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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 February 2006, 14:00 GMT
Harnessing the power of the mind
Colin MacDonald
In this week's reader's article, software engineer Colin MacDonald, from Livingston, urges people to exercise their intellectual faculties.


Listening to Radio Scotland recently I heard an item about a discarded space suit, drifting in orbit, filled with the unwashed clothes of astronauts.

Space suit being prepared for launch
It's not cool to be interested in science

Not hugely interesting in itself, but the quirk was that the suit had an FM transmitter installed which will continually broadcast a message to anyone who cares to listen.

The item finished with the presenter saying that the frequency would be "145-point-99 FM, whatever that means".

He couldn't let the 'science bit' go by without a disparaging remark.

We have a culture in this country, a culture that says it's cool to be stupid.

Intellectuals are ridiculed and parodied, smart kids are bullied and independent thought is discouraged by a media that presents opinion ready-formed like a cheap suit.

Society's role models are glamorous footballers and actors, and if Jeremy Clarkson says there's no such thing as global warming then that's fine with us and pass the beer.

Intellect has been devalued to the point of ridicule and we can fill our heads with turgid, amoral mainstream slush

A newspaper has reported that more than half of Edinburgh's 14-year-olds can't meet basic standards in writing and maths.

As a society we'll sigh and shake our heads, but this is the same society that believes Celebrity Big Brother should even exist, so should we be surprised that our children are less literate than in Victorian times, more unfit than any generation before and wasting more resources than at any time in history?

Shouldn't we be worried that the biggest selling book of 2005 was a novel for children?

Why not try the theatre instead of Big Brother?

But no, we live in a world where other people will think on our behalf.

Intellect has been devalued to the point of ridicule and we can fill our heads with turgid, amoral mainstream slush without feeling the slightest bit guilty.

Isn't it possible that we can aim just a little bit higher?

We have nothing more wonderful than our own minds, from which springs curiosity, understanding, innovation and progress.

Using it, the world becomes clearer, richer and more illuminating than before.

So here are some radical ideas: visit an art gallery and find something you like.

Go to a museum and find something that surprises you.

Read The Catcher in the Rye, go to the theatre, listen to Mozart's Requiem at full volume.

Ask "why?" more often. Ask "why not?" even more.

Exercise your mind and watch it reward you.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and are not endorsed by the BBC.

Do you think society is becoming too dumbed down? You sent us your views.

Colin MacDonald is spot on. We do live in a society where people are ill educated, which is a shame because the same potential is there as ever before. You only have to look at the overwhelming tide of "reality TV" to confirm the dumbing down of the nation. There was a time when TV programmes had writers, explored ideas, required acting skills and an needed an attention span slightly longer than that of a goldfish in order to enjoy them.
Trevor, Aberdeen

It is a shame that Colin MacDonald detracted from his excellent piece with the ending that he chose. I too get annoyed at the level of dumbing down in the media and society in general - where I am made to feel strange by attending evening classes in Scottish history or Astronomy, or whatever other interest I am pursuing at the time, rather than watching Eastenders or going to the pub. However, I cannot agree that listening to Mozart or going to the theatre is a greater sign of intelligence than those who go to the cinema and listen to pop. In fact, by using the examples at the end, he perpetuates the myth that being intellectual is 'uncool'. Oh, and a PS to Gordon from Tranent - as you correctly stated, the English language is indeed evolving and, as such, Software Engineer is a perfectly correct title for Colin's job.
Clare, Scotland

I don't personally think that society is 'dumbing down' at all, in fact I believe that it is the older generations that are not providing the encouragement and drive that kids nowadays need. Education today is excellent and if you are motivated and encouraged enough to make full use of it then I think that society can only benefit. I am educated to degree level and beyond and certainly never had any greater opportunity to pursue education than the children nowadays. I only started university in 1999 so I'm not that far removed from the people who the article refers too. Perhaps its the 'grown ups' nowadays that should take a leap into the 21st century and then maybe they would understand what 145-point-99 FM means because the average kid on the street would!
Kenny, Scotland

