For the sake of argument

It’s a myth that the public’s a dope

J. R. KIDD March 12 1960
For the sake of argument

It’s a myth that the public’s a dope

J. R. KIDD March 12 1960

It’s a myth that the public’s a dope

For the sake of argument


It’s high time we banished, once and for all, the myth that tries to brand the average North American a moron.

Well, if not precisely a moron, at best a person of adolescent intelligence. The myth is the deeply rooted conviction that the typical adult has a mental age of thirteen years. (Some optimists raise it to fourteen; pessimists lower it to twelve. )

This myth, which H. L. Mencken helped foster with his widely quoted cynicism, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of people,” has been allowed to set the standard of a melancholy proportion of our everyday entertainment and information.

Newspapers never forget

It has downgraded too many of our radio and television programs, our movies, books, magazines and newspapers. An executive of a large Canadian newspaper once “indoctrinated” groups of new employees by warning them: “Never forget that our readers have fourteen-year-old minds.” And to this day the newspaper’s contents indicate that they have never, indeed, forgotten it.

Not all our popular culture is debased by the myth of mass moronism, of course. On the contrary, there is strong evidence that vast numbers of typical Canadians, given half a chance, will support adult entertainment in preference to juvenile offerings. Consider only a couple of examples:

A little-publicized but successful project of the Canada Council is sponsoring concert parties that take “good” music into remote Canadian communities where they perform to rapt capacity audiences that include no highbrows but hundreds of miners, loggers, trappers, farmers, railway and construction workers. The existence of the Canada Council, champion of uplift, is itself testimony that large num-

bers of adult Canadians want something more than juvenilia — and are willing to pay for it. While it involved a $100 million outlay of public money, it was accepted by parliament and by public opinion with little controversy and a

significantly large measure of unanimity.

An even more striking example is the Stratford Festival. This immensely successful presentation of

top-flight drama was organized,

not by some elite group, but by a committee of townspeople that included a trade-magazine editor, a

druggist, a salesman, two factory

managers and three housewives.

And who fills the seats night after

night? Stenographers, office work-

ers, truck drivers, shopkeepers,

plumbers and farmers, teachers, students and housewives—the same average Canadians whom the myth holds to have thirteen - year - old tastes.

But in spite of such competition the myth continues to dictate the level of too much of what we see, hear and read. The real tragedy of the myth is that its products have persuaded many people to form

a low—and false—opinion of their own tastes and fhns to inhibit their own cultural development. Since its influence is strongest in the forms of entertainment that are most widely available to the public, it has contributed to the childish character of thousands of hours of TV and radio programs and has meant an incalculable loss to the nation in entertainment and enlightenment.

How can we banish the myth? Perhaps the best way is to reveal just how it came into existence. For the myth of mass moronism, un-

like almost all other myths, is neither ancient nor mystical in its origins. Its exact how, when, where and why can be pinpointed. It was launched in the United States just

forty-three years ago.

During the early years of this century,



continued from page 8

“On the basis of a myth, we cater ceaselessly to juveniles while penalizing mature adults”

psychologists compiled “intelligence tests,” for use on children. Then the United States entered World War I, and millions of men in uniform provided psychologists with their first opportunity for carrying out mass tests of various types. Among the tests used on hundreds of thousands of servicemen was the intelligence test developed for children. It was made up of tasks and problems associated with school, given under rigid time limits, using a procedure and relying on the kind of motivation associated with school. On these school-type tests, given under school-type conditions, it was found that the men on an average did about as well as children of the age of thirteen.

The psychologists accepted the finding for what it was—an interesting fact, but scarcely astonishing in view of the nature of the tests. They put it in its rightful modest place in the pattern of their work with the U. S. armed forces. They made no fuss about it.

Unfortunately, some magazine and newspaper writers did. Soon the news was spread far and wide that adults have the same intelligence as thirteen-year-old children. What’s more, this was a discovery with “scientific” proof, the writers claimed. (It is interesting to note that whereas the ideas of our forefathers were usually based on religion or folklore, we seem to be more impressed if notions are in some way backed by science.)

Some myths take centuries to become established. This one caught on fast. It happened to be born at the beginning of an era of vast expansion in mass communication— movies, radio, inexpensive books, magazines and newspapers. The prime objective of the people who controlled them was, understandably, to make money, to win as large an audience as possible. And the myth exactly suited their purpose. If it were true (and “science" had just proved it to be true) that the average adult thought and felt like a thirteen-year-old, then you simply planned your product to suit thirteenyear-olds and thus attracted the maximum number of customers.

One by-product has been an inflated emphasis on youth, not only as audience but as subject matter. We worry about the behavior of a minority of young people and talk ceaselessly about juve-

nile delinquency. We smother the immature with attention. We turn whole radio stations over to them so they may hear the same forty tunes day and night. We do everything for them except let them do things for themselves. As a logical extension of this, we penalize maturity, make it harder for older people to find jobs, force them to retire too early and talk and act as if people were useless after forty.

The early products of the myth, in the free-spending, entertainment-hungry postwar years of the Twenties, actually seemed to spell success. The impresarios could not be expected to understand that they were attracting audiences in spite of, not because of, their absurd preoccupation with thirteen-year-old minds. Thus the myth became firmly established and has remained so.

Even if the World War I tests had meant what their misinterpreters pretended, their findings would be no more valid today than a forty-year-old price list. Education is better and longer today. In World War II average adults who took similar tests scored a mental age of about fifteen years. The score would probably be higher today.

