The Herman Trend Alert|
December 4, 2002
The Lowest Common Denominator
Remember when you were in school, solving arithmetic problems by finding the lowest common denominator? Unfortunately, much of our society is influenced by the search for the lowest common denominator. Too often, we allow ourselves to be satisfied with the lowest common denominator instead of striving for something better. In today's jargon, "Mediocrity rules!"
Most visible and "in our faces" is the medium of television. Without a doubt, THE television program with the consistently highest ratings last year was The Osbournes. This masterpiece of reality TV is a mindless look into the lives of British rock star Ozzie Osbourne and his dysfunctional family. "The Osbournes put the 'fun' in dysfunctional." said our sixteen- year-old daughter. All we could do was shake our heads. [Not familiar with the show? Visit http://www.mtv.com/onair/osbournes.]
At some restaurants, food is so salty and spicy that it's difficult to find anything on the menu that we want to eat. The "popular" taste is so accustomed to high sodium and sugar levels that food offered in many restaurants is stronger in taste than nourishment. We have been enticed to eat too much of the wrong kinds of food, creating a serious obesity problem.
This same LCD trend has challenged our education system. We experienced that downside in New Rochelle, New York. Seeing their school-age population declining, the school board combined children from the most- and least affluent parts into one school. The teachers were forced to teach the LCD. It was disastrous for some of the students.
There are bright spots like the quality of National Public Radio, the well- written, award-winning "West Wing" television drama, and alternative schools like the emerging "Middle Colleges" that provide opportunities for bright teenagers to realize their potential by taking college courses while still in high school.
As employers and parents complain about the quality of education, local school boards will be forced to move beyond LCD teaching. As consumers vote with their pocketbooks, product developers will change their offerings. As the economy improves, more funding will be available to move away from LCD to a re-emphasis on excellence and product quality.
Sometimes, in our effort to confine our Herman Trend Alerts to 350 words, the full meaning of our message may not be explained thoroughly. Our forecast of December 4 (Lowest Common Denominator) could have been a bit more succinct. Our thanks go to the subscribers who sent us e-mails offering commentary and concern. We want to particularly express our appreciation to John Stroud, Kathy Massey, Regina Raiford Babcock, and Jeffrey Seglin for calling to our attention certain inaccuracies and shortcomings.
First, while "The Osbournes" caused quite a stir in the media and MTV did report a record audience of 6.6 million viewers in November, those numbers are still a fraction of the audience that the major television networks are able to attract. Last week, the most recent week for which ratings are available, the top-rated show garnered an audience of 13.4 million viewers. ("Everybody Loves Raymond") Thus, our line should have read: "Without a doubt, THE cable television program with the consistently highest ratings last year was The Osbournes." With the addition of the word "cable," the sentence is accurate.
But even more important to set the record straight was the example we gave about the school system in New Rochelle, New York. Here is the whole story:
In 1970, when Joyce and her husband were looking for a home in Westchester County, the northern-most area of New Rochelle, served by the George Davis Elementary School, was considered the best. Joyce purchased a home there and her two older daughters went to Davis School. With ample resources and lots of parental support, the school thrived and maintained its position as the pre-eminent elementary school in the city. The education delivered to Joyce’s two older daughters was exceptional. It provided an excellent grounding and preparation for the Ivy League and highly rated colleges they attended.
In the early 1990s, the school board found itself in an untenable position. With dropping enrollments, there were 15.1% fewer Generation Xers than Baby Boomers, the organization combined the students from the Davis School area with the students from the southern-most school in the city with the fewest resources and least parental involvement.
The teachers who had been accustomed to teaching kids who caught on quickly now found themselves struggling to explain the same material to children who required a lot more effort. These teachers were not given additional resources, nor were they trained that they might have to change their styles of teaching. They were forced to teach to the lowest common denominator to address the needs for their students. Brighter students lost the opportunity to learn more, to move at a faster rate, to spend valuable one-on-one time with the teachers.
