Why Are We Americans Becoming So Dumb?

BLOG #50, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHY ARE WE AMERICANS BECOMING SO DUMB?
December 11, 2013

It was while listening to the “Sunday Morning” broadcast that I was jolted into shock by a broadcast segment. In it, the program regular admitted how traumatized he was to discover that his increased use of electronic gadgetry such as Smartphones and aps was destroying his brain. The catalyst was his rueful discovery that he couldn’t even remember his wife’s phone number without retrieving it from an electronic index. Even more horrifying: to realize he could no longer remember how to spell common words such as “spatula,” no matter how much time he took to probe his mental memory banks. The same was true with mathematics: the electronic crutch ends up crippling the ability to do even simple math. Witness the number of individuals at restaurant and store checkout stands who are incapable of making correct change unless the machinery does it for them!

Every time I look at new lists of intelligence rankings (by nation), I wince as the U.S. continues to slip ever further down. Long gone are the days when we led the world.

In November and December of every year, I spend a large percentage of my time at book-signing tables; often with fellow Kiwanians at my side (because of our literacy program for area elementary schools), where for eleven years now, we’ve targeted third-graders. Reason being: studies reveal that unless a child falls in love with reading by the third grade, it’s not likely to ever happen at all. We are often permitted to set up our tables in large supermarkets because of this program. So we have plenty of time to watch people, young and old, as they come into, and leave, these chain stores. More and more often we are noticing a disturbing new phenomenon: children who are connected to electronic gadgetry tend to pay no attention to the books on our tables—or anything else, for that matter. But even when electronic gadgetry is not a variable, we’ve noticed that it has almost become a norm: when an approaching child’s eyes light up at the sight of books, almost invariably it turns out that the child is a homeschooler.

Even as I was watching this most recent “Sunday Morning” broadcast, and simultaneously signing complete sets of Christmas in My Heart books, I belatedly realized that the books were taking twice as long as normal to inscribe, and that my memory was fogging over and my accuracy continuing to deteriorate. Finally, I had to leave the room where the TV set was on so that I could complete my signings in the time I allocated for them.

All this causes me to question many of the so-called benefits of technology: if electronic gadgetry continues to erode our abilities to read, comprehend, articulate, write, understand, and effectively utilize abstract thought, then might we as a nation be paying way too high a price for so-called progress? Might it also turn out to be that it is not progress at all? But rather, the reverse?

In the thirty years of research poured into my 1993 book, Remote Controlled, I discovered that the more time an individual (of any age) spent watching TV, the dumber that person proved to be. And the more muddled the brains of the recipients. By extension, might it not also be true that overexposure to electronic imagery other than television will end up dumbing down the receiver’s brains even further? Reason being that those who receive pre-fab (created by someone other than the receiver) imagery rather than creating connotatively imagery through reading, being read to, radio or live drama, end up incapable of communicating effectively either in oral or in written forms. Only the reader, it turns out, is capable of writing coherent sentences and paragraphs. Non-readers, having little that is original to them in their brains to draw from, find it almost impossible to write anything creative or coherent at all!

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JOURNALING AND OUR BOOK CLUB

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

JOURNALING AND OUR BOOK CLUB

Nov. 2, 2011

There are, in each of our lives, certain days that prove pivotal in our journeys.  One such day had to do with a lecture of the top information literary specialist in America to the faculty of Columbia Union College.  Looking around at us, college professors from many disciplines, she asked us a simple question: “Let’s say you gave your students an examination earlier today.  Then, a week from today – completely unannounced -, you give them the same exam.  How much of what they knew today . . . will they remember a week from now?”

None of us even came close to the correct answer.  “Your top student,” she pointed out, your four-pointer, will remember a week from today, at most, 17%!  Most will remember far less – and it will be all down hill from there.”  I’ve never taught a class the same way since.  For if the most brilliant student in the college forgets at least 83% in one week, what pitiful retention rate does that imply for the rest of the class?  Hence the preposterous exercise in futility of end-of-the-semester exams three and a half months later!

