Book Review: Dumbth

DumthSteveAllenby Timothy Lane7/31/16
By Steve Allen  •  Available for the Kindle  •  This came out a quarter-century ago and was written by a liberal (though not a leftist) entertainer, but has a lot of material here worthy of interest from the conservative viewpoint.

Allen mentions a problem he started noticing during the early 1960s: an increasing degree of incompetence in the various businesses that provide services to the public. Hotels and airplane flights became increasingly annoying as his instructions so often were ignored or misinterpreted. He also talked with other travelers and found that their experiences were very similar. Much of this resulted from ignorance, much from simply not thinking. Ignorance could show up anywhere, such as his encounter with a lad who was surprised to hear that Paul McCartney had been in another band before Wings.

Of course, he gives plenty of examples of the ignorance already increasingly prevalent in schools — particularly ignorance of basic history and geography. (Most of us will have heard of many such tales already — if we haven’t been so unfortunate as to encounter them personally.)

One explanation he gives for the increasing ineptitude of some service industry workers is the entitlements mentality. Apparently a lot of people think that as long as they actually show up for a job, actually working (effectively) is optional. Remember, he was noting this a quarter-century ago, based on nearly 30 years of observation.

To help people think better, Allen includes 81 rules for doing a better job. Some are basic logic (“Beware of reacting to labels rather than to specific individuals”), including learning the rules of logic. Indeed, he recommends a great deal of learning in many fields, as well as generally never stopping learning. Some of the rules are simply good sense, such as recognizing when one is ignorant instead of pretending otherwise.

All in all, a very interesting and useful book.


Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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20 Responses to Book Review: Dumbth

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    That’s Dumbth, not Dumpth.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    This is neither here nor there, but I’m now reading Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday. He’s an Austrian Jew. In some of the early chapters (I’m very early into the book) he talks about the Austrian school system, in particular the Gymnasium. According to Zweig, the point of the Gymnasium was not to stimulate the mind but to beat down the little heathens who are, or will be, entering adult culture.

    Austrian culture of his era looked down on yutes — to the point that if you were under fifty, you just were not taken to be a serious person with much to offer. Many young people fresh out of university would don beards and old-man spectacles in order to try to make themselves look older.

    I assume Zweig is the typical secular Jews. He’s certainly clear and expressive in his writing. And I don’t offhand doubt his description of the Gymnasium. It is the opposite of today where youth is glorified and the curriculum is dumbed-down for quite other reasons (mustn’t damage little Johnny’s self-esteem…must develop his “creative” impulses rather than actually teaching him to read).

    My basic seeing-eye objective opinion is that both approaches toward education are going too far, but I would personally err toward the Gymnasium. It’s also apparent that Zweig is intelligent and fully enamored with being a cut above. He certainly is in regards to his interests and knowledge. But I wonder if his introspection on “what went wrong” (WWI and WWII are looming) will include his obviously left-of-center view of the world which put tradition on its head. I’m on the chapter now where he is gleeful that yutes finally are having their say in the arts…including such things as developing “atonal” music.

    My guess is that his introspection will include some self-critiquing. But we’ll see. My overall point is that it’s interesting to see a liberal like Allen come to at least superficial terms with what his liberalism has wrought — even if in the book he doesn’t make this connection explicitly.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      This may have been the sort of school that Einstein found so dreary, which is one reason he was such a discouraging student. I recall reading about education in Germany, with secondary students going either to a Gymnasium or a Realschule. One (I think the latter) was for college preparation, the other more vocational. I suspect the pedagogy was similar in both, the main difference being the subject matter. How similar German and Austrian schooling is, and how much it may have changed in the half a century before I read about it, I don’t know.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        Gymnasium was and is for those who wish to go to university or college.

        While the Austrian, German and Swiss German schooling systems have their differences, they are pretty similar.

        In fact, many Germans go to university in Austria. There is no “numerus clausus” in Austria which restricts university attendance based on performance in a gymnasium. In Austrian one takes an exam to enter college.

        Like English students who have passed their A Levels, German students who have matriculated gymnasium are a year or two further along than the general high school student in the USA.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      According to Zweig, the point of the Gymnasium was not to stimulate the mind but to beat down the little heathens who are, or will be, entering adult culture.

      This is the same type of complaint one heard from progressives in most Western countries. Creativity is stifled, the schools turn out robots, etc.

      Interestingly, the gymnasiums also turned out very well educated people.

      One must not forget that universal education is a relatively recent thing. To begin with, until about 150-175 years back, most people were not educated. The majority of those who were educated probably went through some sort of church affiliated establishment or were schooled at home by private tutors. So it was to be expected that the problem of mass education presented certain difficulties to the authorities. And given the German and, to a much lesser extent, Austrian character, it is not surprising that the systems were pretty rigid.

      I believe it is not surprising that Zweig and Einstein, as Jews, were not exactly comfortable in a German/Austrian gymnasium. Outsiders from birth, they compounded their alienation by being unwilling to conform to the system. I do not think the situation was so different in most other countries.