It's the mass media pandering to the lowest common denominator that's the problem. To reach the largest number of buyers, sell the most papers or earn the most advertising revenue it's essential to aim your product lower than the average; to pander to the lowest common denominator. For those of us who have no desire to think down to that level it's getting harder and harder to actually find something interesting or challenging these days, especially on television, which has become a shocking reflection of the society that watches it. Whilst it's true that intelligent culture isn't all theatre and high-brow literature, mainstream accessible culture is being watered down so much by an industry desperate to make money that soon intellectual and spiritual stimulation will be the domain of the privileged, and this is something we must prevent.
Neil, Glasgow

I entirely agree with most of the comments. Scotland has long been a country where, for whatever reason, it is seen as "cool" to be stupid. It was like this when I was at school 30 years ago and, having been away from Scotland for many years, I found that nothing had changed when I returned. This is, without question, the most ignorant place I have ever lived, in the sense that so few people seem to know, or care, what is going on in the world around them. This seems to concur with the small-minded nature of so many Scots, who have never been out of the country, who believe that the world begins and ends at Hadrians Wall, and that Scotland should be independent, having no need for the rest of the UK. Scots have changed the world thanks to their interest in science - just look at the telephone, the television, tarmac, tyres etc. Given this glorious past, why is it suddenly so cool to be thick?
Ian, Edinburgh

What annoys me about Mr MacDonald's piece is that it is quite arrogant in tone, something that I'm glad Ms McLaughlin responded to with her put-down. In his time, Mozart was denounced by the Intelligencia as 'Pop Music'. And 'Big Brother' originally started as a social experiment, with valid scientific aims! Why do so-called intelligent people think they must "worry" about how stupid our nation is becoming? It's not their responsibility! I certainly don't waste any time worrying about how intelligent people are getting? PS - 'Catcher in the Rye' is the best book in the World when you are 15 and the worst book in the world by the time you are 21. It's called Growing Up.
Ewan, Lanarkshire

I think what Mr MacDonald was referring to when he wrote about 'Catcher in the Rye' and 'Mozart' was for people to go against the grain of society and do what is considered 'uncool'. Peer pressure is now what it was twenty/thirty years ago. Your peers dictate what you listen to, general discussion around the water cooler is 'did you watch Big Brother last night?' For those who don't it is aggravating and for those who do it is reassuring that you are 'in the loop'. I am currently reading Ulysses by James Joyce and listening to Jeese McCartney. Does that make me an intellectual or not? In all honesty I don't care. The point, of Mr MacDonald's, that I agree with is that the media is dumbing down. Listen to the news or read a paper. The media is constantly explaining things - geography, political leaders, current events - that I would at least like to believe that the people watching the news would already be aware of.
Kirsten, Freiburg, Germany

On the whole, I agree very much with Colin MacDonald, although I also think he might have chosen his examples better. For one thing, I don't think it's at all worrying if last year's best selling book was one for children; because, as someone pointed out, it shows that children are reading. On the other hand, I don't think there's the slightest doubt that ours is a culture where people can be disliked for being clever, or for being interested in anything that could be considered "academic". In Colin MacDonald's words, it's "cool to be stupid". What's more, some of the replies published here - railing at him for things he didn't actually say or even imply - serve only to make his point for him.
Colin Wilson, Aberdeen