As for thoughts, rarely do they come when you most want them to.  In fact, many insidiously come to us just as we’re drifting off to sleep.  Have you ever thought, What a beautiful thought!  Can’t believe I came up with it.  In the morning, ho hum, I’ll write it down . . . I’m far too comfy to get up now.

And in the morning, what do we remember? Not much.  Chances are, we won’t even remember what the thought was about.  If it does come to us, it will be in such muddled shape it won’t even be worth writing down, for thoughts only ring their golden bells once in life.  Another put it this way: “God only gives you a great thought once.”

One of England’s great writers, Matthew Arnold, in his poignant poem, “Despondency,” described this phenomenon in eight lines:

“The thoughts that rain their steady glow

Like stars on life’s cold sea,

Which others know or say they know –

They never shine for me.

Thoughts light, like gleams, my spirit’s sky

But they will not remain;

They light me once, they hurry by,

And never come again.”

America’s greatest poetess, Emily Dickinson, took the same number of lines to express her own frustration:

1452

“Your thoughts don’t have words every day

They come a single time

Like signal esoteric sips

Of the communion wine

Which while you taste so native seems

So easy so to be

You cannot comprehend its price

Nor its infrequency.”

You no doubt noticed certain words in Dickinson’s poem that are a bit archaic today.  Unless you keep by your side a full-sized Webster’s Collegiate dictionary (or equivalent on-line), you’d miss key portions of Dickinson’s meaning (especially when trying to understand what Dickinson meant by words such as “signal,” “esoteric,” “native,” “easy so to be,” etc).  It is no exaggeration to declare that unless each of us not only has, but uses, such a source, we will unquestionably cripple our ability to understand what we read.  Really serious readers also access an unabridged dictionary, and for archaic words the monumental Oxford Unabridged.

SO WHY JOURNAL?

Some years ago I had in one of my Freshman Composition classes a second-generation student (I’d taught her father in high school a generation before).  She asked me one day if I’d had my students journal in my classes when her father was in my English classes.  Her face fell when I answered in the negative.  She then added, “Oh it’s sad because Dad and I aren’t getting along very well—he’s just an authority figure rather than a father.  I just thought if I could read journal entries written by Dad when he was young like me, perhaps we could meet in our journal entries.”

Up until that time, I’d never really given much thought to journals as vehicles to freeze our thoughts into time periods.  Since then I’ve discovered that a number of renowned writers have capitalized on that reality to find out how they thought when they were much younger, or described people, places, experiences immediately after they took place.  I’ve ruefully discovered that while my writing has greater depth and breadth now than it used to have, I’ve lost the ability to think and articulate as a 50-year-old, a college student, a high school student, or a child.  This is a major reason why journal entries penned at each stage of our lives are so significant.

As for travel, travel writers will tell you that, in visiting places for the very first time, you have only moments in which to jot down those first impressions.  When you first arrive, everything jars, for everything is new.  Each sensory impression has an echo: a flashback to its counterpart back home.  But by the next day, sensory impressions are already blurring—you are no longer sure what is new and different and what is not.

Several days ago, on a Southwestern Airlines plane, I was privileged to sit next to a delightful young couple.  We got into a far-ranging discussion of books (e-books versus paper) and quotations.  They were most interested in my daily quotation tweets, for both seek out memorable quotes in their daily reading.  In truth, had I not many years ago begun writing down in the back of my journals the most memorable quotations from my reading, I’d not have near the vast repository of memorable quotations I draw from today.  We use quotations in so many ways in our lives (family, school, church, public speaking, writing).  I also paste in poetry at the back of my journals.

But the same is true with vivid metaphors and similes.  These too I write down in the back of my journals.  For such figurative language reveals to us how much more vivid and fresh our spoken and written communication can be if we avoid hackneyed words and cliches.

