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Dumbing Down


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About the Author

John Thornton was a book editor for many years and now works as a literary agent. He lives in New York. Katharine Washburn is an editor and translator. She lives in New York.


The editors of this collection believe that an infection of thoughtlessness has placed American culture in a terminal condition. Washburn, a writer and translator, and literary agent Thornton have edited essays by several generally like-minded critics, creative writers, and social scientists. Most have a particular ideological complaint: America is dumber because it has abandoned its standards to accommodate affirmative action for the multiculturalist, feminist rabble. Many intelligent readers may not move deeper into the book after encountering John Simon's premise that smart people always chose opera over rock. The lone writer from an African American perspective is Armstrong Williams, Strom Thurmond's protégé. If ever a collection purporting to be cross-representational had a narrow political vision, this is the book. Still, the writing is often very good and always provocative. While voices from the Right dominate‘Gilbert T. Sewall, Heather MacDonald, and Joseph Epstein are exemplars‘Anthony DeCurtis and Ken Kalfus, with a few others, contribute notions that do not simply translate as "blame the liberals." Recommended for libraries that want to document important currents in American culture.‘Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., Pa.

"What distinguishes this collection is its breadth, its liveliness. This valuable book provides much ammunition for ... unrepentant elitists." -- Lisa Zeidner - Philadelphia Inquirer "A collection of savagely witty essays by a hardy band of cultural commentators who believe things are bad, really bad out there, and are not at all reluctant to say so." -- Florence King - National Review "Provides the best picture we have of the declining and embarrassing condition of discourse in America." -- Neil Postman "A terrific book. It is unsettling, arresting, and compelling, and its publication is a public service." -- William J. Bennett

It is a tribute to this engaging, cranky collection that critic Simon's introduction registers disagreement with the essays defining rock and roll and calling for more orthodox forms of religion. Among the essayists, David Slavitt laments that university students are now "more socially ambitious than intellectually curious," Robert Park condemns our acceptance of scientific illiteracy and Heather McDonald deconstructs the declining standards in the teaching of remedial writing. George Kennan reminds us that we need "an elite of service to others." Some essays‘on psychiatry or sex or the social sciences‘offer too-limited takes on broad topics. But this book, thankfully, has no neat ideological wrapper: James Twitchell reminds us of the ubiquitous influence of advertising, while Carole Rifkind describes how the mall compromises public space. Literary critic Sven Birkerts worries that the computer and the Internet may become our new deity: his fear may be exaggerated, but his solution‘real engagement with books and ideas‘is surely worth adopting. Thornton is a literary agent; Washburn is a freelance editor. (June)

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