A new study on teen literacy released this week has the usual subjects up in arms about the dumbing down of America. But I wonder if we aren't making much ado about a tempest in a croc pot.
While I agree that to have a common culture one has to have shared knowledge of the touchstones of that culture, I wonder if these touchstones are not in perpetual flux. Are the touchstones of 17-year-old Americans the same as those of their parents and grandparents? I came up with two ways to test this out.
Way One: I could take a questionnaire on cultural touchstones written by my college students to see if I would turn up just as ill-informed as they appear on questionnaires written by people my age. Of course to find out I would actually have to leave my computer, get some students to create this thing, and then actually bother to answer their stupid questions. Since I have no intention of doing that, let’s just assume I would fail their dumb test, and move on to Way Two.
Way Two: Check on line for older questionnaires to see how I fare when taking them. This was much easier to do, especially when I couldn’t find any. So for the sake of balance, let’s assume I would pass these questionnaires with flying colors.
This of course leaves us at an impasse. But, for all I know, this may be the way sociological studies work, so I'm not going to get upset about this. On the contrary, I'm going to break the impasse by inventing Way Three: I will imagine what questions might be on ancient questionnaires and see if I can answer them. This is harder than it sounds, so I deserve some serious credit for this scientific research. Here are some of the questions I imagine would be on ancient questionnaires:
1. What did the Mogul hordes actually hoard?
2. Who designed the togas worn to the Crucifixion by Mary Magdelaine?
3. How many people were chained in Plato's cave, and how long did he keep them there?
4. What was the longest running pop song in pre-Israelite Canaan?
5. Which samurai warrior endorsed the best selling Japanese sword of 1246?
If you are like me (and you should be), you can’t answer any of these questions. Does that make you stupid? Should we worry that our civilization is going to hell because you didn’t know that the answer to Question Two is RobesPierre, and the answer to Question Four is “Stay Down Moses”? I don’t think so. These questions are irrelevant to our current culture. So let’s stop asking 17-year-olds about the Bible and classical literature, and focus more on questions that matter to them, like “How many days did Britney Speaks spend in rehab in 2007?”
[By the way, if you do know the answers to Questions 1, 3, and 5, post them here. I didn't know them, and expect sociologists from the ends of the flat earth will be checking this site to find out, and don't want to disappoint them. Thanks.]