COMMENTARY | There's something to be said for honesty. Take, for instance, the words of New York Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman, who, in response to a Bloomberg Businessweek interview question about comity in Congress, said he wasn't sure if it existed any longer. And part of the reason was due to the dumbing down of the populace and people confusing entertainment and news.
"Society has changed," he said. "The public is to blame as well. I think the people have gotten dumber. I don't know that I would've said that out loud pre-my announcement that I was going to be leaving. [Laughter] But I think that's true."
The outgoing legislator will retire after 30 years on Capitol Hill in January. When asked to avoid cliches in his remarks, he did so but gave no quarter with regard to the political polarization affecting the United States and its politics. He not only blamed Congress' lack of comradeship and common courtesy for the current state of political distancing in Washington but the media as well. He pointed out that networks now spoke to philosophies and news anchors who weren't journalists blurred the lines between real news and entertainment.
But is Rep. Ackerman correct? Certainly society has changed over the years, but have Americans gotten dumber?
A case could be made that they have. In the thirty years Ackerman has been in Congress, the high school graduation rate has fallen only a few points overall from a mid-70s percentage during the 1980s to 69.9 percent by 2010. But if one considers that the number of high school kids increased by roughly 1.5 million over the 1980-2010 period, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the 10 percent increase has been met with a 6 percent drop in graduations.
At the same time, it would appear that college enrollment has gone up by millions of enrollees. By 2010, eight million more people (over 20 million) were enrolled in institutions of higher learning than in 1980. However, according to a 2011 study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education (per Reuters ), only 56 percent of students completed four-year degrees within six years, and a mere 29 percent starting two-year degree programs finished them within three years. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development corroborated the data, revealing that only 46 percent of American college enrollees actually go on to get their degrees, placing the United States last in a list of 18 nations.
And yet, high school diplomas and college degrees do not an education make. Not entirely. A string of letters after one's name does not measure one's intelligence so much as it does commitment and the wherewithal to accomplish the goal. And quantity hardly takes the place of quality. But the accumulation of knowledge via learning institutions is possibly the best metric society has for assessing trends in the education levels of the populace. By that metric, the United States is coming up short.
If Rep. Ackerman is correct and the people of America are getting dumber as the population increases, does his implication that a dumber populace is helping create a more polarized and antagonistic political situation hold merit? And by extension, would not a representative government also be dumber as well, percentage-wise, reflecting its dumbed-down constituencies?
Does this mean that the future of American politics will be that of either gridlock or extreme political shifts in policies by succeeding administrations and legislative bodies?
It hardly goes without saying that the less knowledgeable and the more ignorant are more fearful, more protective and territorial, and less inclined toward cooperation and compromise, let alone political comity. And while more and more people get information from the more "philosophical" and less factual news outlets like talk radio, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC -- all of which have avid, polarized audiences -- or ignore news and politics altogether, the situation will undoubtedly continue to worsen.