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Dumbing down is the deliberate oversimplification of intellectual content within education, literature, cinema, news, video games and culture in order to relate to those unable to assimilate more sophisticated information.
The term "dumbing down" originated in 1933 as movie-business slang, used by motion picture screenplay writers, meaning: "[to] revise so as to appeal to those of little education or intelligence". Dumbing-down varies according to subject matter along with the reasons for lowering the intellect of the subject or topic. It often involves diminishment of critical thought involving the undermining of intellectual standards within language and learning; thus trivializing meaningful information, culture, and academic standards, as is the case of popular culture.
Philosophically, the term "dumbing down" is a relative definition, because what is considered dumbing down depends on the taste, value judgement, and intellectual level of the person involved in the matter. In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979), the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) proposed that, in a society in which the cultural practices of the ruling class are rendered and established as the legitimate culture of that society, that action then devalues the cultural capital of the subordinate social classes, and thus limits their social mobility within their own society.
In the late 20th century, the proportion of young people attending university in the UK increased sharply, including many who previously would not have been considered to possess the appropriate scholastic aptitude. In 2003, the UK Minister for Universities, Margaret Hodge, criticised Mickey Mouse degrees as a negative consequence of universities dumbing down their courses to meet "the needs of the market": these are degrees conferred for studies in a field of endeavour "where the content is perhaps not as [intellectually] rigorous as one would expect, and where the degree, itself, may not have huge relevance in the labour market": thus, a university degree of slight intellectual substance, which the student earned by "simply stacking up numbers on Mickey Mouse courses, is not acceptable".
In 2007 Wellington Grey, a high school physics instructor in London, published an Internet petition objecting to what he described as a dumbed-down curriculum. He wrote: "I am a physics teacher. Or, at least, I used to be"; and complained that "[Mathematical] calculations – the very soul of physics – are absent from the new General Certificate of Secondary Education." Among the examples of dumbing-down that he provided were: "Question: Why would radio stations broadcast digital signals, rather than analogue signals? Answer: Can be processed by computer/ipod" to "Question: Why must we develop renewable energy sources?" (a political question).
In Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1991, 2002), John Taylor Gatto presented speeches and essays, including "The Psychopathic School", his acceptance speech for the 1990 New York City Teacher of the Year award, and "The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher", his acceptance speech upon being named as the New York State Teacher of the Year for 1991. Gatto writes that while he was hired to teach English and literature, he came to believe he was employed as part of a social engineering project. The "seven lessons" at the foundation of schooling were never explicitly stated, Gatto writes, but included teaching students that their self-worth depended on outside evaluation; that they were constantly ranked and supervised; and that they had no opportunities for privacy or solitude. Gatto speculated:
Was it possible, I had been hired, not to enlarge children's power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy, on the face of it, but slowly, I began to realize that the bells and confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think, and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior.
In examining the seven lessons of teaching, Gatto concluded that "all of these lessons are prime training for permanent underclasses, people deprived forever of finding the center of their own special genius." That "school is a twelve-year jail sentence, where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school, and win awards doing it. I should know."
Mass communications media
Increased business competition and the introduction of econometric methods changed the business practices of the mass communications media. The business monopoly practice of media consolidation reduced the breadth and the depth of the journalism practiced and provided for the information of the public. The reduction of operating costs (overhead expenses) eliminated foreign news bureaus and reporters, in favour of presenting the public relations publications (news releases) of governments, businesses, and political parties as fact.
Refinements in measurement of approval ratings and audience size increased the incentive for journalists and TV producers to write simplistic material, diminishing the intellectual complexity of the argument presented, usually at the expense of factual accuracy and rationality. Cultural theorists, such as Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Neil Postman, Henry Giroux, and Pierre Bourdieu, invoked these effects as evidence that commercial television is an especially pernicious contributor to the dumbing-down of communications. Nonetheless, the cultural critic Stuart Hall said that the people responsible for teaching critical thinking – parents and academic instructors – can improve the quality (breadth and depth) of their instruction by occasionally including television programmes.
In France, Michel Houellebecq has written (not excluding himself) of "the shocking dumbing-down of French culture and intellect as was recently pointed out,  sternly but fairly, by TIME magazine."
In computer software and device use
Software used on computers and mobile devices, can do complex tasks sometimes requiring users to have a lot of technical knowledge. Similarly, user operated devices, such as a washing machine or a camera, perform many complex operations. A lot of effort has been put into making these easier to use. Sometimes by use of good ergonomics, known as usability. And sometimes by removing some of the choices and functionality available. The process of reducing the functionality is often known as dumbing down. For some users, this removes confusing barriers and gives them confidence to use the software or device. For others, the missing functionality may be frustrating and too restrictive.
Replacing a user operated function with an automatic function that achieves the same result would not be considered dumbing down. However, any loss of flexibility in this automation would be the actual dumbing down.
And example in software use, is where an email application on a smartphone may lack the ability to create email folders, or email rules. Where these functions are available on an email application on a desktop computer.
In popular culture
The science fiction film Idiocracy (2005) portrays the U.S. as a greatly dumbed-down society 500 years in the future, in which low cultural conditions were unintentionally achieved by eroding language and education coupled with dysgenics, where people of lower intelligence reproduced faster than the people of higher intelligence. Similar concepts appeared in earlier works, notably the science fiction short story The Marching Morons (1951), by Cyril M. Kornbluth which also features a modern-day protagonist in a future dominated by low-intelligence persons. Moreover, the novel Brave New World (1931), by Aldous Huxley, discussed the ways a utopian society was deliberately dumbed down in order to maintain political stability and social order by eliminating complex concepts unnecessary for society to function (i.e. the Savage tries reading Shakespeare to the masses and is not understood). More malevolent uses of dumbing down to preserve the social order are also portrayed in The Matrix, Nineteen Eighty-Four and many dystopian movies.
The social critic Paul Fussell touched on these themes ("prole drift") in his non-fiction book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (1983) and focused on them specifically in BAD: or, The Dumbing of America (1991).
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- Mosley, Ivo, ed. (2000). Dumbing Down: Culture, Politics, and the Mass Media. Thorverton, UK: Imprint Academic. ISBN 978-0-907845-65-2. OCLC 43340314. (Collection of essays.)