Well said. We seem to be developing a culture whereby intellectual pursuits are eyed with suspicion. Learning is viewed as a means to an end, even by many undergraduates! We may respect the famous genius, but we don't respect the academic & the learned around us, so it's hardly surprising that we see intelligent people pretending to be stupid. The media certainly has a role to play in this, as while it responds to culture, it also perpetuates it. 'The man in the street' is led to believe that his opinion is as important and deserves as much coverage as that of the expert, regardless of the complexity of the subject. 'Geeks' and 'boffins' are ridiculed by vacuous bimbos (or at least those pretending to be such). It doesn't need to be so black and white: you can read Tolstoy & JK Rowling; listen to Bach & Top of the Pops; watch Big Brother & listen to Radio 4. This isn't about intellectual snobbery, it's about showing people that there is something outside of this spoon-fed, Americanised, monoculture that we as a society seem so ready to buy into.
Stephanie Boyd, Edinburgh

I think the initial suggestions from Mr MacDonald were intended as examples of alternative choices of entertainment rather than instructions. For theatre read cinema, for Mozart read Billy Bragg. There can be no real argument against what he claims to be true. So why refer to him as Victor Meldrew? All he is doing is expressing an opinion backed up by reasoned argument. There is a lot of sneering about 'uncool' subjects, as there always has been. Almost every football commentator feigned confusion about Eric Cantana's comments on 'Seabirds always following the fishing boats' (or similar). It wasn't really that difficult to understand, and he's French. Personally, I don't care if people watch what they want. But I do object to the ridicule of those people who find reality TV and similar ridiculous and would like something better for their children.... or themselves. Thank you.
Derek Angelis, Stow, Scotland

Thank you Colin, for saying something that should be shouted from the rooftops. I can only assume that his detractors who think that Big Brother and other lowest common denominator 'entertainments' have any intellectual value left their brains behind in childhood and should be treated with the contempt they deserve.
Kate Corwyn, Exeter

Colin Macdonald complains that we are supine consumers of junk, then urges us to go out and passively consume even more culture - albeit at a higher(?) level. No. If you want smart, energised people, they should be creating their own culture - writing their own books, building their own machines, making their own songs, putting on shows, joining debating societies, starting businesses, playing sport - that's what really energises people, not passive consumption, whatever the level.
Craig Weldon, Edinburgh

To a certain extent I agree with Mr MacDonald, there is definitely a level of dumbing down in the media and at times the television news is painfully infantile to watch. I however agree that cultural tastes are exactly those - tastes. I have been to the opera with my girlfriend and enjoyed it, although I'm far more at home at either a punk or heavy metal gig. I suppose in many ways though, what Mr MacDonald is saying is get out more decide your own tastes and don't let the media dictate those to you. What is annoying about some of the other comments on here are in relation to language/grammar etc. I actually was taught English grammar in school in the 1970s. Its just a pity that the native language of my home, street and playground - Scots - was actively discouraged. Stripping people of pride in their own history, culture and identity and the drain in national self confidence that results - now that's dumbing down.
Gary, Ayrshire, Scotland

The right diagnosis, but the wrong treatment! Colin is quite correct about the portrayal of science and engineering within the press - being intelligent is regarded as something of an oddity, rather than something to aspire to. It is simply not the case, however, that culture is so clear cut - artistic merit can be found almost anywhere and personal tastes do not define one's cultural richness.
Ian Lowe, Airdrie

'Society's role models are glamorous footballers and actors': Wait a minute, have we not just spent a few months celebrating the fame and drunken antics of a famous 60's Role model.....Footballer George Best! Talk about pot calling the kettle Black!!!

'Shouldn't we be worried that the biggest selling book of 2005 was a novel for children?' No as at least kids are reading. Anyway up until then it was a Fantasy novel called Lord of the Rings! Still not really what you'd call an educational book now is it!

