The Dumbing Down of America

Thinking is becoming a lost art.

Everyone agrees that travel is broadening. Boy, is it. Just a week ago, I had a Road to Damascus experience at the San Jose airport. Here's what happened.

My mother and I had a fast-turnaround connection in San Jose, and I wanted to visit the ladies' room before the last leg of our trip home. But I couldn't see a restroom in the Alaska Airlines waiting area, and we had roughly 10 minutes before boarding. So I went hustling off while Mom guarded our stuff.

Most of the access to the Alaska waiting room in San Jose is occupied by a security checkpoint: the usual bank of metal detectors, guards and clumps of would-be passengers. The exit right next to it is blocked by a fabric strap that a guard opens for arriving passengers. (The whole operation is so small and low-tech that they still use rolling metal stairs for boarding.)

When I asked the guard at the exit about public facilities, she pointed out a ladies' room in the lobby, beyond security. She opened the gate, and as I stepped through, she added that I would need photo ID and my boarding pass to get back in through the security check. I had my driver's license in my pocket, but had left my boarding pass with my mother, which I freely admit was dumb. But then, I haven't traveled much since the United States became a place where you have to produce all your papers on demand.

So I asked her to let me back in, and she said no. I had to clear security to re-enter the waiting room and get my boarding pass, but without it, I could not clear security--a perfect Catch-22. Dumbfounded, I said, "But you saw me come from the waiting area." (Understand that it had been maybe 10 seconds since she closed the gate, and we'd been talking as I came through.)

She looked at me without any expression whatsoever and said, flatly, "That's not the point."

So they paged my 70-year-old mother so she could hand me my boarding pass across the strap, but only after she'd hauled all our carry-on stuff around the waiting area trying to find me. Pass in hand, I then went straight to security, having decided that I didn't need to go that much after all. While I stood in line, yet another guard began hassling Mom to get away from the exit because, "We need to keep this area clear at all times." This is our bulwark against terrorism.

During the flight home, I brooded about it while staring at a pointed, 6-inch metal skewer securing the piled-up hair of a woman two rows in front of me. (Honest. Mom saw it, too. We'd both run out of things to read.) And I realized that the surreal little playlet in San Jose was a tiny example of a huge problem: American stupidity.

We will never be safe again until thinking comes back into fashion. First, because our enemies are smart, but, more fundamentally, because our system assumes that your average citizen can figure things out and wants to. The United States was founded by smart people, and the system of government they established only works with an informed, thinking citizenry--hence the founding fathers' vigorous promotion of literacy. The American system cannot work if most of the populace is lazy, barely educated, incurious and bored by everything but entertainment. You want to know why China and India are building their economies while ours is shrinking? Why most Americans welcomed tax cuts and the invasion of Iraq? How George W. Bush got elected? Because we're not thinking.

At this point, our national slide into dopiness may be irreversible, and it could be that mindlessness is just part of our final approach to the far limits of decadence and the end of empire.

Often, lately, it does appear that we're plunging into the Last Days. I just read a New York Times Magazine article about the emerging coolness of high-end washers and dryers. Just pages past a photo essay on refugee camps, we learned about a California designer who has two sets of Whirlpools stacked one on the other in her studio, because she "liked how four looked." But, we're all impressed to hear, she still sends her good linen via UPS to a place in Minnesota that charges $27 to launder one flat sheet. Surely, this is the modern equivalent of noshing on nightingale tongues while the Huns set up outside the walls.

I suspect that the new stupidity is not so much a matter of eroding values as natural selection. It takes so little intelligence or effort to survive to breeding age and raise young here--as opposed to, say, India or China or Afghanistan--that we're evolving into a nation of dolts. Self-satisfied dolts, too. My husband the professor often complains that not only do his students know less every semester, in the last couple years, they've become proud of their ignorance.

I have a friend who sees the end of Western civilization in every moronic new beer commercial. He's probably right.

Of course, none of this explains the skewer.

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