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The Apotheosis of Stupid

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So I was thinking about one of the most persistent symptoms of American anti-ontellectualism, except that it isn’t specifically American. Robert wrote me at one point complaining that an Ivy League degree doesn’t guarantee that somebody is smart–fair enough.  Nothing guarantees that somebody is smart–and wanting to know how many of the people I knew with such degress could balance a checkbook or organize a meeting.

We were in the middle of an extended coversation on another top entirely, so my answer skirted the question, but let me answer it here:  I’m willing to bet everything I own that the percentage of people with such degrees who cannot balance their checkbooks is far lower than the percentage of people without them who are so handicapped.

In fact, whenever they do a study of this kind of thing, it turns out that the stereotypes about highly educated people–that they’re impractical and can’t take care of themselves; that they’re socially awkward; and on and on–are, on any statistical measure, utterly false.

Highly educated people are more likely to be married and to stay married than people with less educaion.  They’re more likely to be healthy.  They’re less likely to be obese.  They smoke less, drink less, and take fewer drugs.  They’r less likely to go to jail, drive intoxicated, drive at unsafe speeds, or die in hundreds of different ways.  They’re more likely to vote, more likely to volunteer in their communities, and less likely to be deadbeat on their child support paymehts, assuming they get divorced to begin with.

And most of us can see that in the world around us.  Yes, of course, as John pointed out, those people are also less likely to be able to fix their plumbing or their carburetors, but then there’s been very little call for them to learn.  The underlying assumption of such statements–that highly educated people couldn’t learn to do such things even if they tried–has no empirical foundation that I know of.

The question for me is this–WHY have so many people, over so many centuries, persisted in promoting this stereotype, and why has it become nearly the mantra of the present-day Republican Party?

Maybe I should add “up to last week” to that last thing, since the op ed columns and the magazines seem to be full of people bemoaning the latter-day Republican romance with stupidity.

To say that somebody is both highly intelligent and highly educated and that those two things are good, admirable and to be desired is not the same thing as saying that anybody who doesn’t have them is less of a human being.  Like I said at the beginning of this blog, we don’t make the same assumption when we talk about some people who are more talented and better trained at basketball than the rest of us.

When I say that most people couldn’t play like Michael Jordan in his prime because they weren’t born with the talent and they weren’t trained to use it well does not make anybody think I am saying that anybody who can’t play like Jordan is less of a person, or to be looked down on. 

Human talent is variable in all things.  What is it about this thing that makes so many people think it’s an awll-or-nothing proposition–as soon as we admit that some people are smarter than others, we must also be saying that some people are better than others?

Here’s another piece of the Deweyan take on education that a lot of anti-Dewey crusaders have swallowed hook, line and sinker:  the idea that “equality” demands that we all be the same intellectually, if in no other way.  And yet most of us can easily see this isn’t true.  Spend some time around random groups of two year olds, and in no time at all you’ll find one or two standing out for their ability to solve problems, follow trains of thought, and understand inferences than the others. 

I have no idea how I learned to read.  Nobody taught me, but I do know that I could do it–actually do it, on material I had never seen before–when I was no more than two years and eleven months old.  My younger son started around the same age, without any help or training for me.  How?  I’ve got no idea.  It just happened.  One day I, and he, could just do it.

Thad boy who was the first I ever went out with could do it at about that age, too, and on top of that he could do math.  Nobody taught him.  Teachers would demand he “show all work!” and he’d just be confused.  He hadn’t done any work.  He’d just looked at the problem and, you know, it was obvious.

It took a lot more to teach me mathematics.  It took infinitely more to teach even basic arithmatic to a boy in our class named Jimmy, who took up great gobs of the teacher’s time having things explained to him, onjly to have to take up great gobs the next day having it explained again.

There’s absolutely wrong with any of that.  It doesn’t mean that Jimmy is or was a worse person than me.  It doesn’t even guarantee that one of us will be “successful” and the other will not.

But the stereotype, that “such a genius he can’t even tie his shoelaces” nonsense, has definite negative effects across the culture.  Forget Sarah Palin for the moment.  We’ve raised generation after generation of kids whose biggest nightmare is to wake up one morning and find that they’re “smart.”  After all, what is a “smart” kid?  One of those nerds.  One of those people nobody else likes.

I think we’re losing a significant amount of talent due to people who deliberately opt for stupidity and ignorance.   We’re creating an ever-widening pool of people who are not just going to be skeptical of pronouncements coming out of Harvard and Yale–which makes sense, we should all be skeptical about most everything–but who stubbornly hold to the idea that “it’s all just opinion”–not only whether or not you like Devil Dogs but whether vaccines work and two plus two can equal five.

What’s worst, for me, is that we’re creating legions of “readers” like the one I mentioned in my last post, readers who want books to provide them with passive, untaxing “entertainment,” who do no see any obligation to learn to read in the widest sense, because they think the author’s job is to make sure they can “relax” and “destress” from their everyday lives. 

That isn’t reading, that’s television, and it seems to me we already have a couple of hundred channels on the cable box.  We don’t need ersatz in paperback.

