The internet has made it easier than ever to reach a lot of readers quickly. It has birthed new venues for publication and expanded old ones. At the same time, a sense of urgency of current affairs, from politics to science, technology to the arts, has driven new interest in bringing scholarship to the public directly. Scholars still have a lot of anxiety about this practice. Many of those relate to the university careers and workplaces: evaluation, tenure, reactions from their peers, hallway jealousy, and so on. These are real worries, and as a scholar and university professor myself, I empathize with many of them.
But not with this one: The worry that they’ll have to “dumb down” their work to reach broader audiences. This is one of the most common concerns I hear from academics. “Do we want to dumb down our work to reach these readers?” I’ve heard them ask among themselves. It’s a wrongheaded anxiety.
Like all experts, academics are used to speaking to a specialized audience. That’s true no matter their discipline, from sociology to geotechnical engineering to classics. When you speak to a niche audience among peers, a lot of understanding comes for free. You can use technical language, make presumptions about prior knowledge, and assume common goals or contexts. When speaking to a general audience, you can’t take those circumstances as a given.
But why would doing otherwise mean “dumbing down” the message? It’s an odd idea when you think about it. The whole reason to reach people who don’t know what you know, as an expert, is so that they might know about it. Giving them reason to care, process, and understand is precisely the point.
The phrase dumbing down got its start in entertainment. During the golden age of Hollywood, in the 1930s, dumbing down became a screenwriter’s shorthand for making an idea simple enough that people with limited education or experience could understand it. Over time, it came to refer to intellectual oversimplification of all kinds, particularly in the interest of making something coarsely popular. In education, it named a worry about curricula and policy: that students were being asked to do less, held to a lower standard than necessary—than they were capable of—and that is necessary to produce an informed citizenry.
In the process, dumbing down has entrenched and spread as a lamentation, often well beyond any justification
But to assume that even to ponder sharing the results of scholarship amounts to dumbing down, by default, is a new low in this term for new lows. Posturing as if it’s a problem with the audience, rather than with the expert who refuses to address that audience, is perverse.
One thing you learn when writing for an audience outside your expertise is that, contrary to the assumption that people might prefer the easiest answers, they are all thoughtful and curious about topics of every kind. After all, people have areas in their own lives in which they are the experts. Everyone is capable of deep understanding.
Up to a point, though: People are also busy, and they need you to help them understand why they should care. Doing that work—showing someone why a topic you know a lot about is interesting and important—is not “dumb”; it’s smart. Especially if, in the next breath, you’re also intoning about how important that knowledge is, as academics sometimes do. If information is vital to human flourishing but withheld by experts, then those experts are either overestimating its importance or hoarding it.