Special Guest Blogger: Norm Jenson

Retro Talk or Dumbing Down

A couple of months ago, I was having dinner with some new friends who are only a decade or so younger than I. While we were discussing the bank bailouts and Wall Street disaster, I was met with blank stares when I said that trying to find an honest man in lower Manhattan these days made one feel like Diogenes.

At another dinner a couple of decades ago, a friend who is a well-known cartoonist, told me he'd had a cartoon rejected by the humor editor of a major magazine because, said the editor, these days no one knows who Sisyphus was.

I'm hardly a scholar of ancient Greece and I've been known to confuse Roman writers with Greek ones, but shorthand references to Diogenes and Sisyphus are common enough – and have been for about 3,000 years – that they should be recognizable in general conversation or a joke.

Now comes Ralph Keyes, writing in Editor & Publisher, to admonish journalists and commentators for what he calls “retrotalk” by which he means

“...employing terminology rooted in our past that may not be familiar to younger readers. Or immigrants. Or anyone at all, for that matter.

“Journalists who lace their copy with such retro terms or names risk alienating those who are too young to get the allusions. Even common catch phrases that hearken back to earlier times may be puzzling to younger readers: stuck in a groove, 98-pound weakling, drop a dime, bigger than a breadbox, or a tough row to hoe. (As one giggling third-grader asked when his teacher used this one, 'Isn’t ho a bad word?)”

Mr. Keyes isn't talking about pre-Christian era philosophers or even Teddy Roosevelt. In his argument, even contemporary references are too much to ask young readers to understand:

“When a Minneapolis Star Tribune article included the line, 'And by the way, have you stopped beating your wife?' many readers wondered why the paper would pose such an off-the-wall question. (Lawyers have long considered it a classic query that can’t be answered without self-incrimination.)”

Yes, that is the standard question in Catch-22 situations – even well outside legal circles - which makes it hard to understand why Mr. Keyes feels he must explain it to the presumably older writers he is addressing. (Oops - “Catch-22” may be, according to Mr. Keyes, too archaic for some to understand.)

Apparently, what Mr. Keyes does not understand is that the retrotalk phrases he cites as “verbal fossils” derive their value through repeated use negating the need for several paragraphs of explanation and, more importantly, serve to transmit our culture from one generation to the next.

Throughout my lifetime, a good deal of my continuing education has resulted from my elders' use of references I didn't understand and sometimes didn't ask about, not wanting to reveal my ignorance at the moment. But I tracked them down later and learned. I'm pretty sure I wasn't taught about Diogenes in school, but discovered him through such an incident.

What Mr. Keyes is asking for then is a deliberate “dumbing down” of American youth. The phrase was made famous in the early 1990s by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in reference to declining education values and the subject was resurrected by Susan Jacoby in her 2008 book, The Age of American Unreason. In a Washington Post article published around the tiime the book was released, she touches on a corollary to that dumbing down:

“That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. . .it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism — a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse.”

That smugness permeates Mr. Keyes' commentary without any thought to the dumbing down of American discourse. Instead, Mr. Keyes wants us to believe journalists' historical and cultural references are an exclusionary tactic:

“Falling back on retro-references this way can give press coverage the flavor of a private conversation among those born before 1960. The implicit message to younger readers seems to be: Hey, if you don’t know what we’re talking about, maybe you should butt out. Haven’t you got some twittering to do?”

Or, young readers might, at the very least, visit Wikipedia instead. Should journalists take Mr. Keyes seriously, education will become a more a Sysiphean task than it already is.

Posted Earlier
Just now, having my first cup of coffee while getting ready to post, I discovered that today's story has disappeared from my computer. It was easy to figure out what happened: I saved a page with some notes and discarded the one with the story. Damn.

It's going to take awhile to re-create it. I'll will post it here as soon as I've done so. Meantime...

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mary E. Davies has been thinking about her former husband in About Face.]


The problem, IMHO, isn't so much Mr. Keyes's position--it's tying vocabulary to age, as though everyone over 50 recognizes Diogenes and Sisyphus.

I've been thinking about this dumbing-down lately, most recently this morning as tea-party protestors are protesting Democratic tax hikes (see Fox news). If they're not all earning $250,000, then they're just, well, dumb; they got a tax cut this month from a Democratic president and Congress.

My point--not really a point, a sort of groping toward articulating the unthinkable--has to do with thoughts of intelligence, class structure, and the sustainability of democracy.

My guess is that poor Ralph Keyes is just clinging to a hope that newspapers can become relevant again by being dumb enough to appeal to people who are non-readers.

This doesn't strike me as probable.

How depressing but not all that surprising I suppose. I don't suppose kids being entertained by the very entertaining Pixar, are spending any time listening or reading Aesop's Fables and the like a staple of my childhood. I suspect it may indicate a lack of any in depth,or dare I say it, intellectual conversations with any age of adults.

There is a world of "wealth" in mythology and fairy tales. This should have nothing to do with time or age. The word classic describes the theory, idea or however you wish to view it.

We need to keep our history. People today find Charles Dickens relevant. The Doors were recycled into a second span years after Morrison passed away.

