Ranting on a Rant

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.

Related posts:
Legal Theory & Its Children
An Emily Litella Moment

12 thoughts on “Ranting on a Rant”

  1. I don’t buy that “The Simpsons represent a typical American family thanks to capitalism” thing, which is what the end-idea of many of these “essays” is.

    Americans have managed to live, one way of another, with the best and the worst that a free market oriented economic system can offer, that is bad and good television, junk food, pop music, video games, etc. and most of these things have been there in America for generations and their education system has always adapted to these new trends. American schools and universities are using internet, podcasts, etc. as educational tools. I greatly admire this ability to adapt to rapid changes in society.

    But go to China, Brazil, Mexico, Italy, France, and many other nations, and you will find out that kids in these other countries are doing/reading/eating/listening to and watching exactly the same as USA kids: they want to play games, own ipods and listen to music and watch videos all the time, they want to eat junk food and the McDonalds, KFCs, Pizza Huts, are always full of people, same as in the U.S.A., and their movie theaters are always full of comedy movies, the same that American kids are exposed to. If foreigners do better in American universities, it’s not that Americans do worse; foreigners do better in Brazilian, Chinese and European universities I bet you, that’s human nature, a family makes a huge sacrifice to send their kid to study abroad and the kid understands the importance of that for his/her education.

    But is the population in the rest of the world prepared to deal with these “by-products” of a free market society?

    It is my perception that if you go to a McDonald’s in Europe it is not the same as if you go to one in the U.S.A., in the European McDonald´s the little girl or boy will seriously look at you and ask you “what do you want”, being nice and smiling to an stranger, a guy they’ve never seen in their lives is a difficult process for them, then go to a McDonald´s in the U.S.A and the girl or boy will have a big smile for you and be very nice to you through the whole transaction, it is not that they like to talk to strangers, it is the fact that American kids understand the importance of the customer in their society, and they manage to be good and demanding customers too. You could argue that McDonald´s provide training for these kids, they do, and it is the same in both continents, but European kids still have a hard time understanding the concept “customer”. So societies manage these trends differently.

    But while American parents and educators have learned to deal with the effects of these trends in the education of their kids, it is the rest of the world I am worried about, China, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, India, countries that arrived to this modern times and age unprepared, without infrastructure, with huge social problems and conflicts, with millions of people under-educated that now have to deal with a brutal exposure to TV, junk food, pop music, video games, etc. Parents in these countries are more concerned about poverty, debt and economic crisis than the future education of their kids and don’t understand the effects of these trends on their kids.

    These countries are the ones that are already leaders in Coca-cola consumption in the world. And junk food consumption is already growing enormously there and their educational system and teachers have to deal with an entire TV/junk food/pop music/video game addiction/ipod addiction/internet addiction/messenger-chat addiction and copy-and-paste generation that was barely beginning to learn to read when these free market “by-products” hit them.

  2. I can but speak specifically of my own daughter’s education in her frst year of public high school:
    she is taking Latin, and French, sociology,English math, music, biology and getting a sound education, with lots of help available if needed after school, and lots of writing assignments, carefully marked up when returned. She is learning and she loves what she is learning.

    suggestion: best quick fix on our schools? eliminate ALL colleges of Education and get teachers to teach subjects, and hire them at decent salaries.

  3. “…eliminate ALL colleges of Education …”

    If we had market competition in education, among the downstream consequences would be that the colleges of education would reform or die out on their own.

  4. There are plenty of problems with American education, but Morford is scarcely the person to tell us how to fix them.

    When he makes this analogy to testing… “It’s like weighing a calf twice a day, but never feeding it”…he ignores that fact that a substantial number of the “farmers” have been feeding the calves on sawdust and ground glass. One reason for the testing is to identify these people and get them to either change their ways or pursue careers in fields other than “agriculture.”

  5. Am I in Bizzaro World? Chicagoboyz is discussing a Mark Morford column. Mark. Morford. The man who judges people by how many buttplugs they own, and thinks we have wars ‘n stuff ’cause the Republicans can’t get their freak on.

    What next? Rosie O’Donnell gives a physics lecture? Ted Rall teaches the importance of good drawing and good taste?

    Of course, people with narrow abilities…tend to value and use them as proxies for both intelligence and morality.

    As concise an explanation of Morfordism as I’ve ever seen.

  6. 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;

    Speaking for myself, I don’t think it is working with words per se that presents the danger but rather the fact that people who work with words do not work with nature. We use words to manipulate and influence other humans beings. People who work with words succeed of fail in life based solely on their ability to somehow effect the minds of other human beings. This in turn fosters a subculture with behaviors, values and beliefs that focus on the manipulation of the behavior of humans as a the final solution to all problems. Worse, if the people who exert influence over their livelihood belong to the same subculture, then the wordsmith never receives any negative feedback at all. This allows them to create vast fantasy constructs, such as Marxism, which survive for generations.

    People who work close to nature do not have such a luxury. Self-agrrandizing self-delusion kills. No matter how eloquent the poet, he cannot beg the sun for mercy. A farmer cannot verbally cajole the grain to grow. An engineer cannot woo steel from brittleness. A broker cannot sing to the market to alter the price of stock. Behaviors, physical actions, must rapidly conform to the dictates of nature or they fail.