Then there are powerful beginnings and endings (in both short stories and longer works).  For unless a beginning sentence or paragraph sucks us into the story, article, or book, why write something no one will remain interested in beyond the first page?  This is a key reason why, when I find such a riveting passage, I write it down at the back of my journals.  The same is true of endings.  All too many writers just run out of gas at the end, are seemingly unable to close the sale.  But some writers spend a lot of time with their conclusions, so structure them that but one additional word would wreck that last page.  The endings are so deeply moving that you couldn’t forget them if you wanted to.  They ring like a giant bell.  These too I write down at the back of my journals.

So it is that while my journals also record the nuts and bolts of my life: who I write to or phone every day, who I meet with, where I travel to, etc. (and these can prove to be extremely significant when I need to retroactively find out where I was and what I did on certain days), even more valuable to me are the things I write down at the back of my journals, for they synthesize my creative involvements.  I also record goals and objectives in my journals.

I also write down significant things I hear in the digital media, lectures, church services, workshops—oh the list goes on and on!

* * * * *

I hope you can now see why I am urging each new participant in our Book of the Month Club to immediately purchase a full-sized journal from your local office supply store.  Mine are ledger size and contain around 300 pages; they generally last me three to five years each.  What you’ll discover, over time, is that these journals will not only end up capsulizing and chronicling your life, they will also become so much a part of who you are and what you do and say and write that you’d feel empty without them.

I look forward to hearing back from you as you make your journals part of you.

SAMPLINGS FROM MY JOURNALS

QUOTATIONS

“Parting is all we know of heaven

And all we need of hell.”

—Emily Dickinson

“It is nothing to die; it is horrible not to live.”

—Victor Hugo

“It is better to be silent and thought a fool than to open the

mouth and remove all doubt.”

—Abraham Lincoln

METAPHORS

“Now there was a chasm as wide as the world between them and only

the child to span it.”

—Ernest Pascal

“A little mouse of thought went scampering across her mind and popped into

its hole again.”

—George Meredith

SIMILES

“The softness of a kitten’s feet–like raspberries held in the hand.”

–Anne Douglas Sedgewick

“And his little feathered head drooped like the head of a wilting poppy.”

—Elizabeth Goudge

BOOK BEGINNINGS

“A sharp clip-clip of iron-shod hooves deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.”

–Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage

BOOK ENDINGS

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done;

It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

—Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll begin the Southwest National Park Lodges series.

Caribbean Sea Days – Part Two

THIRD SEA DAY

It would be five days before we were blessed with another sea day—reason being the distance between Grenada and the Netherlands Antilles.  It proved to be a quiet day in which to recuperate from getting up early in order to explore island after island: St. Maartin, Antigua, Saint Lucia, Barbados, and Grenada.  Needless to say, it was needed.

We did little but play a game of “O Henry” (also called “Aw Shucks,” and worse), a variation of dominoes.  Other than that, we loafed, strolled around, and watched the sea gulls lazily circling the ship.  In the evening, a second formal night.  By now our waiters (Lazaro from Honduras, and Michael from Serbia) were old friends.  Since our table is right next to a window, we’re able to watch the sunset, followed by immediate equatorial darkness.

Afterwards, I hit the upper deck for fifteen laps.  An unknown beauty passes me again and again in the half-lit track; in dramatic contrast are the obese walkers who can barely move, the smokers who can only sit, puff, and idly watch those of us walking or running off our calories.  Then back to the room.  Tomorrow will be a long day.

FOURTH SEA DAY

Once we bid good-bye to Bonaire, we’d not make landfall for two and a half days.  Dinner, dominoes, listening to Jasmine and her trio perform Latin classics, followed by a forgettable torchy singer and a comedian who managed to be funny without resorting to night club language, completed our day.

We woke the next morning to heavy seas.  So much so that pre-breakfast on the veranda was impossible.  Whenever the hallway door was opened, and the veranda sliding door was open, the wind would shriek through like it was a wind-tunnel; in the process smashing glasses.