Young people learn from parents and grandparents. We pass our knowledge as well as our traditions. Old adages passed on ring as true as soon as we are mature enough or a time comes when we grasp them.

While it is true every generation will have "code words and expressions" to distinguish them from others - it does not require age stamps for them to expire. They may recycle themselves in a most surprising way and time.

I ramble but I grow weary of losing traditions or heritage or cultural reference.

I'm not in favor of dumbing down for young people. They should look it up - as we did (or not). I read another post today which was decrying the lack of interest among young people with no knowledge of classical music and opera, as well as references like this.

A regular Parmenides paradox, no?

Oh,those wiley Greeks.

"Retro writing" is what I do best; Mr. Keyes is all broth and no beans.

Besides, he should know there is a difference between affectations and true intelligent writing (and speaking for that matter).

This is an extremely complex topic. I'm not sure what I think about it. Some ramblings...

My partner teaches young people at an interesting moment in their lives -- as freshmen in college, off on their own for the first time in a new academic setting, taking a required course (ethics) whose value they doubt. She certainly finds she has to fill some big gaps in their general cultural knowledge: after being told one year that Aristotle was quoting from Shakespeare, she now starts with a sort of timeline of world intellectual history so they can begin to place the many references to past wisdoms which they study.

On the other hand, this is in California. One third or more of these students are foreign born or their parents are. They come from a multiplicity of cultures. If one could reach into it, one might encounter all sorts of inherited cultural wisdom that doesn't come from a European source that they carry from their parents' experiences. One obstacle to recognizing this is that multiple historical cultures sit in the same room among these freshmen -- not surprising that they default to the shallow common culture they see on TV. At least they can trust that they share it ...

So a lot of this sense that we're seeing dumbing down has to do with rapid cultural and technological shifts, demographic changes -- realities that aren't the young people's fault.

But also, I think this has always been a feature of the fact that different generations have different reference points. I was born in 1947, a true post-war boomer-- but my parents were not bright young things home from The War. They were much older than the parents of most of my peers -- had completed their education by 1930 and for their own reasons held off having a child for 15 years. And as a result, I was to some extent raised in a different cultural milieu than my age peers in the 50s. I would bring kids home to dinner and they'd complain to me "your parents use big words..." Even then there were significant generational differences in cultural knowledge. This is not new, though it is probably true that the splits feel more marked at present.

And therefore Ronni, I too was raised on Edith Hamilton. I don't think anyone later was. They get what they get from Disney...

And while we're at it, what about the dumbing down of language....both vocabulary & grammar whose chief offenders appear to be "journalists" & TV news people. All of it irritates me to no end as I see standards everywhere compromised or completely ignored. Dee

Excellent post, Ronni!

I spend a lot of time explaining myself to younger people, who don't "get it" as it were, because I used a reference that once was, and still should be, common knowledge. It galls me that our educational system is sooooo dumbed down. Things that used to be common knowledge, aren't. Spoon-feeding pap is the order of the day and using "big words" is a no-no.

I resent that my children didn't receive an education that challenged them to excellence as I did. And I'm truly outraged that it's even worse for my grands.

Also, does anyone else notice that young people do not say,"You're Welcome" when thanked? They say "No problem".

It's as if you ARE a pain in the neck but they are letting you slide this time.....

In reading your excellent post, I was reminded of another TGB post, last June 28 to be exact, the topic of which were your reflections on the passing of George Carlin. The video there is no longer available, but I recall him arguing in it that there is a concerted effort to suppress American education, because a poorly-educated people will not realize they're being screwed until it's too late to do anything about it.

Keyes's remarks denigrating such things as our heritage from the ancients makes him if not an ally, certainly an enabler of the dark forces in American society that are the very ones Carlin warned about.

"“Journalists who lace their copy with such retro terms or names risk alienating those who are too young to get the allusions."
If, according to Mr. Keyes, it is no longer politically acceptable to refer to "retro terms or names", we should avoid all historical references completely, classical music should be banned from the airwaves and the art museums (except those displaying very contemporary art) should be converted into video game arcades.

Actually Mao and the Red Guard experimented with those ideas back in the (unmentionable) past but the results were not considered totally satisfactory.

Ronni, you are absolutely right (as usual) Keyes and his co-conspirators should be hospitalized permanently before they do themselves or others serious harm

I also love the classics and classical learned in my far away youth. And I love the modern and comtemporary of my present old age. In weekly conversations with younger people I experience their ability to think deeply about philosophy, spirituality and social justice and change. The goal of our conversations is to communicate at those depths in our various languages and from our cultural and generational experiences. It takes effort from each of us.

excellent post. this may explain why so many voters fall for people like sarah palin and rush limbaugh. they can't and don't read or think much. i read some horrifying statistics on just this in my blog wanderings yesterday. i'll try to find the source and send it to you.

A related issue is spelling. When stores use 'cutesy' spelling like Wherehouse, Wearhouse, etc. the young learn to spell warehouse that way.

Dumbing down is found on the Internet too.

