dumbing it down

“Dumbing it Down” dims our inner light

photo credit: Birney Summers

photo credit: Birney Summers

More times than I want to count, I’ve been told that what I am doing, whatever it is, will never reach the masses. That I need to dumb down whatever it is I’m writing. That my concepts and ideas are beyond the reach of “regular people” whomever they may be.

Years ago, I worked for a textbook publisher writing copy for first grade primers using pre-approved word lists.  We could not modify the list in any way. For instance Johnny had a goat was fine. But Johnny had a boat was not, because boat was not on the list. When I balked, incredulous that kids shouldn’t be challenged to figure it out, I was told that those were the rules. (Decades before, similar rules turned Ted Geisel into Dr. Seuss. I didn’t have that option.)

The caution to dumb things down reared its head again while beta-testing our set of Picture a Conversation™ discussion starters. Someone I respect deeply told me the cards couldn’t be used in the organization’s  programming. Word had come down from on high that any and all written material had to be on a 4th grade reading level so that it would be accessible to all. Someone else told me that my word choices would alienate potential users. I vacillated, wondering if they were right. I want Picture a Conversation to reach as many users as possible. Was I unnecessarily sacrificing accessibility by not “dumbing down” the language?

Pablo Picasso, 1901 - 1902 Femme aux Bras Croisés (Woman with Crossed Arms)

Pablo Picasso, 1901 – 1902 Femme aux Bras Croisés (Woman with Crossed Arms)

Did anyone ever tell Picasso Too much cerulean or Easy on that dark marine blue? Well, they probably did, but he didn’t listen.  In the end, I tweaked a few phrases, clarified here and there but I pretty much left the vocabulary alone. Moms who used the cards with their kids told me that they loved the experience. When needed, one mom helped her kids (8, 10, 12) with an unfamiliar word or two. The words  “cherish” and “grief” might not appear on a fourth grade reading list, but I bet every fourth grader cherishes something whether it’s a friend, a baseball mitt, or a book. And if that friend has moved away or they’ve lost their baseball mitt or favorite book, they have felt grief as well.

I am already imagining a future edition of Picture a Conversation specifically geared to youngsters and their parents. For now, I trust this set of conversation starters will find the folks who are supposed to be enjoying it. I don’t think any of us should dim our lights or assume others are incapable of learning a new words. Nor should any of us allow insecurity to prevent us from growing in word or deed. That would be the dumbest idea of all.


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