60 years of ‘Dumbing Down’?

Found in the bookseller's magazine Desiderata from September 1955 this piece reprinted  from Atticus in the Sunday Times.

Teenagers may care to try to name the authors of the following 12 books:

An American Tragedy, 
The Canterbury Tales,
Gulliver's Travels,
Leaves of Grass,
The Old Wives' Tale
Vanity Fair, 
The Origin of Species,
The Wealth of Nations 
The Rubaiyat
Tom Jones 

...then compare their standard of education with that of the average American college graduate, aged 21.  According to a recent Gallup poll, 9% of graduates could not give the author of a single one, 39% could not name more than three, and 52% could name only four.

At least three titles may have dated too much since 1955 - An American Tragedy, Babbitt and The Old Wive's Tale - they could be replaced, say, by The Hobbit, To Kill a Mockingbird and Ulysses. It was a slightly odd list to start with (no Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Poe) but you have to start somewhere. Surely there must have been the occasional bright spark who could name the lot? 60 years on people constantly lament 'dumbing down' but it would be interesting to see if figures have greatly changed  for the worse…

4 thoughts on “60 years of ‘Dumbing Down’?

  1. Eye to Future (ETF)

    You may find the figures would be lower. People no longer need to know anything or at least remember it cos it's all on your phone, pad or desktop. It would be interesting to know. I am just off to quiz 1000 college kids.

  2. Jim

    That surprises me. Even taking into account our misconceptions about a putative 'golden age' in which an education somehow contrived to be both deep and broad, I would have thought that most of these titles would come under the rubric of 'general knowledge', even if unread in themselves. It's very possible that the results would be even worse now, but this shows that we are also ignorant about the history of our own ignorance…

  3. Anonymous

    I credit most of my book knowledge to growing up in a house with a decent library and parents who were avid readers. I was also quite fortunate to have teachers who had the gift of teaching well and generating contagious enthusiasm in the assignments. Sadly, that is not always the case. Books that are assigned reading in school may very well be classics of literature, but just the fact that they are homework often diminishes their memory in one's mind, not to mention any pleasure in reading them. Only a student who has no interest in reading can fall victim to "dumbing down," as a bit of determination and a local library can lead to a great world of books. Personally, I think my greatest education came from the reading I have done after my school and college years.

  4. admin Post author

    Many thanks for comments Jim, Anon and Eye. The list, on reflection, is quite a good one apart from the passé books- putting Shakespeare and Dickens in there might make it too obvious. The depth of ignorance around now is slightly staggering- I came across a guy (reading Finnegans Wake) who had never heard of Nabokov and in a serious reading group someone to whom Graham Greene was a complete unknown… 'A History of Ignorance' – sounds like a new novel!


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