have been turning in their graves if they had been dead. I really should have used a traditional lecture with slides, read from a paper and followed up with a pile of reading and an essay. Out of the 80 students I bet not one would have left with enthusiasm for anything except a stiff drink.

I have sat in lectures by leading authorities in their subject that have resulted in confusion and a determination never to darken that subject’s door again – and I mean by me, not by students. People with postgraduate qualifications prepare to talk to people with nothing more than an A-level (at best) without making any concessions. I went to one lecture on subcultures – an interesting topic that should really engage the fashion students in the audience, you’d think – that in the first sentence mentioned hegemony but never once explained what it was. When I suggested to a colleague that this was a problem I was told in no uncertain terms that this was ‘dumbing down’ and that if students don’t know something they should go off and find out. Ah, the GOFO teaching technique (or FOFO as I prefer to call it).

But this doesn’t help me. I want my book to be a CV enhancer and career resuscitator, not my suicide note.

Then one morning, it struck me. I was in the shower, where all the best ideas come, going over the book’s central argument (that all design is political but whether we consent to its commissioner’s worldview, negotiate our own response or engage in conflict is our decision) I realised that most of chapter one is given over to the idea that communication theory tells us the best way to communicate something complex is to make it easy to understand. My approach to writing the book is confirmed by the very subject matter, and it’s an argument that has been used not just by communications and cultural theorists but by sociologists like my old friend Mr Frank Furedi. Arguing against speaking plainly is a way of defending an ideological process whereby those who can talk the talk can impose their views on everyone else not because the views are right but because the situation keeps them where they are. The barbarians are at the gate, and people like me who advocate getting people interested in how the bloody locks work are a threat to their position.

If ‘dumbing down’ is a phrase that’s not going to go away then let’s change its meaning. If dumbing down helps people who otherwise were literally, but not intellectually, ignorant to understand the way the world works then let’s have more of it. And if I hear a critic describe my book as dumbing down I’ll take it as a compliment.

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