Washington Irving and the Dumbing Down of America

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Articles/education/Washington irving and the dumbing down of America

Ralph Maltese

Washington Irving and the Dumbing Down of America

In graduate school, in my Early American Authors course, my professor, Terry Martin, lectured on Washington Irving.  Dr. Martin explained that Irving tried to give the struggling new nation a “cultural past.”  The prevailing view in Europe was, “Who reads a book written by an American?”  Americans, when time from chopping wood and tilling farms permitted, read fiction by French and English and Italian authors.  By transplanting the plots from old European tales to American settings, Washington Irving endeavored to give his fellow former colonists a literature they could identify as their own….one of the reasons why Irving is recognized as the father of American fiction.  To fully understand Irving’s influence, a quick summary of two of his famous short stories is in order.

“Rip Van Winkle” has, as its protagonist, a rather lazy colonist in Dutch New York whose nagging wife and family live in a dilapidated old house.  Rip follows a barrel-toting elf into the mountains where they engage in bowling and quaffing.  When he awakes, his gun is rusty, he has a long beard, and he eventually realizes that he has endured a twenty year nap.  He returns to find a bustling village, full of commerce and activity.  He walks into a tavern and toasts the king.  This raises eyebrows since, in his alcohol induced sleep, the revolution has been fought and won.

The second short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” also involves a rather lazy Ichabod Crane, a spindly school teacher whose greatest passion, despite his skinniness, is eating.  He is somewhat engaged to Katrina, the daughter of a wealthy landowner.  The assumption is that if the book schooled Ichabod could marry Katrina, he would be in food for the rest of his life.  At an autumnal party at Katrina’s home, while Ichabod is tasting the lavish spread of bounty, Brom Bones, a muscular frontiersman, one of those stereotypes who can lift weights with his ear lobes, tells the story of the headless horseman, a Tory whose cranium was removed by a cannonball.  Legend has it that when the moon is such and such a way, and the night is such and such a way, and the leaves sway in such and such a way, the Headless Horseman roams the environs of Sleepy Hollow.  Among the final guests to leave is Ichabod, probably because he was topping off his stomach.  It is late as he rides away from the expended feast at Katrina’s house, and the moon is such and such a way and the night is such and such a way, and the leaves are swaying in such and such a way.  Soon enough, Ichabod hears hoofbeats that do not belong to his horse, and, when he musters the courage to look around, he sees a headless rider, head under his arm, atop a steed.  The chase through Sleepy Hollow ends after Ichabod crosses a bridge, and, in one final look backward, he sees the headless horseman hurl his head toward him.  Ichabod is never seen in the area again.  The next day, locals discover a pumpkin on one side of the bridge.  The reader’s inference is that, Brom Bones, challenging Ichabod for Katrina’s hand, dresses as the headless horseman and drives his rival out of the competition.

The subtext for both stories is clear.  Irving’s call to the nation is that, if the nation is to thrive, we need to get busy and work hard.  Rip Van Winkle’s post revolutionary town is not the sleepy and languishing Dutch village.  Lazy men are a stone anchor pulling the country down into the swamp.  And the nation does not need bookish and weak school teachers.  Irving contends that to build the new America, physically strong and commanding countrymen like Brom Bones will be needed to clear the land, harvest the crops and kill the native Americans whose lands the whites have invaded.

Hence our country was predicated, in large part, on a deep-rooted suspicion of academics and intellect.  An elementary education was the highest level of academic endeavor that most people received, and this educational “standard” lasted long into the 20th century.  Concomitant with this distrust of people with brains was the showcasing of the self-made man….the rags to riches, from log cabin to White House mythology that guided American society.  Those who rose from poverty to be financially wealthy, to be robber barons or moguls of the movie industry, were celebrated as our mythical heroes.  In them the common man saw hope for himself.  Davy Crocket, Abraham Lincoln, Sam Goldwyn and others were showcased not only as men who, through sheer determination, through what the French would call the spirit of élan, shed the shackles of poverty, but eschewed formal learning(or so the myth goes—we tend to downplay Lincoln’s astuteness as an Illinois lawyer, focusing on his rail-splitting and homespun wisdom). Arthur Miller explodes the myth of the self-made man in Death of a Salesman, in which Willy Loman’s self-made being-connected-and-popular-is-more-important-than-being-smart is exposed for the disaster it is, while his neighbor, Charlie’s son Bernard, through school becomes respected and successful.

Consider the anti-intellectual bent that colors most of American literature.  Roger Chillingsworth, the closest thing to a villain in The Scarlet Letter, is a learned physician.  The annoying Blanche Dubois, a sensitive school teacher, is ousted by the brutish and relatively brainless Stanley Kowalski.

