All Commentary
Saturday, October 1, 1994

Time to Smarten Up Rather Than Dumb Down

The Best and Brightest Are No Longer Sought, Nurtured, or Produced


Mr. Perlmutter is author of Divided We Fall: A History of Ethnic, Religious and Racial Prejudice in America, published by Iowa State University Press.

“Dumbing down” seems to be gripping many schools and workplaces, driven by the belief that democracy will be enhanced, education for minorities improved, and bigotry diminished. A variety of techniques have been devised, such as inflating school grades, passing all students, using different performance measurements for different groups, recruiting people because of their group affiliation rather than individual ability, eliminating competency tests, ending separate classes or tracks for talented students, and generally discarding any evaluation that results in disparate group findings whether by race, ethnic group, sex, age, or physical ability.

For example, New York City’s Sanitation Department developed an employment test in which 23,078 out of the 24,000 people passed—thereby allowing the department to say the minorities it hired were top scorers. Also, in a desire to increase the number of minorities, the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic service stopped considering knowledge of foreign languages in hiring, and created a “near pass” test category, from which only minority applicants, who had scored lower than whites, were hired.

At many educational institutions, course work has been eased, graduation requirements reduced, and classroom performance distinctions eliminated. At Harvard, the grade “C” has all but disappeared and “A” made more common, going from 22 percent of all grades in 1966-67 to 43 percent in 1992. At Stanford, the proportion of “C’s” declined from 16 percent in 1968-69 to 6 percent in 1986-87, while in the same period “A’s” went from 29 percent to 35 percent. Grade inflation has adversely affected many students who at first work hard for good grades and honors degrees, and then, according to Stanford professor William Cole, “throw up their hands upon seeing their peers do equally well despite putting in far less effort.” A 1992 federal study found that 25 percent of four-year college graduates had not studied history, 30 percent had not studied math, almost 40 percent had not studied literature, and more than 50 percent had not studied a foreign language.

At the same time, a culture of peer group pressure not to achieve has developed among some minority students, particularly blacks, wherein studying, speaking standard English, being on time, using the library, and getting “A’s” is acting “white” and therefore to be avoided.

“Dumbing down” has also become a way of solving the financial problems of a growing number of junior and four-year colleges, some of which “have been accepting every warm body that applies,” according to David Bartley, president of a Massachusetts two-year college. To maintain their budgets and staffs, some college departments and professors have resorted to “competitive standard-cutting” in order to attract and maintain student enrollment.

As a result of such developments, the proverbial “best and brightest” are no longer sought, nurtured, or produced. The average verbal S.A.T. score is today much lower than it was in the 1960s. A federal study of talented schoolchildren (which included the poor and minorities), found many were bored in classrooms, did poorly on international assessments of achievement, underperformed on domestic tests, and were offered less difficult courses, books, and homework assignments than their counterparts in other countries.

Historical Irony

“Dumbing down” is not limited to today’s minorities, nor did it originate with them. Until recent years nonwhites had to make greater efforts to gain acceptance in education, business, and sports. Throughout much of American history those of the “right” religion, ethnicity, socio- economic class, family, political connections, or athletic prowess—chiefly white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants—took pride in mediocre standards and performances—as epitomized by the almost proverbial satisfaction in earning a “Gentleman’s C” grade.

At many turn-of-the-century Ivy League colleges, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, racism, social snobbery, and anti-intellectualism were extensive. “Scholarship has apparently declined throughout the country; certainly at Yale,” lamented a 1903 Yale faculty committee report. “In fact, in late years the scholar has become almost taboo.” Only lower-class students from the public schools and those of Eastern European and Asian origins were expected to study hard. Gentlemen preferred extracurricular sports.

The historical irony is that for decades, reformers sought to end invidious group-based discrimination, political patronage, and familial nepotism by encouraging excellence and instituting objective standards, procedures, and tests that were equally open to all applicants. Now, smartening up is being replaced by dumbing down, for both minorities and majorities.