Is Dumb A Core Value?

There have been a number of books and articles that have come out recently bemoaning the lack of knowledge exhibited by people today. Whether it was Miss South Carolina’s flub at the Miss America contest, the woman on Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader who thought Europe was a country and had never heard of Hungry (her pronunciation) or talk show stunts like Jay Leno’s where he asks people easy questions for which they provide embarrassing incorrect answers.

The latest chapter in this discussion making rounds of the talk shows and newspaper reviews is Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason. You can read a review here or watch a pretty good interview with a transcript with Bill Moyers here. Much of her focus seems to be on how active anti-intellectualism is causing people to essentially renounce their roles as citizens of the US.

But while some of the examples Jacoby discusses are worthy of some consideration, what she says isn’t as important as the whole concept of people actively not caring that they aren’t familiar with basic knowledge about the world around them. It could have been any book or discussion on this topic that suddenly raised the question, do the arts have any idea how to deal with anti-intellectualism?

Most of the strategies suggested about how to build audiences seem to assume that mistakes were made but audiences can be regained. Perhaps the attendance won’t be as great as before, but it seems that arts organizations are coming to the conclusion that things changed and they weren’t agile or perceptive enough to recognize it. Proposals to bolster education and effect changes that reflect shifting audience expectations about the experience and social environment all seem to assume that the arts can reclaim some of the ground it lost to the Internet, high def plasma televisions and video on demand.

But does the arts world have any solutions to combat complete indifference or even worse, active attempts reinforced by social pressure, to distance oneself from anything that might indicate that one was more than just plain folks. You have probably heard that in some communities, showing signs of being educated could find one accused of putting on airs and having elitist notions. When I was discussing the general topic of this book with a person in my office, he said that in some of the communities that the college served, some males were resistant to attend for fear of becoming homosexuals. Not being labeled–becoming. This puts a survey the college did a couple years ago in an entirely different context. One of the top answers from men regarding what they liked about the school was the attractive women.

Frankly, I wonder if there is any solution the arts world can enact in its current position. Had the arts community more influence in society, it might work to make intellectual pursuits more of a core value. Perhaps it still can, though the road will certainly be slow and long. The truth might be that there are plenty of intellectually curious people out there to whom the arts wielding a new approach might appeal. It is easy enough for shows like Jay Leno’s to edit out all the correct answers in order to put a comedy bit together. And certainly the erudite answers of Miss America and game show contestants probably aren’t popular viewing on YouTube if they are posted at all.

Schadenfreude aside, even if things aren’t as bad as popular media makes it seem, there are genuine problems with lack of intellectual curiosity and critical thinking skills in the country. While handling all the other troubles that besets them, the arts community’s continued existence probably hinges in a large part on combating the idea that it is okay and perhaps even preferable not to know. People may claim that they can easily look up anything they need to know, but I often wonder if they ever bother doing it. The conditions constituting a need to know seem to be none existent.

I used to joke that I was glad people were so lazy about learning because that way employers would pay me more for being competent and knowledgeable. The truth is, that isn’t the type of world I really want to live in. Nor do I imagine the majority of people would. Not only would people lack the wit to laugh at my jokes, but the lack of intellectual and perhaps social and emotional engagement would be quite dispiriting. (Initially, I was also going to say it can be depressing to be surrounded by people who willingly choose not to live up to their potential but I realized I was starting to channel my mother.)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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