Dumbing It Down

When I was hired in 1968 to start a philosophy program and coordinate a required Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux” at a brand new state college in Minnesota I had high hopes. I was only four years out of graduate school but I had already taught a number of the great books to “marginal students” at one of the many colleges that flourished in those days to keep young men out of the draft — colleges with non-degree programs designed for students  who were simply enrolled in order to avoid going to Viet Nam. I was therefore determined to initiate a reading program in what was then a brand-new state college, with better students presumably, that would challenge the students and inspire the faculty who taught them. All faculty were required to teach at least one section of “Flux” a year and all Freshmen were required to take three quarters of the course to provide them with a foundation to build on later in their major fields of study.

The first quarter focused on the question “What Is Man?” a title that would be regarded as sexist today and not allowed by the PC police. I thought long and hard about the reading list and came up with selections that would be challenging but not too difficult for the average student, especially if he or she had the guidance of a dedicated faculty member. I submitted the reading list before arriving on campus, and it included (among other works) the very short, eminently readable, masterpiece by Pico Della Mirandola, The Dignity of Man. The remaining works sounded, perhaps, less imposing (I don’t remember), but in any event the entire list was rejected by the Dean of Faculty as too difficult for their students. An anthology was selected by a committee at the college before I arrived on campus and I was informed that this would be the text. I was to read the selections before the classes met each week and submit questions for the faculty members to ask in order to generate discussion within their groups.

Many of the classes were successful, but more were not. A large number of faculty members resented having to teach something out of their area of expertise. One of them, when faced with a small paperback dealing with the basic concepts of Freudian psychology, told his class that he didn’t understand a word in the book and said they didn’t have to read it. Here was an excellent educational opportunity wasted: they could have explored the text together! Eventually the Freshman requirement was dropped, primarily because so many faculty resented having to teach outside their disciplines where they were busy building up their major requirements, despite the fact that a number of them not only enjoyed teaching the subject but raved about the success they were having. For one thing, it got Freshmen students involved at the start of their college career, since the classes were small and encouraged discussion. For another, it gave interested faculty members a chance to explore intellectual territory they were unfamiliar with — though, as I found out, many saw this as a threat!

I have always been angry that the Dean of Faculties had turned down that initial reading list that included books he had almost certainly never read and probably had never even heard of. I fought that battle for several years with him and with others on the faculty. But, being young and powerless, I lost the battle in the end. But I always thought the students were being cheated: they were being regarded as less able than I knew they were. And the reluctance of so many of the faculty to fully support the course didn’t help. If you aim low, I thought, you will hit low. Instead of stretching the minds of the students (and many of the faculty) which was the initial intent of the course, the trend was downwards. “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” it has since been called. And we see it happening all over the country, at all levels.

I recall the first time I read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as a Junior in college. I had no idea whatever what the man was saying. But after a presentation on the subject by one of the tutors and struggling with the very difficult material myself, and especially after meeting with other students in a seminar and discussing the book, I finally began to see what Kant was saying. It was difficult going, but the end result was extremely satisfying. It was like striking gold after hours of work in a dark cave! I went from a slightly better-than-average student at a technical high school memorizing and regurgitating dull material to a more mature student committed to lifelong learning.

We deprive our students of that sort of experience by selling them short, by assigning easy reading material and taking them by the hand to lead them through it — or encouraging them to read Cliffs Notes! They will never know what they have missed, and that is truly sad.

John Stuart Mill once said that we will not know what is possible until we attempt what is impossible. I have always thought that was a profound thought, and that even so-called “average” students could benefit from walking, even briefly, in the company of genius. Instead of dumbing down the curriculum we should raise it to heights we may think the students (or faculty) cannot reach. They just might surprise us!


Back in the day when I was assigning readings for my classes the thing I hated most were the dreaded “Cliff’s Notes” that were readily available not only in the college bookstore but in many a box store and even in some of the Mom and Pop stores down the block. They were everywhere and they professed to give the student an encapsulated view of the assigned reading — which many students read instead of the original material assigned. From my perspective, the assigning of original material was central to my purpose. I wanted my students to walk with a great mind for at least a few steps before returning to the hum-drum of text books and parties. I realized they were just a few steps, but the material was chosen in order to give them a sense of what it was like to actually accompany a great mind at least for a bit. So I hated the “Cliff’s Notes.”

Recently a new beast has appeared on the horizon and it is called Open Textbook Library, an on-line aid to students that offers them a free look at great books without asking them to make the effort themselves to ferret out what the author has to say. That in itself is a problem, because it is precisely the ferreting-out that is most likely to start the thinking process and help the student along the way toward intellectual curiosity and enlightenment. Short-cuts always have seemed to me to be the path of least resistance and designed to cater to the lazy students who didn’t want to make the effort.

One of these Open Texts, Plato’s Republic, was recently reviewed on-line and an attempt was made by the reviewer to save the Idiot’s Guide to Plato from infamy. As the reviewer said:

The Intelligent Troglodyte’s Guide to Plato’s Republic takes the reader on an enjoyable tour of this classic work of Ancient Greek philosophy. Although reading Plato’s text can be quite difficult, this Guide is very helpful both in summarizing the important ideas Plato expressed and also in helping a reader to navigate the order in which they are presented and remember the overall narrative arc of the story. This Guide is not intended as a replacement of Plato’s text, nor as a “Cliff’s Notes” summary, nor again as a detailed commentary, but rather as a simple and accessible guide. The reader is advised to first get through sections of Plato’s text and only afterwards attend to the relevant sections of Drabkin’s text, which fills the role of a humble interpreter who turns complex foreign pronouncements into understandable statements.

Now Drabkin is the author of the Guide and he is said to be an expert in classical works such as the Republic. I will not quarrel with that, but the claim that this Guide is not a digital form of “Cliffs Notes” is highly doubtful. I have a number of problems with this endeavor and even with this review. To begin with, Plato’s Republic is one of the most accessible of Plato’s works. It is not a terribly difficult text and rewards energetic reading and the needed attempt to dig into a text and find the jewels of insight that made the work a classic to begin with. It’s one thing to have the student read a translation of the original — which is simply a matter of necessity for most of us. It is quite another to take the students by the hand and lead them to the main ideas and point so they will not have to find them for themselves. This may not be Cliff’s Notes, exactly, but the intent is the same: make things as easy for the student as possible so they will not be turned off by what they regard as a difficult task. Isn’t it just possible that it is precisely the difficulty of the task that is most valuable to the student’s intellectual development? The Greeks used to say “Nothing easy is worthwhile.” These Guides seem to be another attempt to make things easy. We can predict that it will make the endeavor worthless as well.

The problem is that Guides such as these, including Cliff’s Notes, while not designed to replace the original (as the reviewer correctly points out) do precisely that for the majority of those who use them. This strikes me as a form of cheating. Not on the student’s part, because they simply don’t know any better. But on the part of the instructor who is cheating the student by pointing out how he or she can avoid the task that is designed to help the student grow and mature as a reader and a thinker. The easy way is not the best way — though increasingly it appears to be the only way.