It’s this kind of thing–this attitude to intelligence, and education, and reading–that is the only thing I can think of to explain the success of The Da Vinci Code..

It’s not just that Dan Brown got a few things wrong.  Writers get things wrong every now and then, and it’s no big deal, even if it’s annoying.

The problem is that Dan Brown got nearly everything wrong:  the entire European Middle Ages, the history of the Crusades, the Merovingian dynasty, the streets of modern day Paris–I made it to page twenty-six of the paperback edition before I had to stop, because I’d already made so many notes in the margins that I’d drained the ink dry on one of my red pens.

When The Da Vinci Code came up for discussion on RAM, one of the posters insisted that he just didn’t care if all the history (and even the modern geography) were wrong, it was “a good story” and he loved it. 

I tried to explain why it wasn’t a good story for me, why “getting things wrong” pulls me right outside the narrative and starts me nattering in my head trying to correct the mistakes, and the response I got was basically that I was being a snob and I had no right to tell him what he should like.

But I wasn’t telling him what he should like.  I am a long time devotee of stupid and brainless entertainment.  I own a copy of Dude, Where’s My Car?  I’ve got no problem with people who create alternative universes where Hitler won WWII or Napoleon discovered the foutain of youth and is secretly living in a Motel 6 in Marietta, Georgia.

Okay, I also own a copy of Bubbahotep.

I do think, however, that this particular attitude is not only annoying, but that it is making us stupider.  It is creating a world where stupidity increases.  And by stupidity, now, I’m talking about the choice to be ignorant, uninformed and laregely brain dead.

But, you know, it may be that I’ve beaten this horse to death.

And tomorrow I ought to talk about high schools.

Or something.

Written by janeh

November 10th, 2008 at 10:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'The Apotheosis of Stupid'

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  1. Can’t argue the basic point. After WWII, the Army made a real effort to identify the best soldiers of each branch and their backgrounds, thinking in the future to channel recruits to the “right ” branch. It didn’t get very far because on average the best tankers, gunners, riflemen and what have you were ALL above average intelligence, high school diploma with some college and good mechanical skills.

    I think part of the touchiness about intelligence is that the big brain is pretty much the definition of human. There’s a reason I get to vote while my distant baboon cousins can’t leave the zoo, and it’s not my omnivore’s teeth.

    But it slides over into politics when education or intelligence becomes a surrogate for class, or when a set of schools become identified with a particular political program.

    And the legend of the clueless intellectual is perpetuated by people who feel their intelligence or education takes precedence over experience, study or specialized skills. A Second Lieutenant with a compass is a legendary terror not because the young officer isn’t educated and often intelligent, but because he’s even more ignorant and arrogant.

    As Jane says, “intelligent” isn’t “moral” and intelligence certainly isn’t the same as character.


    10 Nov 08 at 7:38 pm

  2. “But it slides over into politics when education or intelligence becomes a surrogate for class”

    That seems almost inevitable. We like to think our societies are classless, or at least have lots and lots of class mobility, and yet we say things like ‘there’s no point in teaching academic subjects to because they would be set up for failure/ can’t handle it/ would never need it etc. In a particularly poisonous form, it’s ‘Well, their culture doesn’t value education, and you have to respect their culture’.

    I really can’t see that class is the entire explanation, though. At one point, it was considered extremely valuable to have someone in a small rural community with book learning – and consequently the skills needed to deal with outsiders. And I’ve known anecdotally of nearly identical small rural towns – same ethnic and cultural background, same economic situation – but in one the parents lobby hard for improvements to the local school and send their kids off to become teachers, nurses, clergy or even sometimes doctors. And a few miles down the road, the parents grumbled about keeping the kids in school until the official minimum leaving age. I don’t understand why there was such a difference. I doubt there still is; there have been a lot of economic changes since I noticed that, and rural small towns are dying fast.


    10 Nov 08 at 10:19 pm

  3. I’ve never been in the military (since I’m deaf) but Robert’s comment on Second Lieutenants strikes a chord. I’ve also heard the legend that one job of Sergents is to train 2nd Lieutenants.

    When I was a grad student, our lab had a well equipped machine shop with about 10 men working in it. I was told “Don’t call them machinists, they are tool and die makers!”

    And my research adviser sent me down there to learn a bit about using a lathe and milling machines. I was never very good at it but I did learn to respect the men who could turn a drawing into a piece of machinery. And I learned to respect the elecrticians and lab techs who kept everything working! Perhaps the most important lesson in my education.


    10 Nov 08 at 11:42 pm

  4. I’m not so sure that “ordinary” people’s attitudes and their complaints against the so-called “intellectual elites” are based on anti-intellectualism as such or on a conscious rejection of knowledge for its own sake. I think that it’s more a rejection of the arrogant bossiness and condescension of that part of the elite who fill the op-ed pages of the media with their contempt for such ordinary people and their values. And, perhaps, a refection of the institutions that perpetuate those elitist attitudes.


    11 Nov 08 at 1:18 am

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