      In addition to teaching the three R’s, the public education systems of most countries were there to create good citizens who were loyal to their countries. Again, being Jews, Zweig and Einstein, no doubt, felt a certain ambivalence in this regard.

      By chance, I knew a German Jew who was a boy during WWI. Like Americans recite the “Pledge”, he and the other boys in schools recited, “Gott strafe England” (God punish England). This practice continued after the war was over.

      As an afterthought, most Asian schools systems that I have come across are not so different from the old German/Austrian gymnasium. Students are streamed at young ages, and only the brightest i.e. the best at taking tests, move to the top. The others have a somewhat different education experience.

      • Anniel says:

        And in all this I still think of the “late bloomers.” What chance have they when they get an education even more dumbed down than today’s norm?

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          I think the American community college system is a good thing just for this reason. Later bloomers can go back into the education system and change directions. This is not the case in many other countries.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          There’s a lot of money being made in dumbing-down, Annie. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Mr. Kung. What did Leslie Nielsen say in Naked Gun? Bingo! I think you nailed a number of good points.

        I’d have to do an intense study to gauge the quality of education offered by the Gymnasiums back in late 19th century/early 20th century Austria. From the description Zweig gave, it sounded like an exhaustive course. I believe he wrote that they had to learn three languages. He may have been bored and the teacher may not have been as touchy-feely as he would have liked, but it might have been a solid education. I just don’t know.

        But what seems clear is that he has the constitution of a precious little snowflake whose creative and artistic impulses were being stifled by this curriculum. And I don’t doubt that there are gifted students who can be bored by a difficult academic curriculum and would rather hang out in coffee houses (as he did) and talk about poetry. He may have been a bit effete. Again, I don’t have a real feel for it yet.

        But certainly his self-absorption is on display. I accept that the education offered by the Gymnasium wasn’t for everyone. (And, indeed, by definition is was not.) But he makes no mention that it might be a hell of an education for 99% of the students. You see the kind of self-centered narcissism (hidden in a longing for more “creative” endeavors). You get the impression he would tear this all down because *he* was bored, without a thought of the value the Gymnasium education might hold for many others.

        We should be reading this book out loud together in some sort of a book club. He’s a very good writer. And yet you can see the naive seeds of liberalism in him, if not the knee-jerk anti-Western liberal Judaism. Again, I don’t have a background in the quality of Austrian education. But I suspect that if they were anything like the Germans it was a hell of an education, if perhaps a bit dull.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          I don’t have a background in the quality of Austrian education. But I suspect that if they were anything like the Germans it was a hell of an education, if perhaps a bit dull.

          Believe me, the quality of the old Austrian education was good. If anything, a student had to be better in languages than in the German system as it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. In this realm was spoken German, Hungarian (an extremely difficult language and not Indo-European), Italian and something like five or ten different Slavic languages. Then one must consider the obligatory Latin.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            The Slavic languages were Polish, Ruthenian (Ukrainian), Czech, Slovak (probably spoken only in Hungary, so Austrians wouldn’t have learned it), Slovenian, and Serbo-Croatian. In addition, there was Romanian, spoken in both Austria (Bukovina) and Hungary (Transylvania and the Banat), which is a Latin-Slavic admixture. There were also languages spoken only by tiny groups. And, of course, there was Yiddish.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              You might be surprised at the inter-marriage among these Eastern European peoples. My old program leader was born in Hungary, but was spent her childhood summers in Slovakia. She had relatives in Germany, Austria and the USA. Her sister-in-law, who married her brother, is an American with old American, English, French and Greek blood.

              My program leader spoke Hungarian, German, English and French fluently. I suspect she could might have also still spoken Slovak.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                Given the hostile relationships between many of these adjacent ethnic groups (hence the term balkanization), that amount of intermarriage is surprising. But not the knowledge of languages.

  3. Lucia says:

    I attended elementary school in Quebec for 3 years but once I returned to California schools I found myself a year ahead of my peers. Canadian schools graduate students at 11th grade with French language taught beginning at 3rd grade. French Canadian students, who attended Catholic schools, were also taught English but refused to speak it as adults. Not only were Canadian schools ahead in grade level but the discipline enforced by the teachers allowed a learning atmosphere that the California schools sadly lacked. We wore uniforms to public school and wish American public schools would require the same.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I spent 3 years in Greece, but never went to a regular Greek school and have no idea what those were like 50 years ago. My first 2 years were at a Catholic school and my last at an American school (American Community Schools Greece). I had no impression when we came back to the US that I was either ahead or behind.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I think uniforms would be a good idea. I’d prefer a voucher system that brought real competition to the public schools. But uniforms, definitely.

  4. David Ray says:

    I didn’t see Boe Bergdale’s dad speak at the DNC convention. I wonder why.

  5. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    This is the level of intelligence of much of modern America. Some women were asked to leave an R-rated movie because they brought along children.

    One genius declared:

    “No one had communicated that children under six were not allowed in R-rated movies,” one of the moms Amber Cebull told KARE 11.”

    Clearly Trump and Hillary represent the country as it actually is.

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