Dumbing down is a deliberate diminution of the intellectual level of education, literature, cinema, news, and culture. The term “dumbing down” originated in 1933 as movie-business slang, used by motion picture screenplay writers, meaning: "[to] revise so as to appeal to those of little education or intelligence."
The nature of dumbing-down varies according to the subject matter and the reason for diminishing the intellectual level of the subject or topic, but it usually involves the over-simplification of critical thought to the degree of undermining the intellectual standards of language and of learning; thus tending to trivialise cultural, artistic, and academic standards, as in the case of popular culture.
Philosophically, the term “dumbing down” is relative in definition, because what is considered as dumbing down depends on the taste, value judgement, and intellectual level of the persons involved in the matter. In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979), the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) proposed that, in a society in which the cultural practices of the ruling class are rendered and established as the legitimate culture of that society, that action then devalues the cultural capital of the subordinate social classes, and thus limits their social mobility within their own society.
In the late 20th century, the proportion of young people attending university in the UK increased sharply, including many who would not previously been considered to have the appropriate scholastic aptitude. In 2003, the UK Minister for Universities, Margaret Hodge, criticised Mickey Mouse degrees as a negative consequence of universities dumbing down their courses to meet "the needs of the market": these are degrees conferred for studies in a field of endeavour "where the content is perhaps not as [intellectually] rigorous as one would expect, and where the degree, itself, may not have huge relevance in the labour market": thus, a university degree of slight intellectual substance, which the student earned by "simply stacking up numbers on Mickey Mouse courses, is not acceptable".
A high school physics instructor, Wellington Grey, published an Internet petition in which he said: "I am a physics teacher. Or, at least, I used to be"; and complained that "[Mathematical] calculations – the very soul of physics – are absent from the new General Certificate of Secondary Education." Among the examples of dumbing-down that he provided were: "Question: Why would radio stations broadcast digital signals, rather than analogue signals? Answer: Can be processed by computer/ipod" to "Question: Why must we develop renewable energy sources?" (a political question).
In Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1991, 2002), John Taylor Gatto presented speeches and essays, including "The Psychopathic School", his acceptance speech for the 1990 New York City Teacher of the Year award, and "The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher", his acceptance speech upon being named as the New York State Teacher of the Year for 1991. Gatto speculated:
Was it possible, I had been hired, not to enlarge children's power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy, on the face of it, but slowly, I began to realize that the bells and confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think, and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior.
In examining the seven lessons of teaching, Gatto concluded that "all of these lessons are prime training for permanent underclasses, people deprived forever of finding the center of their own special genius." That "school is a twelve-year jail sentence, where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school, and win awards doing it. I should know."
Mass communications media
Increased business competition and the introduction of econometric methods changed the business practices of the mass communications media. The business monopoly practice of media consolidation reduced the breadth and the depth of the journalism practiced and provided for the information of the public. The reduction of operating costs (overhead expenses) eliminated foreign news bureaus and reporters, in favour of presenting the public relations publications (news releases) of governments, businesses, and political parties as fact.
Refinements in measurement of approval ratings and audience size increased the incentive for journalists and TV producers to write simplistic material, diminishing the intellectual complexity of the argument presented, usually at the expense of factual accuracy and rationality. Cultural theorists, such as Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Neil Postman, Henry Giroux, and Pierre Bourdieu, invoked these effects as evidence that commercial television is an especially pernicious contributor to the dumbing-down of communications. Nonetheless, the cultural critic Stuart Hall said that the people responsible for teaching critical thinking – parents and academic instructors – can improve the quality (breadth and depth) of their instruction by occasionally including television programmes.
In France, Michel Houellebecq has written (not excluding himself) of "the shocking dumbing-down of French culture and intellect as was recently pointed out,  sternly but fairly, by TIME magazine."
In popular culture
The science fiction film Idiocracy (2005) portrays the U.S. as a greatly dumbed-down society 500 years later, in which the low cultural condition was achieved with dysgenics, over-reproduction by people of low intelligence being greater than the rate of reproduction of people of high intelligence. Conceptually, the world postulated in Idiocracy derives from the science fiction short story The Marching Morons (1951), by Cyril M. Kornbluth. Moreover, the novel Brave New World (1931), by Aldous Huxley, discussed the ways that society was effectively dumbed down in order to maintain political stability and social order. The social critic Paul Fussell touched on these themes ("prole drift") in his book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (1983) and focused on them specifically in BAD: or, The Dumbing of America (1991).
- Algeo, John; Algeo, Adele (1988). "Among the New Words". American Speech 63 (4): 235–236. doi:10.1215/00031283-78-3-331.
- "'Irresponsible' Hodge under fire", BBC News, 14 January 2003. URL accessed on 24 June 2006.
- "50% higher education target doomed, says thinktank", EducationGuardian.co.uk, 14 July 2005. URL accessed on 24 June 2006.
- "Physicists protest at GCSE change". BBC News. 28 June 2007.
- The Odysseus Group Web site of John Taylor Gatto , retrieved 23 February 2009
- Michel Houellebecq/Bernard-Henri Lévy, Public Enemies (2011) pp. 3-4
- Fussell, P. (1983). Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. New York: Summit Books
- "Is the internet dumbing us down?" MSNBC review of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, by Andrew Keen