We've all heard the "reports" about the general dumbing down of our culture. I was reading a book which exhorted us all to increase our intelligence levels and the author was ranting about how the news had become entertainment and people couldn't identify foreign heads of state. That's when a thought hit me.
Maybe we're judging by the wrong criteria.
The news is a very recent phenomena. Even newspapers, the usual upheld example of in depth reporting, are only 500 years old if one includes the monthly government update from Venice intended for the heads of other Italian cities. Realistically, the concept of a regular reporting of useful and important information only came into effect in the 17th century. (And it was in no way an objective and unbiased account.)
Does that mean everyone before 1600 was stupid? I'm betting most of them couldn't have named heads of state and were probably more interested in seeing street performers than in participanting in political discourse. People have always reached for entertainment over academia, even if you ignore the whole mass literacy barrier.
And not to toss academia entirely under the bus but entertainment has long been one of our best techniques for passing on cultural values and provoking thought. (I don't say providing information because we all know how the needs of the story can often triumph over actual facts.) Would the Middle Ages have cherished chivalry and courtly love without the jongleurs who travelled from town to town sharing those ballads? Even if the historical events differ from the ballad accounts, it gave an ideal to strive for.
It's hard to argue against the "getting dumber" phenomena when reality shows seem to compete in a race to the most disgusting and lurid displays and a celebrity getting a haircut ranks equally with famine and war.
But on the other hand, the Roman gladiators actually butchered each other for mass entertainment.
I don't think we're any dumber than we used to be but it's so much easier to have access to entertainment and there's a higher expectation of intelligence. We have advantages most of our ancestors could only dream of. Literacy, good health, abundant food. We have the leisure and opportunity to influence our lives directly. All of us, not just a privileged elite.
Not too many people are taking advantage of that and the sound-byte oriented media certainly makes it more difficult for those who want to. But let's not pretend that history is populated with examples of mass populations making intelligent and reasoned decisions and we're somehow an exception.