After breakfast buffet, I headed down to the purser to settle accounts (I’ve learned to check out early in order to avoid having to stand in long lines on the last day).  Made sure that Tondi, Lazaro, and Michael received generous gratuities, along with support staff.  We’ve learned that most of those who work on cruise ships are paid precious little, consequently, unless passengers are generous with their tips, the room attendants and waiters are likely to return home after nine months at sea with very little to show for their work.

FIFTH SEA DAY

It’s always sad to wake up to your last day at sea.  As a writer, it is the time when I reflect most, watch people most, and devote the most time to my journal.

On this day, I was once again overwhelmed by the obesity epidemic (two-thirds of Americans being classified as obese, one-third already with diabetes).  The situation tends to be even worse on cruise ships.  On the decks, day after day you see the same obese people flopped out in lawn chairs like so many walruses (hour after hour, dawn to dusk, there they remain, when not eating).  Even on shore days, there they stay, unwilling to go ashore because there they’d have to walk.  On the ship, they line up in lines waiting for an elevator; almost never will they take the stairs.  I couldn’t help thinking: What a national tragedy: Two thirds of Americans now classified as obese, one-third of all Americans now diabetic.  Almost half a million dying every day—same as for smokers.  The two epidemics are killing almost a million every year.  What a waste!  How many bright futures blighted and snuffed out!  How many sorrowing families deprived of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters.

And as I couldn’t help but notice how many stayed on the ship when in port, unable or unwilling to experience another country and its people, I wondered why they’d spent all this money to travel here in the first place.  I wished I could freeze the action on the ship and shout out, “STOP!  Wake up and save yourself before it’s too late!  From this moment on, monitor every bite you eat, count the carbs, and limit yourself to no more than twelve choices a day.  Vigorously exercise a minimum of 30 – 45 minutes a day.  Take the stairs instead of the elevators.  Never smoke another cigarette in your life!  Wake up and live so I can meet you again!”  But of course, I didn’t; I could only weep inwardly.

And I thought again about the incredible difference friends make in our lives.  Each one (noted by C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves) opening a door into our personality that no one else ever will; when that friend is gone, the key to that door goes too.  As John Donne put it long ago: each one that goes takes part of us with him, with her.  So as Bob and Lucy, Ed and Jo, and Connie and I explored the ship and the islands together, dined together, watched programs together, played games together, and shared memories together, I thought again about how very much friendships like these enrich our lives, and how much we treasure each one.

I thought too about what little money each of us had, and how some might consider travel to be a waste of money.  Yet it is said that when each of us comes to the end of our life’s journey, we may have many regrets—but none of us ever regrets the memories we made, the friends who enriched our lives, the insights we gained and the difference we made in the lives of the people we interacted with in our travels.  Always, in travel, we should give more than we take.

Our head-waiter Lazaro -- from Honduras

That last dinner was poignant as we looked at each other around the candlelit table.  At our ages especially, how many more times might we be privileged to travel like this with each other?  Our waiters who were not now mere waiters but friends we’d come to love and appreciate; same with Tondi and the support staff.  They’d come into our lives, and in fourteen short days, we’d left them.  Would we ever see them again?

Jo and Ed waving napkins as waiters brought in the Baked Alaska

At the conclusion of that last dinner, suddenly the waiters all disappeared, then in a long succession of bearers of Baked Alaska, they streamed down the stairs, and we clapped our appreciation as they came.  For each of them lived for more than meager pay and inadequate tips: each of them yearned to be appreciated, cherished, loved.

As did we.

Bob and Lucy at dining table

Next morning, we woke to the prosaic Fort Lauderdale dockyard.  It was over.  Our island in time—all cruises are that—was but a memory.  Yet, each of us, when life closes in on us, may  retreat through those memories into those all too short days and nights on the Caribbean Sea.

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we invite you to vicariously come along with us to Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown, Virginia as we guide you through our 29th annual Zane Grey’s West Society convention.