A&L’s links tend toward the artsy or developed essay; over the weekend, however, it linked to a rant, Mark Morford‘s “American Kids, Dumber than Dirt”, subtitled “Warning: The Next Generation Might Just be the Biggest Pile of Idiots in U.S. History.”
It is, in short, nothing less than a tidal wave of dumb, with once-passionate, increasingly exasperated teachers like my friend nearly powerless to stop it. The worst part: It’s not the kids’ fault. They’re merely the victims of a horribly failed educational system.
Of course, a teacher at a school with open admissions is not likely to have consistently wonderful experiences. And my students have peculiar ideas about women’s roles and when slavery was abolished. Still, it is less that they have been politicized than that they haven’t realized that learning is, well, exciting. Their vocabularies are shrinking and that alarms me for all the reasons it did Orwell – they don’t have the tools to probe their own thinking deeply nor communicate their ideas with sufficient precision.
This leads us to thoughts of how we define intelligence and what we see as the goal of education. My friends and family tend to value words – we spend our lives working with them, probing our students for better ones, standing back in admiration at the phrasing of a great old document or the piercing beauty of a poetic image. Shannon and Foster, no mean writers themselves, see such emphasis as a precursor to tyranny; I think it can lessen the pragmatism real work in the real world encourages. And words can be spun without having to suffer consequences. There is much truth to their remarks – but I would argue we think as we do, in terms of the values they describe, in part because long ago those good with words captured some illuminating ideas and passed them on to us. Adam Smith has a way with images, for instance. There are words and there are words because there are ideas and there are ideas.
Of course, people with narrow abilities (and I must confess I’m one) tend to value and use them as proxies for both intelligence and morality. I’m pretty sure the relation between the three is random. But we tend to think that those who are like us share our same respect for others and respect for the law. (Which means, of course, that they also break the law and show little respect at precisely the same places we do.)
We all have a tendency toward our kind. But the ramifications of that seemed both understandable and detestable in the thinking of Justice Stevens which Eugene Volokh dissects after this lengthy quote from Rosen’s book:
[Justice Stevens] won a bronze star for his [World War II] service as a cryptographer, after he helped break the code that informed American officials that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the Japanese Navy and architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, was about to travel to the front. Based on the code-breaking of Stevens and others, U.S. pilots, on Roosevelt’s orders, shot down Yamamoto’s plane in April 1943.
Stevens told me he was troubled by the fact that Yamamoto, a highly intelligent officer who had lived in the United States and become friends with American officers, was shot down with so little apparent deliberation or humanitarian consideration. The experience, he said, raised questions in his mind about the fairness of the death penalty. “I was on the desk, on watch, when I got word that they had shot down Yamamoto in the Solomon Islands, and I remember thinking: This is a particular individual they went out to intercept,” he said. “There is a very different notion when you’re thinking about killing an individual, as opposed to killing a soldier in the line of fire.” Stevens said that, partly as a result of his World War II experience, he has tried on the court to narrow the category of offenders who are eligible for the death penalty and to ensure that it is imposed fairly and accurately. He has been the most outspoken critic of the death penalty on the current court
I was appalled; unfortunately, I understand what Volokh sees as Stevenson’s emotional response while accepting as a higher value Volokh’s more egalitarian values and broader context. Of course, “highly intelligent” and friends with army officers reminds us of the now somewhat infamous North Vietnamese spy (and our slowly dawning sense that that skirmish in the cold war was not exactly as the words that have described it have always held it to be). Indeed, if we aren’t appalled, I’m not sure how this nation state can protect its sovereignty. Stevens used the word “intelligent” as descriptive of an individual, a man not unlike me, an intelligent man. But we wonder, what about all those men people like Stevens not only didn’t see as individuals, but didn’t see as “intelligent” – undifferentiated masses of American soldiers, bombed at Pearl Harbor and dying slow and painful deaths even as Yamamoto’s boat moved across the sea? Is his fear that the death penalty is wrong or that it might be applied to someone like him? Who does he think he is? Who does he think the other is?