    Mark Morford’s delusional belief that capitalist seek an ignorant population rather goes to prove this point. Such a contention would produce derisive belly life’s among actual capitalist. For them, highly educated and highly skilled workers are money in the bank. Employers knife each other in the back trying to sign on the best and brightest employees. Private employers must spent billions every year investing in employee training and they burn much political capital trying to get the socialized education system to actually turn out skilled workers, Such a reality is readily apparent to anyone who has spent even the least amount of time in the private sector yet Morford can pen such an idiocy in a major publication of the articulate elite without provoking gales of laughter.

    People who lose contact with nature eventually lose contact with reality itself. They become mired in a shared dreamworld.

  7. Of course, it is when the words are disconnected from reality that they become silly and sometimes dangerous. When they are connected, however, they help us understand reality. That’s all I’m saying. Of course, I almost always agree with Foster and Shannon and do here. I’m just saying it is ironic that people who live by the word don’t trust it to make their arguments.

    My husband’s embrace of Darwinian literary criticism is understandable to me. We came to literature because we felt it helped us understand human nature: Pinker may be perceptive but Shakespeare and Faulkner have him beat. I think these theorists are likely to lead to a generation that is programmatic in their applications, but I don’t argue with him about this generation’s readings – they are generally solid and hearken back to the sense that literature is really about life and life is sometimes more understandable through literature. But, my husband always says he couldn’t go with post-modernism; he read the books but, well, he grew up on a farm. They just seemed silly. To him, life was quite real and continues to be so. These books were words unconnected to life as he knew it, meaning as he’d found it. We’ll see about the Darwinists, but I’m pretty sure he’s right about literature.

    I’d argue that when words are more closely connected to human nature, to our experience, to what we know with our guts, then we trust the words more because they are anchored. People like Morford don’t really trust them, they may use them but they know that their words aren’t connected to experience. (As we all noted immediately – capitalists don’t want idiots working for them, school teachers aren’t John Birchers, his whole perspective seems strangely skewed – and that was before I’d heard about the butt plugs. For give my naivete, but what the hell are they?)

  8. For give my naivete, but what the hell are they?

    Just about what you’d think — a sex toy for those who are into that sort of thing. To be fair, I believe Morford values the quality (whatever that may mean) as well as the quantity.

    Seriously, Morford has written before of his belief that the war on terror (aside from being capitalism’s natural reaction to the Little Brown Other) is due to the fact that Bush et al were sexually inhibited, and therefore must act out their frustration on the world. No, really.

    I wrote about previous Morford columns here, and here. The latter contains the special bonus phrase, “[Rumsfeld’s] black eyes gleaming like the devil’s own golf balls.” That’s Morford’s, not mine. I wouldn’t touch that with a stick.

    You will see this Morford has not improved with time.

    Employers knife each other in the back trying to sign on the best and brightest employees.

    Wow, it must be nice to be one of them.

  9. Since I’m not acquainted with this Morford, (a plus for me, judging by the comments regarding his competence), I think my reaction to this essay took a different turn.

    A big part of the leftist mythology is how highly intelligient and better educated they are than the hicks in the non-leftist community. Now, here is a leftist commentator alleging that the coming generation, schooled in an educational system dominated by leftism, political correctness, multi-cultural ideology, race and gender sensitivity, and teachers’ organizations that are little more than wholly owned subsidiarys of the liberal political party, are dumber than dirt.

    What this complaint screams out to me is that this writer clearly believes that the up and coming generation has opted out of the leftist camp.

    If they were 1960’s-style activists, and committed as a generation to the mythical counter-culture that caused such turmoil in the West, and spawned much of the current educational and cultural leadership, does anyone imagine Morford would find them to be dumb and uneducated?

    What he has realized, either from contact or polls or other analysts or some combination of those sources and more, is that the massive attempt by the left to mold the youth of the country into acolytes in the anti-capitalist, anti-western, anti-technology, anti-traditional culture, anti-military ideological warrior army has failed on a scale every bit as massive as the campaign was to begin with.

    Of course these kids are dumb, stupid, and uneducated. They have rejected many of the fundamental pillars of leftism. I wouldn’t be at all surprised that most of the rejection was fueled by the unrelenting attempts of the “educational community” to stuff it down their throats in every conceivable fashion they could devise from pre-school to grad school.

    And, no doubt, there are those that have inculcated the amorphous half-thoughts and floating assumptions that underly most of leftist ideology. But the repeated polls and surveys I have read about for years tell the story of youngsters who dislike politics, want to have traditional careers, families, and lifestyles, and are much more patriotic and religious than the educational community that they have been enduring since childhood.

    The next time you read about some big protest “event” that has more organizers and staff people than protesters, and there have been quite a few over the past several years, remember this caustic little essay condemning those very stupid youngsters for being too dumb to get out there on the barricades and do their duty to topple the evils of capitalism, consumerism, and technology.

    It’s either that whining allegation, or admit that the youth of the country would rather be out there getting a good job, buying stuff, and trying out the latest computers and video games.

    “They’re too dumb to know we’re still the “wave of the future” sounds more like panic than anything else.

  10. Ginny…”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 also value words, and certainly do not mean to denigrate the importance of words or of those who work toward excellence in their use. I did want to point out a temptation which I think is particularly strong among word-people, and probably grows exponentially to the extent that word-people live in environments composed primarily of other word-people.

    Indeed, I think the written word is of great importance in a world increasingly dominated by images of one kind or another. In his strange little book “In the beginning was the command line,” Neal Stephenson distinguishes between “textual” and “sensory” interfaces/metaphors and shows how the latter can influence people’s belief systems without them really understanding what is happening. (Marshall McLuhan also had interesting, if overdrawn, ideas on this subject.) This is a topic I hope to write about in the future.

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