As an old fan of Steve Allen, I clearly remember his clever comedy and excellent wit from which many of today’s hosts derive their ideas. This book shows a more serious side of Steve Allen who presents ways you can improve the quality of life in an easy to read manner, giving helpful examples. It’s a self help book that doesn’t read like a self help book. Although this book shows some of Steve’s biases and strong personal opinions, I believe this book deserves a top rating for his contribution to helping us understand ourselves better. Read it with an open mind. As for the biases, Steve has the courage to put in writing some of who he is, whether we like it or not. It’s an insight into the author as well.
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It is often said that comedy serves the same role in society today that the court jester used to play in courts of old — not just a person who helps to release tension and entertain, but also a prophetic voice, a truth-teller, someone who can deal with the unpleasantness of reality without becoming a threatening or problematic figure. Steve Allen definitely falls into the latter category — while there is no question that Allen’s talents in the entertainment field are considerable (he was the creator of the Tonight Show, which is still running, in addition to ‘intelligent’ shows such as ‘Meeting of the Minds’ for PBS), he brings an uncharacteristic intelligence to his productions (which includes more than 50 books, in addition the work in acting media).
Steve Allen coined the term ‘Dumbth’ for the earlier edition of this book. He speculates (in ways that might put professional educators to shame) on the level of ignorance and stupidity (not the same things) in society today. Allen was one of the originators of the ‘Man in the Street’ interview, asking such as questions as ‘Would you vote for an acknowledged heterosexual?’ and finding the most bizarre responses. Reality being twice as true but half as funny as most comedy, he highlights the difficulties children have with geography — not only could half a class of children in Miami not find London on the map (and they thought the Falklands were off the English Coast, that Quebec was in Alaska, etc.) but also that eight percent of these kids — in Miami, remember — could not find Miami on the map…
After recounting tale after harrowing tale, Allen does something few comedians (and alas, sometimes few educators) do, and that is to suggest solutions! His earlier text suggested 81; in republication, Allen came up with 20 more solutions, for 101 in all. Some are simple logical propositions, well known to logicians and others trained in analytical reasoning — beware of erroneous assumptions, drawing conclusions from insufficient evidence, etc. Others are more personal in nature — not falling in love with the first answer, not looking for the easiest answer, not giving in to prejudice or superstition. Once could easily make a calendar out of these 101 rules, as they are each but a page or two in length, yet contain wisdom beyond common sense.
Rule 75 is perhaps the most important one — it perhaps should be elevated to Rule 1 status. ‘Stop thinking you “don’t have time” to improve yourself.’ This is good advice, not just for figuring out reasoning and intelligence skills, but for almost everything; the wise person will understand that there is time for the important things, and the designation ‘important’ is truly up to us.
Allen’s warning in the final rule (be sceptical of the internet) as well as his concern about rationality and reason not being a cure-all (sometimes it is merely a placebo) deserve further treatment, alas, not from the great Allen himself, but perhaps some disciple shall. Allen states that sometimes the problem is not that people are not rational and reasonable, but rather too much so — that they take the processes and results to such extremes that it becomes difficult to deal with; often this leads to another kind of problem of reason, the most insidious and difficult kind to deal with — the problem of those who are correct.
An interesting text, a good and revealing trek through the state of current culture, done with humour and grace. This is not a text on logic, so don’t go into it expecting such. Allen wraps much of his personal life and experience into his narrative, so do expect that — Allen has lived an interesting life, and who among us hasn’t seen the truly stupid taking place around us daily?
Steve Allen’s thesis is sound and I agree very much with his idea that many Americans do not think as well as they could. He gives many good ideas about how to improve thinking in general, as well as discussing why it is important for everybody to continually learn throughout their lives and why children should be taught to think critically from an early age.
However, before you get to the 101 ways for improving your thinking, you must wade through chapters worth of Allen’s seemingly endless, elitist personal anecodes, which, if I hadnt agreed with his thesis from the start, would have made me drop the book very quickly. Not to give too much away, one of Allens points is to avoid bias – he then goes on to expose one his own biases – that the only good musicians were from the 1920′s, 30′s and 40′s and maybe from a few modern jazz musicians. He claims that modern music is a cause of some of the thinking malaise afflicting America right now as opposed to a symptom of it.I was very much annoyed by these double standards of the author. There are other annoying aspects of Allens writing but I wont go on.
Overall, I liked the 101 ways – if people just follow a few of them they would be more critical of the junk they encounter nowadays. If you can handle Allens writing this book could be very useful.