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.