'Ask "why?" more often. Ask "why not?" even more.' Why should I have to listen to condescending rubbish like this. Answer - why not live your life your own way and don't base it on someone elses narrow minded opinions. So if you want to turn the TV off, if you don't want to then enjoy, its your life!
Steve, Scotland

I totally agree with Colin MacDonald. It's unfortunate however that the majority of the role models our youth look up to today can not speak correctly either so they stand little chance even assuming they were taught correctly while at school. This is also aggravated by the poor quality of the language used in the TV they watch, in the computer games they play and the American slang we are all bombarded with on a daily basis. Like the expression used above to describe the frequency, it all comes down to the lowest common denominator. However it's not only spoken English that fails them. It's also written English. You only have to look at the quality of the text used in the books and magazines they read.
Alan Gladwell, Fareham, Hants

Intellectual ability is not measured in the music we listen to or books we read. This is the same intellectual snobbery we have all heard for centuries. Change the record. Is it a surprise that the best selling book is a childrens book? The books themselves have captured children's imagination like no other book in history outwith the bible. Is that not a good thing? The English language is evolving, like we are as a nation hence we do not write or speak like the nation did in the Victorian era. Instead of trying to prove a supposed intellectual superiority, read Harry Potter, listen to local radio instead of radio 4, watch Big Brother(even though it is drivel) you may actually find that you learn something. And for 'software engineer' read 'computer programmer' it's what society generally knows your job as.
Gordon Nicol, Tranent

What outrageous, contradictory nonsense. If people enjoy the theatre then they can go to the theatre. I don't particularly enjoy the theatre, am I dumb? If people enjoy books, let them read books. I don't particularly enjoy books, am I dumb? Art galleries? Museums? Personal taste surely? I think that Mr (Meldrew) MacDonald has made a terrible mistake. Surely there are bigger problems facing today's society than a lack of people reading The Catcher in the Rye? I find it hard to stomach that Mr MacDonald can see it fit to criticise today's youth for not reading, only to go on and point out that the biggest selling book of last year was a childrens book. "We live in a country where other people think on our behalf" Well excuse me if I don't allow you to do the same for me!
Alistair, Motherwell

Couldn't agree more, I think standards are shockingly low, and getting lower each day. I think the media has a lot to answer for, producing as it does endless amounts of mind numbingly boring and without any value whatsoever rubbish like Big Brother. Also, if you take the example of Radio Scotland and the space suite comment, instead of just laughing off the bit about not knowing what the technical stuff was all about, wouldn't it be nice if sometimes they actually researched it before hand and then informed us all of what it meant, now that would be a good public broadcast service.
Jim Hannah, Ayr

Good on you Colin! It seems a bit odd that foreign students doing a BSc in Edinburgh end up with better marks for their use of English than the local students! But then, this is nothing new, many of this generation of parents are not able or willing to help their children with their grammar as their own skills are not up to it. And to quote that best selling author: 'I never wanted some nancy boy for a son anyway' sums up the attitude faced by (far too) many teachers. So what if the books aren't quite as challenging as the likes of Anna Karenina, at least the exposure to correct grammar in books will help those not helped at home... and Big Brother should never have left 1984! Isn't it scary how like that controlled society we have become?
Louisa Wagner, Basel, Switzerland

I have to agree with Colin MacDonald. People are bombarded with information these days but not taught to think for themselves.
Steve Foley, Reading

The media bit is certainly correct. I stopped listening to Radio Scotland four or five years ago. The last straw was when a presenter pretended never to have heard of "Kidnapped". I'm sure that if he'd betrayed that ignorance during his job interview he would not have been employed.
Alex Ostlar, Troon

I agree that to some extent - in school - there is a reluctance to succeed due to peer pressure, but these days most school leavers go on to further education, and it is definitely not the culture in colleges and universities. The fact that people don't know as much about physics (FM stations), "classic" books (Catcher in the Rye) or music (Mozart), is that time has moved on. We now learn about new technologies - computers, web design, email, marketing, business, etc. Kids are being taught skills for the future. Children don't want to visit museums and learn about the past, they want to learn about now!
Daniel Rae, Hamilton

To Daniel Rae, who wants to move on from physics. Physics is timeless. How about you try living for a few weeks without any of the benefits of the knowledge of physics. You might want to try a cave somewhere. Then again, given the ignorance you've displayed thus far, perhaps you've already been in one.
Ollie Glidewell, Leeds

