DUMBING DOWN by Katharine Washburn


Essays on the Strip Mining of American Culture
Email this review


 Twenty-two sparkling essays defend the apocalyptic proposition that American culture ``has somehow begun sliding down a long, steep chute into nullity.'' Ever since Allan Bloom unexpectedly hit the bestseller lists in 1988 with his denunciation of cultural and intellectual standards in the US, publishers have cheerfully cultivated his theme. Bad news is good business, and the news in Dumbing Down is pretty bad: American religion has degenerated into kitsch; malls have helped erode our democratic concept of public space; museums have trivialized history and science; computers are destroying literacy; bad science is dumbing down good science; the quality of our language is sinking to an all time low. Even the New Yorker has been watered down to seem more like People. By now such news is not exactly news. Nevertheless, as dubious as this genre is becoming, it must be noted that Washburn and Thornton (she is a freelance writer and editor, he is a literary agent) have assembled an outstanding collection of essays on contemporary American life, with elegant contributions (most of them written expressly for this volume) from such well-known figures as Joseph Epstein, George Kennan, and Cynthia Ozick. Anecdote largely replaces argument in books of this sort. Novelist David Slavitt's recollection of his job at a major news magazine is typical: ``When I was at Newsweek, it wasn't a magazine that most of the people who worked there would have read voluntarily. I mean, when they taught me that I was supposed to write `Plato, the Greek philosopher once said . . .,' it wasn't a joke. The identifying appositive had to be there. (I always tried to imagine someone out there slapping his forehead and thinking, Oh, yeah, right, that Plato.)'' Welcome to the apocalypse. If we end up in the toxic landfill of History, it won't be because the writers in this witty, wonderfully entertaining collection failed to warn us.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-393-03829-7
Page count: 332pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1996