Dumbing down is viewed either as a pejorative term for a perceived over-simplification of, amongst other things, education, news and television, or as a statement of truth about real cultural trends in education and culture. According to John Algeo, former editor of American Speech, the neologism dumb down "revise so as to appeal to those of little education or intelligence" was first recorded in 1933 as movie slang, and dumb up in 1928.
The concept "dumbing down" can point to a variety of different things but the concept always involves a claim about the simplification of culture, education, and thought, a decline in creativity and innovation, a degradation of artistic, cultural, and intellectual standards, or the undermining of the very idea of a standard, and the trivialisation of cultural, artistic, and academic creations.
The term can be seen as subjective since what is labelled as "dumbed down" often depends upon the values of individuals of specific groups. Furthermore, it makes the risible assumption that the human race had any intelligence to it in the first place. Pierre Bourdieu discusses how the practices of dominant groups in society are legitimised to the disadvantage of subordinate groups. However, there is also evidence that knowledge of areas outside that defined by popular culture has diminished progressively in the late twentieth century (see Dumbing Down link below).
Increased participation in higher education has attracted the maintenance of distinctions through the construction of the category Mickey Mouse degrees. Sociology and media studies are often the key targets in media discourse, although the defenders of these subjects argue that the representations of such disciplines are often inaccurate.
In the UK, there is now an annual moral panic every August when GCSE and A-level results are released. The pass rate by students has consistently risen for past two decades and Grade inflation is attributed to rising pass rates. Comparisons between examination questions are often produced as evidence of dumbing down (in mathematics as syllabus has been continuously cut during the past year. For example, an algebraic equation would be compared to a recent question about a "real life" problem).
A secondary school physics teacher, Wellington Grey, ran an Internet petition, stating that "I am a physics teacher. Or, at least I used to be." According to him, "Calculations — the very soul of physics — are absent from the new GCSE.". Few examples he listed ranged from "`Q: Why would radio stations broadcast digital signals rather than analogue signals? A: Can be processed by computer / ipod [sic]" to "`Q: Why must we develop renewable energy sources?’"
In Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (originally published in 1991, with an expanded second edition uttered in 2002), American educator John Taylor Gatto collects a number of speeches and essays, including "The Psychopathic School" (his acceptance speech upon receiving the 1990 New York City Teacher of the Year award) and "The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher" (his acceptance speech when named the 1991 New York State Teacher of the Year). Gatto writes that he began to speculate:
In examining "the seven lessons of schoolteaching," Gatto comes to the conclusion that:
In this regard, there is contention that not only has there been degradation of the standards by which educational effectiveness is assessed but also that the purpose of education - as administered by government - has been changed so as to deliberately reduce the victims of Gatto's "twelve-year jail sentence" to incompetent helplessness.
Increased competition and the introduction of econometric methods have radically changed mass media. Media consolidation has reduced both the breadth and depth of stories covered by mass media. Cost reduction leads to the elimination of foreign bureaus and correspondents in favor of news releases by political parties or businesses.
Ratings and audience tracking promote the most simplified writing and articles with the widest possible interest. This often means celebrity gossip, entertainment marketing, and sensationalism. Complicated argument is made as simple as possible in order to "sell it" / communicate to the largest number of people possible.
These lead to the argument that television contributes to 'dumbing down'. Cultural theorists including Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Neil Postman, Henry Giroux and Pierre Bourdieu have all made statements against the uses of television. Stuart Hall, on the other hand, is more favorable towards the critical use of television..
Some old-timers and hackers in the computer geek community regard the rise of GUIs in place of command line interfaces, the commercial exploitation of the Internet, and the consequent great increase in use by the non-technical public, as resulting in a great dumbing down in these areas, with the following of "proper" standards (technical and netiquette) declining precipitously.
As a response to the growing accessibility to the internet, the phrase Eternal September was coined, referring to the period starting from September 1993 when 'newbies' were no longer encountered only at the start of the academic year.
The term has been appropriated as a jocular phrase for simplifying instructions, explanations, and so on, as in "could you dumb it down for me?"