Saturday, September 26, 2009

Dumbed down or just dumb?

I've read it and heard it and even been asked about it. Do television and movies make people stupid? Are we dumbing down? I don't have a simple answer.

There is a dumbing down in many quarters, but I don't think it's due to the prevalence of television and movies. It's due rather to people being lazy and stupid and perpetuating those habits in their children. Television and movies have a great deal to offer and can be a lamp on the path to illuminate history, politics, religion, literature and so much more. The trick is to indulge curiosity.

Many years ago, I picked up a book by Jane Austen and had a very difficult time getting into the flow of the language. It didn't matter that it was considered Literature because it was foreign and affected as far as I was concerned. Then I saw Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in Pride & Prejudice and I had to give Austen another try. I'm not sorry I did.

The language is a bit daunting because it is so foreign to modern Americans, but once into the ebb and flow of the language, the social mores and the story, it all comes together and awakens something inside that finds a balance between the modern world and the world of the 18th and 19th centuries. Once I read Pride and Prejudice, I had to read all of Jane Austen's novels and I go back time after time to read them once more. They are marvelous, not only because of the romantic tone and story of Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennett, but because it is a glimpse of another age that hasn't been pieced together by archaeologists unwilling to take off the blinders and see the world as it was instead of as it is, based on modern prejudices. Jane Austen lived in the times she wrote about and she knew them intimately. More than anything else, Austen was an acute observer of people and society and she is proof that people and society haven't changed so much; at the heart, we are all the same even when separated by hundreds or even thousands of years.

I do think that in general people tend to look no farther than their own back yards or the yard down the street or across the state line, echoing Dorothy Gale's belief that happiness can best be found in one's own back yard. But we are citizens of the world and should look much further afield than our own cities, states and countries. That is where movies and televisions best provide a window on the world and offer a glimpse of history and the people and societies in far flung countries that the majority of Americans will never see. Used as a teaching tool, a sort of intellectual and historical hors d'ouevres, television and movies have much to teach us.

When I watch a movie, usually on my laptop, I keep a few tabs open for searches so I can take a quick break and read about the history and characters characterized. For instance, I am currently watching a foreign mini-series about Crown Prince Rudolf of Austriawho was the son of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Empress Elisabeth of Austria. It's about his life and death, a death that resulted in a great scandal because he purportedly killed his lover Baroness Mary Vetsera just before he committed suicide. I've only seen the first episode, but after a search and some reading I found out that the forensics of Rudolf and Mary's bodies doesn't bear out the double suicide story.

Mary was bludgeoned to death and Rudolf, quite a remarkable man, managed to shoot himself six times before he died. Amazing. The whispered stories surrounding their deaths was that Mary and Rudolf were murdered and that the Emperor knew about it and had it covered up because Rudolf was trying to overthrow him and bring the Austro-Hungarian empire into the 20th century, rescuing it from the backward thinking emperor and his Prime Minister Taaffe, who was by all accounts a very greedy and politically savvy man who ruled the empire through Franz Josef. Intrigue, political coups, love, lust, murder and conspiracies, what more could anyone want? And it happened around the turn of the 20th century, more than 100 years ago. That is what movies and television have to offer, a window on the past and into the lives of the people of other countries.

I am very fond of Indian musicals and historical movies and am fascinated by Iranian movies. In fact, I enjoy watching movies from many different countries and search them out, not only for their historical stories but to see what interests and moves people in other cultures and countries. Has it made me dumber, less intellectual? I don't think so. The problem with the belief that television and movies are dumbing down people is that intellectuals believe the only way to learn history and other topics is to read about them. It's snobbery.

Books have a lot to offer and I'll be the first one to praise the printed word, but in a world where entertainment is preferred over dry facts and figures, something else is needed, a marriage of sorts, using entertainment to spark and interested in learning more from books. It's what I've been doing for years and I consider myself a modestly educated person.

Schools have used the same tool through slide shows and short films, but they really have not taken full advantage of entertainment as a teaching tool, or of the Internet to make the information more accessible.

I've learned more about Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas through movies and the Internet than I ever did in school, and what I've found is utterly fascinating. I only wish I had enough money so I didn't have to work for a living and could devote all my time to movies, television, the Internet and books because there is so much to learn and so little time to absorb it all.

A National Geographic program a few months ago about the origins of the Amazons led me to the red-haired mummies of Mongolia, which in turn led me to ancient Greek and Roman histories about the Amazons and thence to Egypt (my of my favorite subjects) and tomb robbers, ancient and modern, and then back to Europe and the steppes of Russia, Afghanistan and Slavic countries to the Ice Maiden and the living heirs of the Amazons, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed nomad girl born to a family of dark haired, dark eyed nomads still following their herds from pasture to pasture and living in yurts. It's all connected and I found the first steps on the trail through television.

There's so much more to learn and no doubt Crown Prince Rudolf will lead the way on a journey through Europe and into the past that loops back into the present to mirror politics and society right here in America, and the route lies through the very things that intellectuals declaim for dumbing down the people. Intelligence has many levels, but stupidity only one and it's born in snobbery and a lack of curiosity not in television or movies. There's a rich and diverse education to be had and all that's needed is a sense of wonder and a desire to know more. Money does not have to be an issue, not when libraries offer movies and television shows and Internet access for free. There's no reason to be ignorant -- unless you want to be.

Formal education is not the only route to knowledge, just one path. There are less expensive roads. It's like setting out for any destination. Some people can afford to fly. Others take the train or a bus or go by car. There are also buggies, bikes and walking. No matter how long it takes to get there, everyone gets there eventually. It doesn't matter how you get there, just that you make the journey.

That is all. Disperse.

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