Yea, but no, but yea whatever! Young people have always been the butt of the older generation and their views of what should be. I am in my early forties and was a punk. On the whole you grow through your teenage years and come out into young adulthood. I hate reality TV and never watch it. The choice is mine.
David, Helensburgh

It is true that the "media" is creating a load of stupid low brow TV programmes that pander to the lowest element. And newspapers who love these show as it gives them easy "throwaway stories" to fill their papers with. However what is noticeable when you mention show like Big Brother is that there is a whole segment out there who despise such programmes. These are the people who now barely turn on their TVs, and spend more time with other activities. However this doesn't mean that we should do the things that "Colin MacDonald" considers important. I have no interest in listening to Mozart or reading Catcher in the Rye. Because there are far too many new books too read and new artists to listen to.
Cailean Ferguson, Falkirk

What pompous, patronising poppycock. Mr MacDonald would have us believe that intellect is measured by the books you read and the music you listen to. Instead of condemning the Harry Potter books, he should be pleased that they have at least got our children reading books again. I go to the opera, but I would never dream of patronising my friends who have no interest in Verdi and Puccini by accusing them of a lack of taste and intellect. Mr MacDonald strikes me as the sort of person who displays his tastes like a badge. His choice of book says it all. "Catcher in the Rye"? Oh purrleeeaaase. Give me a break.
Kerry McLaughlin, Motherwell

I could not agree more. It is extremely worrying, and as the present generation of children, product of our 'dumbed-down' society, will parent the next generation, it is difficult to see how things can change for the better. The media could be an invaluable influence on a society, but instead they delight in the current climate of mental sluggishness that they are almost entirely responsible for creating.
Kirsty, Ste Agnes, France

Why is it always the younger generation who are accused of stupidity?

Hi Louise. It is not an accusation of stupidity. It is simply the result of a society that does not encourage the full usage of our mental faculties. If there is a generation of children who have not been encouraged to enjoy broadening their minds and their imagination, it is certainly not their fault. More that they have been let down.
Kirsty, France

Mr MacDonald is a bit of a pompous oaf to suggest that the measure of intellect is which books you read, or your choice in music. He is correct that there is an element of dumbing down in the media. I for one would like to see all (nano)Celebrity type shows taken off the air for good and replaced with good drama / documentary programming.
Bob Martin, Dundee

It is a shame that you view the world through such tainted eyes. The children are just as literate as they were all those years ago, people just recognise it more rather than punishing them, and what are the parents doing to force their children to attend school anyway? As for the biggest selling book of 2005? Just as many adults read that book than children, and at least the children are reading and are getting excited and using their imagination and being inspired, which is what you want, is it not? No wonder children will not achieve their potential when there are people telling them that they cannot. I just hope that there are no teachers out there who think the way you do, that we are doomed!
Caroline, Edinburgh

Caroline - you said: "As for the biggest selling book of 2005? Just as many adults read that book than children". I think that's the point of the article. Of course it is everyone's choice to read kiddie literature if they like, but Colin MacDonald is merely making the obvious statement that there is a world of knowledge/art out there beyond the mainstream, and if you don't try it then you may be missing out. Does anyone disagree with that?
Martin, Edinburgh

I have grown somewhat tired of the very personal attacks which some people 'brave' enough to post their comments on this site sometimes receive, just because their view differs from someone who thinks the best form of response and argument is to simply be rude. How refreshing then in an article about the dangers of 'dumbing down' we actually have a range of articulate responses to some rather rude, personal attacks on Mr MacDonald. Just because someone holds a different view from you doesn't give you the right to start name-calling. That's nothing to do with what book you read, film you like or music you listen to (which I agree is wholly subjective to each person and intellectual snobbery shouldn't be brought into it) but it is all to do with good manners - which I fear ARE being dumbed down.
LT, Perth

