DUMBING IT DOWN
If you try to make your work relevant to new people, you will be accused of dumbing down your work.
It is entirely possible to dumb down your work to its detriment. It is possible to shirk the complicated bits, smooth over inconvenient data, or ignore voices of dissent in the peanut gallery. It is possible to replace serious scholarship with superficial celebrity. It is possible to avoid hard differences and settle for glossy consensus.
That’s not what most people mean when they talk about dumbing down in the context of community relevance.
When people accuse institutions of dumbing down, they are more likely complaining that you are adding too many new doors into the experience. Doors that are too loud, too glittery, too ethnic, too fun. They may say you dumb down the museum when you offer an interpretative experience around the art. That you dumb down the science when you make a game about it. That you dumb down the prayer service when you offer it in English.
These things are not dumbing down. They are opening up. Yes, it affects a room when you cut new doors into its walls. But it doesn’t transform what’s inside the room. It just changes who can get in. That’s not to say the framing of the content won’t look a little different. The curve of the doorway and the message on the doormat might shift. But it needn’t distort what’s inside.
Building new doors is a way of making change. That change impacts people on the inside and the outside differently. Instead of talking about “traditional” approaches and “new” ones, I find it more productive to talk about insiders and outsiders. Insiders have different perspectives than outsiders. Insiders have well-developed preferences, tastes, and opinions about what’s in the room. Outsiders have rudimentary opinions about what’s in the room—often based on outdated experiences or no information at all.
People inside the room are invested, connected, and acutely sensitive to change. For people inside the room, clutching their hard-won keys, every new door looks like a construction site. Every new entry path feels like it shifts the room. Insiders think the existing doors are just fine. They use them all the time. Why can’t new people come in the same ways they did? Why can’t those outsiders follow the protocols of the room? Why don’t they respect the perfect version of the room that insiders have grown sentimental about over time?
We are all grumbly insiders about something. For me, it’s wilderness areas. I like my national parks hard to access, sparsely populated, and minimal in services. My idea of a perfect vacation is lugging a 40-pound backpack through hard-to-access backcountry trails. It’s an experience that requires permits, maps, physical ability, gear—a long list of barriers to entry. Few people go for it. That’s part of why I love it.
Is this experience of a national park relevant to most potential park users? No. And so parks have worked mightily to make their offerings more accessible—to open up new doors into nature. The biggest, most popular national parks, like Yellowstone, are jammed with people. They are outfitted with wide, flat accessible paths. There are benches to sit on, interpretative signs to read, ice cream to eat, and trinkets to buy.
These parks drive me crazy. Not because they are doing something wrong. But because when it comes to national parks, I see myself as an insider. I’ve got my own key lodged in my heart. I feel protective of my idea of what a park should be. I feel entitled to it.
My insider entitlement is, of course, ridiculous. The existence of crowds and popcorn in 1% of our national parks does not limit my experience. I don’t need Yellowstone; I have hundreds of remote, gorgeous mountains to climb in my life. Even the vast majority of Yellowstone is wild and open. For the people who will never engage the way I do, the populated, built-up part of Yellowstone is a necessary, useful option. It may even inspire a few folks to increase their outdoor prowess and join me off the beaten path.
It’s a good thing that the national parks are working to be relevant to more people. This work helps protect wildlife and wild lands. It helps people connect to the land that sustains us. It helps establish the value of wilderness protection for everyone. National parks belong to everyone. The national parks do not solely, or even mostly, belong to me and my backpacking friends. They belong to all Americans. They belong to the millions in RVs who make the trek each summer. They are the great big public, and they deserve comfort and access.
I know all of this. And yet I walk into Yellowstone, see those paved paths, and my knee-jerk reaction is that they shouldn’t be there, that they “dumb it down,” that they distort the wilderness.
Who am I to say that access for people in wheelchairs is less important than my experience of the park as an entirely “natural” place? As an elite park user, I have plenty of resources at my disposal, from maps to rangers to well-maintained backcountry trails. The Yellowstone visitors, who account for a vastly larger percentage of park visitors, deserve great resources as well. I’m one of those protectionist insiders. I’m experiencing the karmic pain of the disruption of a fantasy version of the park I hold dear.
And so I look back on the thousands of people streaming by me in the Yellowstone parking lot with revulsion—as a jerk. But I also identify with them and look at them with hope and excitement. They are at the park. They didn’t have to be there, but they perceived the promise of value there and they came. They drove thousands of miles, and they deserve to roll along flat paths in their wheelchairs and strollers. They deserve ice cream with their geysers. They deserve their own doors in. And that’s not dumb at all.