tl;dr = dd

So—here’s a phrase I hate: Dumbing down.

Pretty much every instance of its use in the education discourse is wrongly construed, unsupported by evidence, and reflects lack of first-hand experience by the speaker. As in: The Common Core has dumbed down the curriculum! Test scores prove that American public schools are dumbed down from the intellectual rigor present in [time frame when speaker was in K-12 school]. Why should we dumb down the canon by letting students read books they choose? And so on.

A lot of educational practices that are labeled ‘dumbed down’ are merely—changed. Evolved. Altered. Less—or more—important to learn than 50 or even 20 years ago, because the world has changed. When it comes to curricula and instruction, the heart of what we do in school, change is essential. Because the world changes, educators must also change. This is a hard concept for a lot of people to understand.

I taught school in five different decades. In my experience, the school curriculum has never once, during that time, been gradually less challenging or dumbed down, overall. In fact, I would argue that most of what is taken as evidence of diminishing academic accomplishment and expectations has roots in excessive testing, a radically altered view of who should be pursuing higher education, pushing curriculum down so far that it’s developmentally inappropriate for the students who are supposed to master it—and shifting demographics.  

We’re not dumbing things down. We’re realigning our priorities, while rowing upstream, against strong currents. Why are we doing this? So we can better teach the kids sitting in front of us.

The first time I ran into the internet shorthand ‘tl;dr’ it was a direct insult. The person who wrote it was ranting about one of my blogs, based on a title that my publisher had given it. Because I think dialogue is the only reason to put your thoughts out on the net, I pointed out that he was accusing me of saying pretty much the opposite of what I’d written in the blog. I took a half hour out of my life to go point-by-point in telling him why (there were some nasty accusations in his comment). I tried to remain calm.

He commented back—oh, I didn’t read it—tl;dr.

The blog was just under 800 words. Most bloggers know what 800 words looks and feels like. They also know that shorter pieces get more eyes. (So do pieces with numbers in the title—speaking of genuine dumbing down.) I started wondering: just how long is tl?

The experience also made me start noticing how often my friends (real friends, people I actually know and respect) would share something with a comment like ‘long but worth it’ or ‘read all the way to the end—the last paragraph will break your heart.’ If a friend shares something, I presume they’ve read it, and there’s something worth absorbing in the piece, whether it’s 200 words or 2000 words.

Even more disconcerting: I frequently post my own writing on other sites and have had readers tell me that my responses to comments are ‘not what the blogger meant.’ When I point out that I AM the blogger, they’re surprised. Where do people think free content comes from?

I know we live in a Twitter media culture, where tweets (the grandchildren of sound bites) are burnished for sharing, or linked in boxcar-like threads, 15 thoughts representing a thesis with supporting evidence. I also know that our, umm, former guy ran an entire first-world nation—some would say into the ground—using mainly random misspelled nuggets of braggadocio and bias. He paired them with rambling, often nonsensical speech-rants to large crowds. And people seemed to like them. In fact, one of the most frequent man-on-the-street comments about Former Guy was: He tells it like it is. God forbid.

So here’s what I don’t get: FG’s speeches frequently ran well over an hour, and were given to people standing outside. In the cold. When you look at transcripts, they’re pretty much an amalgam of incoherence laced with sporadic insults. The exact opposite of toastmasters recommend—short, pithy and laced with humor.

Here are my questions:

  • Are we reverting to an oral culture, where long-form reading is mostly abandoned?
  • Does this have to do with the way we have pushed reading instruction down into kindergarten, short-circuiting the love of stories and language that turns children into eager readers?
  • Is tl;dr evidence of the real dumbing down?

You tell me. And in case you’re wondering, 766 words.

14 Comments

  1. My answer[s] to your three questions, sadly, is yes, yes and yes. I fear we are in a period where wokeness has become entwined with an emboldened anti-white agenda that results in too many complex matters being framed as simplistic binary choices. There are many real and important concerns undergirding both these world views, to be sure. However, an entry on a worksheet being used as part of our DEI work by one of the organizations to which I belong encourages a “pivot” away from white norms and classifies writing as a “white” norm in contrast with oral expression. That’s your Q1. IMO, the Common Core and incessant testing has driven creativity out of most kids by fifth grade, especially the way reading is dealt with. That’s your Q2. Sadly, I would argue that the persistent plateauing if not very discernible decline of Grade 8-12 NAEP scores documents that the longer kids stay in school the dumber they get, at least by the most widely respected national measure we currently have. Islands of excellence not withstanding.