Joyce’s third daughter, Samantha, who attended the same school in the mid-1990s, described the difference this way: "In New York, if you didn’t ‘get it’, the teacher kept working until the last person in the class ‘got it’. In North Carolina, where we live now, it’s your responsibility to ‘get it’, even if that means you have to stay late or work harder."
As a result, Samantha, did not receive the same quality of education in the New York schools. We know this fact, because when Joyce moved to North Carolina, the teachers informed her that Samantha was two years behind her peers in academics!
We do apologize for seeming to come across as classist. That was certainly not our intention. As humans, we all have our biases, but as futurists we challenge ourselves to broaden our perspective considerably. We see too many examples of the acceptance of lowest common denominator, mediocrity, in our society today. The prevalence of such attitudes and practices will influence the society of tomorrow.
Comments from our readers:
1st the immediate political considerations of your recent Trend Alert: Tell your Republican buddies to start supporting NPR and PBS. Every year they attempt to scrape off millions of dollars from the national budget by eliminating "the arts." Supposing them to be superfluous to the economic package and unnecessary to the well-being of democratic society, the Republicans believe that Americans are capable of donating enough funds to keep quality programming on the air. Yet, as you've noted, the majority of Americans have no concept of what "quality" actually is. For you see . . . in a democracy it is essential that the LCD rules. The average American does not listen to, let alone support, public radio/television. 2nd the philosophical ramifications of your article: "Liberal education is the counterpoison to mass culture, to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing but 'specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.' Liberal education is the ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant. Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness." (Leo Strauss, "Liberalism Ancient and Modern.") Liberal education is something that is available to the many, accessible to the few, and utilized by the fewest. You know . . . you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. Ahhh, the paradox of democracy.
Sarah A. Chase
Hooray for the Hermans!
I couldn't agree with you more, and whenever I voice comments like these (which my wife will tell you happens far too often) I feel (take your pick) old/curmudgeonly/elitist/far too much like Bill Bennett.
Nonetheless, you are right on target. This dumbing-down of the country in all respects is absolutely frightening. Were I not an optimist at heart I'd say it's the beginning of the end for this civilization, and I use the term loosely.
End of my morning rant.
I both appreciate and enjoy your Trend Alerts. Working in HR at a Fortune 50 company, they always seem timely to what we are working on or working through.
My email is just a comment on your recent Trend Alert regarding The Lowest Common Denominator. This is truly a sad statement about our society, our world that we only aspire to the lowest common denominator. Although, the main reason for this was omitted from your Trend Alert. You see, God's standards are the highest standards and are the only standards we should be aiming for. If we shoot for anything less than His, we are shooting at the wrong target.
It is sad that we trade political correctness for the Truth. We owe it to others to tell them the Truth. If The Lowest Common Denominator is the problem, what is the solution? The solution is God's standard. Yet, for some reason, we don't want to share that with others.
I appreciate what you do.
You are very confused if you believe "The Osbournes" was the highest rated show on TV last year. It is a cable show (MTV) and at best got one-tenth of the actual highest rated show on network TV.
It might have created the most "buzz" and was a considerable hit for cable, just like "The Sopranos" on HBO, but the total number of viewers for either show does not approach an even mediocre show on the networks.
I usually follow you in the issues you raise in your eNewsletter. And I certainly agree in principal that accepting the lowest common denominator as the best we can do is disheartening. But in this letter did you really mean to suggest that combining less-affluent and more-affluent students in one school led to teaching to the lowest common denominator? Or did you mean to suggest that combining students with academic abilities on the opposite ends of the spectrum led to this? The former sounds like you might be proposing that the less affluent students bring the more affluent down and that they should be kept in their own less affluent schools.
Having been a read been a reader of your stuff and a listener of your speeches over the years, I have a hard time imagining that this is really what you meant to say. But then maybe it was. So I thought I'd check.
Jeffrey L. Seglin
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