Morford’s rant is more superficial, but we note his tendency to see intelligence in speaking a certain jargon, playing with ideas in a certain way – conventions the academy rewards.
We are, as far as urban public education is concerned, essentially at rock bottom. We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults and society as a whole will pay dearly, very soon, and if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.
Of course, writing for SF Gate, he has a reason for this:
After all, the dumber the populace, the easier it is to rule and control and launch unwinnable wars and pass laws telling them that sex is bad and TV is good and God knows all, so just pipe down and eat your Taco Bell Double-Supremo Burrito and be glad we don’t arrest you for posting dirty pictures on your cute little blog.
One of our friends, a “red diaper” baby, has made that argument. I can only stare in disbelief – who the hell do they think is teaching those kids, who the hell do they think populates the teacher’s lounges and teacher’s colleges of America? Who the hell do they think comes up with the anti-intellectual, anti-commonsense, but quite politically correct theories that have plummeted reading scores in the last decades? Some religious conservatives may have trouble with evolution, some of their semi-crazed legion halted our local grade school’s annual Halloween fundraiser. But those people can only pick at the edges – they aren’t in charge. If they were, they wouldn’t be the ones taking their kids out to do home schooling or paying the tuition in a local Catholic school – so that “at least they can pray.” (That’s from one of my husband’s cranky colleagues who must often feel quite lonely in his department.)
This rant ascribes motivations to the right but the belief that capitalism wants a mindless populace seems not just elitist but stupid. What time warp are they in that they believe modern manufacturers are best served by automatons or service businesses by self-absorbed, illiterate clerks?
Given the monopolistic politics of America’s teacher’s colleges, this seems a bit disingenuous. But it is a lack of imagination, a lack of self-consciousness – indeed, a lack of intelligence. Because our accreditation now requires us to spell out certain teaching “goals”, committees have been rewording them to fit Bloom’s taxonomy. The exercise isn’t worth much energy, but I argued against the inclusion of “critical thinking” since many approvingly believe that is what Ward Churchill and not Ward Connerly indulge in.
One may be critical but it isn’t thinking – though it seems to be taken for that by some who listen. Perhaps that explains the left’s preference for bureaucracies over democracies; they want a bureaucrat’s knife to “surgically” correct the constitution, the bureaucrat’s stick to tax sin, the bureaucrat’s carrot to grant grants. In short, they like the EU system, where “correct” policies prevail over popular opinion.
If they did trust words and they did trust critical thinking, their positions would not water down education but tighten it. If they felt their arguments were strong, they’d welcome a skeptical audience, an audience with a large vocabulary and a broader context. If they really believed in the power of words, they would want to write with convincing beauty on Kos and develop reasoned, thoughtful, and persuasive speeches on Air America. They would believe in their own words – rather than worrying about smothering others.
Morford’s lack of self-consciousness should bother us – it hints such theories arise with no sense of responsibility and none of guilt. And sure, words can obscure, keep us from self-consciousness as well as help us reach it. Ethicists may not be more moral but more able to rationalize evil. When a linguist argues the best way to reframe arguments is to powerfully posit the ideal end, drowning out or ignoring discussion of the messy means, we understand not that he is evil or stupid but that he hasn’t learned from history, perhaps hasn’t been taught it.
But writers on the left suspect what we all know – eloquence comes easily when the ideas are beautiful and only then does a beautiful expression fit well; eloquence cannot hide bad ideas. Rather than face this, they do what we all do when faced with the uncomfortable – we blame others. They prefer to blame the audience, an audience that they have tried to prepare well but find themselves unable to convince. But indoctrination doesn’t reach student’s guts; it breeds cynicism about the truth of words, the utility of learning. Students seldom pick up books because their experience has been that they will be hectored instead of enlightened, insulted rather than empowered. In the end, they are hard to reach – and mostly I fail. Still, they can be reached – and better reached by the eloquence with which certain ideas naturally clothe themselves – ideas their experience teaches them to trust, teaches them are true.