This idea jumped around in my mind all day. To my surprise, I agree with Keyes. Writers write to be read with understanding by their audience, not to shame or confuse them.

The feeling that "everything" is changing for the worse is probably pretty common in our age group and probably has been for the entire span of the modern world. What could be more devaluing that watching your world literally die before you do? I have this experience almost daily, and I bet you do, too.

That must mean that everything we ever knew is....worthless!? That can't be! We have to make these little whippersnappers come to heel--and appreciate us, the wise ones! We could ask our surviving parents how that turned out from their point of view, but I bet very few of us know the essential skills of making finger waves, white sauce, aprons sewn by hand, or cooked starch--feminine skills my mother considered essential for survival.

As for ignorance of the classics, ask a smart group of Gen X'ers or Y'ers (not the dim bulbs, who have always existed) what they'd like to study if they go back to grad school. No one will say "accounting" or "computer science" or even "video game design." No, the dream is to study fun stuff like liberal arts but the payback on those huge student loans is dismal (and has been for 30 years). If you pursue the classics today, it's because you love them.

And you love them because you're smart. Smart enough, alas, to see that world changes, and someday we won't be around to change with it. But that's always

From the time I was in my teens, I was put down for using 'big' words. Being a reader, I loved words and if a big one did the job better than any other, I used it and enjoyed it. Yes, it gave me the reputation of being an egghead but I didn't care. When I began to blog, I had to decide whether to respect my readers would know those words or try to find some simpler one. I opted for the words and feel they will do what I do when I come across words I don't know-- look them up. As you said, it's part of learning. We have way too much dumbing down for assorted ridiculous reasons. When I mention Howdy Doody, I don't care if someone else realizes that means I am old. I am

Um, isn't the trick question, "when did you stop beating your wife?"

And to Rain--I was one of those kids who used big words too.

What amuses and drives me sort of nuts is the way adages are often misspelled because the users don't know where the saying came from. "To the manner born" or "mute point." But not all of these are used by the young. In fact I don't think I've heard a young person ever call a point moot.

Wow! I had a lot to say, but I'm too dumbstruck still. This rationalization of dumbness, its necessity, and accompanying arrogance is JUST WRONG.

Alright, I can understand cultural difference, but you can educate folks. And young people like college freshmen. But a decade younger?! NAH. There's no excuse.

Why? Because of instead of looking at me like I'm crazy, you can ask me to explain. This is what well adjusted adults do. You don't have to be embarrassed about your ignorance and then deflect this back to me. Ugh.

I work at MAJOR MAGAZINE, and am secretly hated for my retro-talk. I was told that so and so's were jealous because I was older and knew who they wanted to know, and made them feel like they didn't learn anything in their life.

So what. I assured them, that their turn will come soon too.

Ah, Sophronia, I share the following information not to disparage a small part of your worthy comment but to give an example of how language usage can change over time.

Here's a link explaining the etymology of the phrase,"to the manner born." I was corrected about it recently, too!

I wonder if the cultural references that survive the passage of time do so because they are so perfectly representative of what they describe. On the other hand, ishkabibble (I learned it from my parents) seems to fit that criterion, yet few people know it now -- although it's not of similar value as a reference to Diogenes!

The "dumbing down" issue is partly a loss of appreciation of the value of a "classical" education as well as access to such teaching. It's partly a lack of appreciation for the equally rich allusions from unfamiliar immigrant cultures. But I agree that the tragedy is the prevailing attitude of pride in one's own ignorance. So sad.

I suppose we each have our pet peeves about what is vanishing from American culture. Surely myth is worth saving. As Jung, Campell, Star Wars, and even the success of the Trilogy of the Rings show, it plumbs our collective depths.

My particular peeve is the apparent complete banishment of the adverb from the English language. My second is the use of plural pronouns with singular subjects, apparently to avoid saying "he or she" at all costs.

Most people like Ralph Keyes write their books with an idea that they are being insightful and crafting a deft marketing strategy. They just don't think of the crimes they commit against intelligence and education ( ironically, most of these people received high-end, ivy league educations ). They are the Bernie madoffs of thought; highjacking intelligence in the name of profit.

Children might not understand everything they read, but that's the point! When you are faced with something that intrigues you, yet some of it is a mystery, you are eager to find out what you are missing.

One simple, cultural example is Tom and jerry and Warner Brothers cartoons. Tom and Jerry cartoons gifted me with a taste for Fats Waller and other wonderful Jazz music, Bugs Bunny gave me a taste for Ravel and Puccini. Can you imagine the flak you'd get today if you suggested a children's cartoon based on Wagner's Ring Cycle?

In an age where looking things up on wikipedia is so widespread that even many children and older adults can do it with ease, why on earth would someone exclude these phrases? Aren't most people reading articles/comics on the web anyway? Besides, maybe people will actually learn something by it...

Hmm. I wonder if Keynes himself feels excluded by such references. Why would he assume that to use references from Greek mythology (or from 1960s mythology, for that matter) is a message to young people to butt out? He makes an assumption about a subtext that isn't there. I say again, hmmmm.

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