Is it Dumbing Down or Just Carefully Crafted Writing?

Professor Sandra Stockey believes most American high-schoolers average reading level is about the fifth grade (5.3 to be exact, although I’m still hesitant of the source). Which is sad and we bemoan this downfall of American education and mourn the slow loss of intelligence in our nation, et cetera.

I thought it quite humorous and that the classics are dumbed down in some classrooms. And I quote Professor’s Stockey’s article, “Many high school students are now reading “classics” rewritten at a second-, third-, or fourth-grade level (e.g., Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, A Tale of Two Cities, Romeo and Juliet, The Time Machine, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jane Eyre, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Scarlet Letter, and A Christmas Carol), although only Romeo and Juliet is on the top 40 list for all high school students.” Which means they lose whatever made them actual classics. Just the idea that one can edit a classic and it still keeps its “classic-ness” is absurd.

But this idea of “dumbing down” intrigues me. I was taught you write newspaper articles at a sixth grade level. My first newspaper article contained the word “synecdoche” and of course the editor changed it. Who uses that word anyway?

I do want to quickly differentiate between voice and “dumbing down”. Voice could be defined as dumbed down, but not dumbed down for the specific purpose of giving a 12th grader a chance of understanding the material.

Jeff Goins thinks the future of books is essentially dumbed down with short chapters. He uses The Hunger Games as an example. He avoids arguing for the craft of the book. But I can’t argue for craft since I haven’t read it (yet? I don’t know). In his blog “Why the Hunger Games is the Future of Writing” he states, “We live in a world of distractions. Not surprisingly, most people are reading at the attention level of a sixth grader. How does Collins accomplish this? She writes short novels, in large fonts, with quick chapters. If you’re going to get people to read your content (whether it’s fiction or nonfiction), you should consider doing the same.”

Young adult fiction is said to be some pretty good literature (like A Wrinkle in Time), but this idea of intentionally writing for sixth graders perplexes my small mind. Why not just write the best story one can? Why make an effort to appeal to the restless crowd? Maybe it takes skill to write a good story at a specific level. It’s not like I’ve ever been successful at it. Maybe someday I’ll understand.