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    1. Hmm. I find your first comment about an ’emboldened anti-white agenda’ strange. In fact, I would argue that an oral culture is ideal for all younger children, and that richer story-telling, rhyming, listening might be the cure for too-early decoding, and developmentally inappropriate manipulation of symbols in reading and writing. Like you, I don’t see these as binary choices–but I definitely do not see a focus on oral learning as ‘anti-white.’ There are lots of children being pushed too early into a different, more abstract level of learning–children of all colors and SES levels.

      If kids get dumber the longer they stay in school, we might well look at the instruments that measure ‘dumbness.’ Thinking here about persistent, documented racial biases in standardized testing, from the beginning. To argue that a bias toward white norms is good and correct is in itself a bias.

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  2. I have been reading your articles/blog posts for a decade now, and I have never found them too long (I often end up reading the source material that you reference, as well). I always find something to like about every post, whether it relates to teaching or simply for the nostalgia of our shared experience. It does seem to be a trend that students read less and less each year. I struggle to get some students to even open their google search results; they simply type the question and copy/paste the search results themselves. tl ;dr is far too prevalent.

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    1. Hey Kristen. Thanks for your nice words. Has technology made ‘research’–the synthesizing of information–too easy? Back in the days when you were copying only the most critical bits out of a book, then trying to develop an argument, there was thinking going on. Today, there’s information overload, and the mechanical act of cutting and pasting means students aren’t even evaluating what they read for relevance, let alone credibility.

      Really nice to hear from you again.

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  3. I am afraid that tl;dr is turning into tl;cr (Too Long, Couldn’t Read). Attention spans have gotten so short that the idea of reading a long book sends some into shock.

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    1. Yeah. You’re right. But–how did we get that way? Did this all start with sound bites, or the internet / social media, or inability to read for comprehension because we’ve been so busy teaching ‘phonemic awareness’ to 5-yr olds rather than letting their decoding proceed slowly, until reading became rewarding rather than a mechanical intellectual task?

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  4. Thanks for this thoughtful post. Methinks the “tl;dr” folks are the same middle school students I taught and even college classmates who flipped to the end of an assignment to see how long it was before even reading the first word. To Steve Rios, apt call I would add tl;wr (w=won’t)

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    1. Thanks for a great comment. As I was writing the piece (writing as a way of knowing), I reflected that resistance to reading has always been with us–it’s why Cliff Notes were invented. But tl:dr has a different flavor: I don’t feel like reading this, even if it’s 800 words, but I feel fully qualified to comment. There are people who ARE qualified to comment on some topics, but to not even skim the piece but just launch into pontificating, while telling everyone that you chose not to read it because it was too long, is a special kind of stupid.

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  5. I read every word every time, Nancy, and give thanks to the great goddess of literacy that you were born. Thank you.

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  6. My rule of thumb is 500 words. If a post is going to get much larger, I try to find a way to break it into a series to fit the 500 word guideline. I think there is a difference between reading on a screen and reading on paper. We are much less patient with the screen. We want the writer to get to the point. If not, we stop scrolling and click onward.

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    1. I don’t have a rule of thumb. If I click on a piece, and it’s a couple thousand words (Atlantic pieces are often that long) and I don’t have time to read it, I save it. And I really do read those pieces later–my own curated library. When the pandemic hit, last year, I bookmarked dozens of pieces and eventually read them all, noticing the evolution, week by week, of collected information about the coronavirus, beginning with how to identify it. Writing about the pandemic has been so uneven–but eventually I started deleting some early pieces, saving others (anything by Ed Yong or James Hamblin, for example). I now have a file with about 3 dozen pieces, but have deleted twice that many. My own little virus library.

      Do I expect everyone to be like me? Nope. Do I expect *most* people to read all the pieces they open (or are assigned)? Nope. I was a teacher for 31 years and I know better. But I do expect that adults who comment on an article (or retweet–or repost on Facebook) will be familiar with what it says.

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