Some historians argue that America’s economy, awoken by World War II, lay its depression-weary head at the altar of mass production.  This belief in the assembly line became an anchor of the educational system.  We mass produced tanks, rifles, planes, cars, refrigerators, washing machines…why not students? After all, not a great deal of thinking was expected from our student population.  As Edward Fiske notes in Smart Schools, Smart Kids, the factory model of schools furnished the United States with the population it needed to work on the assembly lines.  Most students needed only a little learning to work on those assembly lines.  Some students needed more knowledge to become the managers of those factories, and an even smaller and elite group of students would grow more intellectually because they would attend college and become owners of the factories.

In the fifties this model worked well….unless we consider the consequences of distancing intellectualism from the mainstream of American life.  As a child I heard adults refer to Adlai Stevenson as an “egghead.”  This intrigued me, and I could not wait until I could see a photo of this politician who was some variation of Mr. Potato Head.  The “egghead” reference was a disparaging indictment of Mr. Stevenson because he was “one of those.”  He had brains and was educated, so he was dismissed by millions of Americans as a potential leader.  American Cinema reflected this anti-intellectual bent.  Consider all the sci-fi movies that featured a kindly Einsteinian look alike, replete with gray hair radiating from the head as if he had absorbed an electric shock. This gentle grandfather/uncle could build a nuclear weapon from a few paper clips, a fountain pen, and a set of Lincoln Logs, but he needed his granddaughter/niece to help him find his shoes or his way out of the room.  There are still Americans who divide their fellow citizens into those who “have common sense” and those who are “intellectual,” as if both qualities are mutually exclusive.

Politicians have historically distanced themselves from the latter.  When was the last time a candidate for the Presidency showcased his Ivy League degree during the campaign?  Much more likely that the candidate is going to be spotlighted rolling up his sleeves, donning a hard hat, and visiting a factory or construction site.  The message is clear:  “I am one of you guys.”  More important is the message, “I am NOT one of those guys…ya, know, the eggheads!” referring to brainy creative problem solving people.  There are political parties today in America whose keystone is anti-intellectualism.  And they have large followings.  “We don’t need to be educated, to study history, to study economics or any of the other social studies.  We just need to sit down on a log and talk it out using common sense.”  This is nothing new, of course.  In the nineteenth century American candidates stepped over each other trying to prove to the voting public that they were self-taught by life’s hard experiences…..even if they weren’t.  President Ronald Reagan  thought our society would be much better served by having young people take on paper routes or other part-time jobs after school…..rather than students going home to study and complete their homework.

All in the Family was a popular television series which featured a woefully ignorant and bigoted Archie Bunker.  To most of us, it was obvious that the show was satirically mocking Archie’s narrow-minded views.  But people who study television as art learned that many people saw the show in another context---they agreed with Archie and considered him to be their prime time spokesperson.  So many “reality” shows like The Amazing Race have participants who do not know that France is not a city, that Africa is not a country.  But I am certain many young people are not laughing at the ignorance on display.  “Hey, they might be stupid, but they’re on The Amazing Race and they might win a million dollars!”  Jay Leno’s periodic interviews of people on the street, “Jaywalking,” is edited to show people whose depths of ignorance are unfathomable.  But I am not so certain that many, either those interviewed or those watching at home, are embarrassed by what they do not know, and that is the most disturbing reality of all.  We appear to be less and less shamed by not knowing what we should know.  Instead, we seem to revel in our ignorance.

There is a scene in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which Huck is confronted in his room one night by his ignorant, slovenly, and morally corrupt father.  Pap asks Huck to read a passage, and Huck does.   Pap replies, “You can do it to.  You can read and write.  I can’t read and write.  Your mother couldn’t nuther.”  And he knocks the book out of Huck’s hand.  Twain expects the reader to see Pap as the very worst of American society, and the author puts the thinking of many of Twain’s countrymen into Pap’s words.  Pap reprimands Huck for being more educated than his father.  In ridiculing and dismissing intellectualism, how similar is our culture to Twain’s villainous Pap?

The truth is that ignorance is not blissful. Ignorance is very very dangerous.  The bedrock of bigotry is ignorance, the willful decision to not know, to not understand, to purposely and proudly remain in the dark.  The people of other nations now populate the factories that furnish the world with products.  Our only niche in the global environment is our creative problem solving, our collective educational assets, and, if we continue to distance ourselves from intellectual thought, that niche will collapse upon itself.  We will become a third world nation.  Where will Brom Bones get a job today?

Last Updated on Sunday, 15 January 2012 18:02



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A Class Act--Teaching for Smarties


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