Even so, the fact that an adult several years out of school scores the marks in school-type tests of a student thirteen, fourteen or fifteen years old obviously does not mean that his taste in entertainment is the same. In the first place, adults are out of practice and rarely do well when faced with the tasks of children. The parent’s frustration when he tries to help his children with homework is a standard subject of humor — but the joke has been lost on many purveyors of popular culture.

In the second place, adults simply do not approach school tasks with the same interest or enthusiasm as children. Regardless of alleged "mental age,” adults don’t think or feel like children. They have matured in many ways, whether they want to or not, whether they know it or not. But all the ways in which adults differ from children — experience, sex, love, marriage, parenthood, responsibility, facing and solving adversities — are disregarded by the “thirteen - year - old mentality" school of thought.

Instead of abandoning the myth, its votaries protect their products by high-

pressure advertising, deceptive polls and surveys and other forms of attack and defense. In one type of survey, creators of TV ar.d radio programs ask their audiences what they would like to see or hear. They usually find, to their satisfaction, that what "the people” say they want is what they're already getting. Such a survey ignores the people outside the audience, who may be indifferent to a program or loathe it. It doesn't ask about other programs people might want or give them a chance of choosing by offering other things.

A few years ago in Boston the two main radio networks were running soap operas all day long, claiming that women wouldn't listen to anything else. But seventy-six percent of all the women who were at home and had radios were not listening at all. Many of these women were won as listeners as soon as something better was offered.

Some producers have taken the offensive by claiming that since they were providing what people wanted, any criticism was a reflection on the people, was in fact anti-democratic or worse. A CBS vicepresident, Victor Ratner, declared: “To criticize radio — why, that's un-American!"

Ironically, the myth is not paying off in cash. The movie industry particularly is in trouble. But that's no reason for opponents of the myth to be pleased and adopt an "I told you so" attitude. If we are to have good movies, or good anything else the economic basis must be sound.

Anyone who has had as much enjoyment as I have from films cannot be anything but melancholy at their financial plight. Movies from Ben-Hur and Room at the Top to early Chaplin (like the Gold Rush, which recently played for weeks in Toronto to large audiences, a third of a century after it was made) have given me hours of delight. But it was the movie people who first accepted the myth of the thirteen-year-old mentality. The movies killed off their own audiences.

It's customary to say that television crippled movies. This is true in part, but years ago it was already apparent that the motion-picture industry was injuring itself. Gilbert Seldes, a producer and friendly critic, pointed out the danger before the arrival of TV: "No industry has become as indifferent to the steady falling away of its customers as the movies. Statistical research, paid for by the studios, proved that in one generation the movies lost two thirds of their customers and survived only because a satisfactory birth rate provides new patrons for the seats left empty when people arrive at the age of discretion . . . The movies live on children from the ages of ten to nineteen.”

Even when they show highly adult pictures, some exhibitors are so bemused by the myth that they resort to banal ballyhoo. On the marquee of some movie houses showing Tyrone Guthrie's Oedipus Rex the film was described flatly as being about a man who "murdered his father and married his mother."

The influence of the myth can debase the works of the greatest playwrights. Consider the case of two of Shaw’s plays: Pygmalion was made into a movie during the Depression. It was a modest-budget, small-screen, black-and-white production, but good acting and intelligent directing created a memorable picture that played all over the world and is still being revived as a classic. Pygmalion was also converted into one of the excellent, and most successful, musicals of all time. My Fair Lady.

When Hollywood decided to film an-

other Shaw play. Saint Joan, it got the full myth-approved treatment, starting with a circus-like “talent search” in many countries to pick the girl for the title role. It was produced in full color for wide screens and released with much fanfare. But it was a badly made, tasteless film — and it flopped.

What happened to the movies is to some extent happening to other media. The producers aim at a great mass market; they achieve a “mass minority” market and drive away the larger part of the potential audience. Of course it is often alleged that “good" or “mature” offerings arc box-office poison. Is this true?

It is certainly true that audiences accustomed to adolescent fare may not immediately welcome a program that makes more demands on intelligence. But given an opportunity, people will respond to good entertainment in numbers far larger than most of us realize.

A while ago we were astonished to hear that when university professors began to discuss a book like The Red and the Black on a New York television station at six o’clock in the morning, thousands

of people not only got up to listen but rushed out to buy more copies of Sten dhal’s classic than had been sold for years.

Perhaps books have had a stronger defense against the myth than have other art forms. The works of serious writers — Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, to name only a few — have sold as well as, and have endured longer than, the gilded trash that is still published to appeal to infantile tastes.

What about music? Before radio the few great orchestras in North America lived precarious lives. Early in the history of radio, William Paley, then president of CBS, for once ignoring the myth, decided to broadcast the New York philharmonic concerts. Soon other broadcasters followed. What has been the result? In twenty years, on a continent that had not been noted for musical taste, not only was a sizable audience won for good music on radio, but box-office sales for symphony concerts have risen as high as $60 million a year. In spite of all the uproar about rock-and-roll, more people buy concert works than the recordings of Elvis Presley and his contemporaries.

Yes, there are indications that the myth is being dissolved. But it is a slow process, and while it survives it is immensely harmful to a nation’s cultural well-being. Perhaps the story of how the myth came to be born will speed up the process, as the purveyors of entertainment and information come to realize that most people with thirteen-year-old minds are thirteen years old. -k

Confession story An analyst is one fo whom You pay a fancy fee For learning what your neighbors Would gladly hear for free. R. H. Grenville