Despite recent evidence, I am not the sort of person who believes that the whole world, toppled from a high perch of greatness during my earlier years, is now swirling down the john. I keep nostalgia in its place, I don't over-romanticize the past, and I feel that much of the evidence used by pessimists to chart our society's decay—kids with no respect for authority, or people who can't locate France on a map, for example—could have been found in comparable amounts fifty or two hundred years ago.
There is a constant ebb and flow to these things where people are wiser and then they are not and then they are again, and the peaks and valleys are spread out too far across the years for most of us to see beyond the place we're at.
That being said, I believe we are cowering in a valley right now, and as proof, I present to you the single most important and revealing yardstick that can be used to measure a society: the television game show. No, really. Think about it. Plot out the past twelve years or so on a graph, where each coordinate represents the popular game show of the day on a scale of intellectual challenge, and you might begin to fear for the future of humanity as well.
Start out with Jeopardy! Twelve years ago this show was in its prime. Most people I knew watched at least semi-regularly, and the show had a bigger place in pop culture. Knowing answers (questions) to the questions (answers) on this show was a source of pride and bragging rights because, to compete, a person has to be well-read, knowledgeable, and perform well under pressure. You are not coddled by the clock: the show canters along at a brisk pace, and even if you know the answers, you're lucky if you have a full second to buzz in before the genius returning champion beats you to it. It was not uncommon for someone who proved to know a lot of facts to be encouraged with, "You should go on Jeopardy!"
Move forward to 1999, and we have Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the show that gave us far more than the recommended dosage of Regis Philbin. Now, in place of Laura the Librarian desperately mashing her clicker to answer questions about the fall of the Byzantine Empire, we were presented with Bill the Bus Driver furrowing his brow in deep concentration as he tried to remember what city the Eiffel Tower is located in. What was more, time ceased to be a factor: contestants were encouraged to take all the time they needed, to talk out their reasoning or to take a quick nap to refresh their minds, during which time we would watch a great deal of very dramatic dead air punctuated with suspenseful music. In other words, the intellectual element had taken a flying leap.
Now chart us out to 2007, and dial the intellectual expectations down to zero. Jeopardy! is still around, although nowadays, someone like Ken Jennings is not so much competed with by people in front of their TV sets as he is marveled at in passive awe, as a curiosity rather than a contemporary. We have Deal Or No Deal, which eliminates altogether the distasteful concept of knowing anything and replaces it with the ability to act like an ass on stage.
Now, we are faced with Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?, a show which taxes brains to their limit with such mind bending questions as "What is the closest star to Earth?" and "What color do you get if you mix equal amounts of red and yellow paint?"
To be fair, the producers of this show are intentionally recruiting dimwits to compete because they'll be more entertaining, but perhaps that's the real issue here. As I watched this show last week, howling in appreciation of one contestant's dismay as he stumbled over the answer to "two plus five", I remembered that that's exactly what the producers are aiming for. The point of these game shows is no longer to play along; it's to laugh along mockingly, and to feel better about ourselves and our intellectual status relative to stupid people. It's not that the bar has been lowered for contestants, it's that it's been lowered for the audience.
Don't get me wrong: I love simple, lowbrow entertainment as much as anyone. I don't plan to stop watching. As I said at the beginning, I'm not forecasting doom for our civilization because people are taking some guilty pleasure out of a TV show. Anti-intellectualism in the US has been in play for much longer than any single crest or trough in our country's collective IQ.
One sort of has to wonder, though: where is our dignity? These days it seems we're less entertained by celebrating knowledge than we are by celebrating a lack of ignorance. That being the case, are any of us truly smarter than fifth graders?