The Dumbing Down of Adulthood

Two experiences this week struck me.

Waiting in a slower than usual line at the grocery store, I read the covers of all the magazines on display in the checkout.  I read headlines about Demi Moore's infidelity, Michelle Obama's fashion sense and Kim Kardashian (who is she?).  I looked for something meatier.  Lacking any news or substantive content, I counted the variety of reading material on display.  Eight gossip rags, four "women's" magazines touting revolutionary diets, three television guides including one just for soaps and one local magazine with feature stories. I remember once looking for a Newsweek, Time or US News and World Report at a 7/11 store.  The clerk not only had nothing to offer, she didn't even know what I meant by a "news" magazine. 

The other experience was visiting my in-laws this past weekend in the Bay Area.  Their TV is in the living room so hard to ignore.  They watch the local news faithfully so I tuned in.  The first four news stories were crime stories: a shooting in the East Bay, looking for bodies in the Sierras, graffiti at a school and a child sexual abuse case.  Then came a commercial.  After the commercial, a weather story and then more crime.  Meanwhile, much of consequence is happening in that region.  Tech news, political upheaval in their county, a state budget crisis, the Occupy protesters and thousands of activists working for important changes.  That night, none of that appeared.

I returned home to catch up on my recorded Jon Stewart shows and was horrified by a short piece about TIME magazine.  (Watch the 3-minute video.)  I won't spoil it for you but suffice it to say that Americans' taste for news is nothing to brag about.

I trained to be and worked many years as a social studies teacher.  Like you, I read the occasional discouraging studies revealing how little our students understand geography, history, economics, civics and current issues.  But I am every bit as concerned by the majority of American adults who really don't care about the world.  The fact that print newspapers and magazines are losing readership is well known.  How about online news?  Yahoo! News now shows in Facebook what some of our friends are reading.  I'm suggesting my friends bow out of that public display of their reading tastes.  Not much hard news is getting anyone's attention.

There are still plenty of magazines published.  So what are we reading?  I checked not only on us, but on the rest of the English-speaking world as well.
  • In the United States:  Of the top 50 magazines (by circulation), only 1 news magazine (TIME) appears.
  • In Canada:  Of the top 30 magazines, 1 financial and 1 news magazine appear.
  • In Australia:  0 of the top 25 magazines are news magazines.
  • In the United Kingdom:  0 of the top 50 magazines are news magazines.
  • In India:  3 of the top 7 magazines are news or business magazines.  3 are children's magazines.
With the exception of the Indians, we're all pretty pathetic.  And this may be one of those random bits of information that helps explain why India is a rising world power and the rest of us are stagnant or declining.  We would rather learn who our favorite celebrity was seen with than try to understand our own economic crisis, the uprising in Syria or whether Israel will respond to Iran's nuclear program.

Even newspapers that are regarded as somewhat highbrow -- the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times or the Christian Science Monitor -- are struggling.  The Wall Street Journal, the most popular newspaper in America, has just over 2 million readers.  USA Today is second with just under 2 million and the New York Times comes third with less than 1 million.  Compare that to Japan -- a nation of far fewer people -- with over 30 million readers of its top 3 newspapers.

But even for those of us who do read newspapers, what articles are we choosing to read?  I decided to copy the 5 most read stories today in each of those online papers:

Wall Street Journal's Most Popular Today:
  • The Delivery Guy Who Saw Jeremy Lin Coming
  • 'Colbert Report' Suspended
  • Apple's Mac Makeover
  • More Doctors 'Fire' Vaccine Refusers
  • What's This Pinterest Website?
New York Times' Most Popular Today:
  • Aggressive Acts by Iran Signal Pressure on Its Leadership
  • How Companies Learn your Secrets
  • Leak Offers Glimpse of Campaign Against Climate Science
  • For London Youth, Down and Out is Way of Life
  • How 1-Minute Intervals Can Improve your Health 
Christian Science Monitors' Most Popular Today
  •  What would happen if Iran had the bomb?
  • 'Colbert Report' off air; network offers no explanation
  • 'Ghostbusters 3': Is Bill Murray out?
  • 'Linsanity' update: All-Star appearance, new Nike shoe for Jeremy Lin
  • Will Mitt Romney use Rick Santorum's tax returns against him?

We might each define hard news slightly differently, but I count 6 hard news stories among the most read 15 stories in these highly regarded national newspapers. 

Yet newspaper readership is falling almost 10% every year in the U.S.  Where do you get your news? In print, online or on television?  If you count on television for your news, you're getting little of what you need to know and too much of what we Americans choose to hear about instead.

Adults, are we ready to model intellectual and civic engagement for our children?  If not, why should they care?

See Also:  Every American Bilingual 

Science and Math:  How About the Adults? 


  1. Thanks for this, Linda. I've had similar thoughts, often inspired in the grocery store line, but never put to "paper."


Post a Comment

I'm interested in your comments.