Fair comment. From my personal, and therefore limited, view of society, I see the majority becoming lazier and less willing to exercise either their brains or their bodies. But then, we live in a country where the government tells us more and more what we're allowed to do, what it's safe to do, what we should eat and what will potentially kill us if we eat or drink too much of it. So, is it surprising that we rely more and more on a lazy and sensationalist media to tell us what to think also. But get off your high horse Colin, just because I choose to read JK Rowling, Tom Clancy or Dan Brown over Salinger, Dickens or the latest Turner prize winner does not, in my humble opinion, make me a lesser person. Oh, and I do recognise that starting a sentence with the word 'but' is grammatically incorrect, but my intellect says I'm allowed exercise free will where appropriate...
Dougie, Callander

Patronising nonsense. Mr MacDonald fails to accept that the academic achievements of the 'youth of today' are far outstripping those of his generation. There are more young people at university and in further education than at any time in modern history, does that still indicate that the collective intelligence of the nation is falling, no it certainly does not. Mr MacDonald's elitist suggestions of reading Catcher in the Rye, listen to Mozart's Requiem and going to theatre are purely subjective and based on his own personal tastes. Perhaps he should cheer up and read a bit of Tom Clancy, listen to a AC/DC's Highway To Hell and go to a gig at the Barras!! All of those are as culturally and intellectually relevant as anything Mr MacDonald suggests, and to suggest otherwise is pure snobbery. He's right about Big Brother though, it is dire.
Duncan Kerr, Glasgow

This is a splendid piece of comment. A lack of understanding of relatively simple scientific ideas may be nothing to be ashamed but unfortunately nowadays it is worn as badge of pride. I'm sure that the Radio Scotland presenter must have some slight understanding of radio waves so why feel the need to flash his/her herd membership credentials at the end of the article? We live at a time in our history when we don't so much use technology but we exist within it and we live in this new environment where the vast majority have little inkling of how any of it works, how it came about or where it is going. Culturally at this time enlightenment values of reason and scepticism are under ferocious attack from all sides. Established religions have been joined by new age crackpots and post-modern mumbo-jumbo peddlers to attack the individual's free thinking in favour of acceptance of the handed down revelations of long dead prophets, mystic babbling or impenetrable and turgid waffle. At the lower end of "culture" we have to piffle of Big Brother, celebrity garbage and reality shows to "veg out" to.

The comments of Kerry McLaughlin are commonplace among those who sneer at the scientific and the demanding and she revealed a complete misunderstanding of what Mr MacDonald's piece was about. The piece was not about displaying one's tastes as badges for others to admire. Maybe that's what she does. It was about saying that it's good to think about hard subjects, such as science, that are rooted not in the social but in the reality of the world and "all that is the case". Maybe that'ss what she doesn't do enough of.
Andrew Walker, Renton, West Dunbartonshire

Good on you Colin MacDonald. Well done for saying what it is just not popular to say these days. The truth hurts, hence responses like the one from Kerry McLaughlin in Motherwell.
David Bate, Lockerbie

The younger generation is not stupid. The younger generation is ignorant. People are no longer taught grammar in schools, history covers one or two short periods that have no relation to each other rather than a basic timeline and so on. How can we expect people to read if they're not taught the basics of our own language? I have friends from other countries who speak better English (their second or even third language) than most people of my age. We should be embarrassed. Instead of spending money on a pointless and illegal war, the government should consider trying to teach children properly rather than groom them to be good at exams. Incidentally, I think a book for children being so popular is a good thing; it at least is better written and more worthwhile than many "adult" bestsellers. Encouraging children to read is a difficult thing; J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books manage what hundreds of teachers and parents fail to do and for that I think Ms. Rowling deserves all the praise she gets.

I agree with much of what Colin MacDonald says. I think that many of us probably are guilty of just accepting what is put on a plate for us by the box in the corner. As for Ms McLaughlin, "Oh purrleeeaaase. Give me a break." says it all really!
Niall, London

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