On Stupidity

By Edward Hughes,2014-01-29 02:45
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On StupidityOn,on,ON

    Retrieved September 29, 2008, from


    On Stupidity

    A cartload of recent books suggests that its time to reverse the customer-service

    mentality plaguing academe


    No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,

    said H.L. Mencken in the era of Babbitt and the Scopes monkey trial. Several

    generations later, one might speculate that no publisher has ever lost money with a 8 book accusing Americans particularly young ones of being stupid.

    The most influential book in that genre is surely Richard Hofstadters Anti-

    Intellectualism in American Life (1963), in which he argues that the American dislike

    for educational elitism derives from a number of interlocking cultural legacies, 12 including religious fundamentalism, populism, the privileging of "common sense"

    over esoteric knowledge, the pragmatic values of business and science, and the cult of

    the self-made man. With some cyclical variation, Americans tend to distrust, resent,

    and even feel moral revulsion toward "intellectuals."

    16 As an English professor, I can attest to the power of that element in American culture,

    as can just about anyone in any academic field without direct, practical applications.

    When a stranger asks me what I do, I usually just say, Im a teacher. The

    unfortunate follow-up remarks usually about political bias in the classroom and

    sham apologies for their poor grammar meant to imply that I am a snob 20 usually

    make me wish I had said, I sell hydraulic couplers, an answer more likely to

    produce hums of respectful incomprehension.

    If the situation was bad in Hofstadters time, its grown steadily worse over the past

    24 40 years. The anti-intellectual legacy he described has often been used by the political

    right since at least the McCarthy era to label any complication of the usual

    pieties of patriotism, religion, and capitalism as subversive, dangerous, and un-

    American. And, one might add, the left has its own mirror-image dogmas. 28 Now, in the post-9/11 era, American anti-intellectualism has grown more powerful,

    pervasive, and dangerous than at any time in our history, and we have a duty

    particularly as educators to foster intelligence as a moral obligation.

    Or at least that is the urgent selling point of a cartload of books published in the past 32 several months.

    For academics on the political left, the last eight years represent the sleep of reason

    producing the monsters of our time: suburban McMansions, gas-guzzling Hummers,

    pop evangelicalism, the triple-bacon cheeseburger, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-

    36 Grader?, creation science, waterboarding, environmental apocalypse, Miley Cyrus,

    and the Iraq War all presided over by that twice-elected, self-satisfied, inarticulate

    avatar of American incuriosity and hubris: he who shall not be named.


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    The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric From George

    Washington to George W. Bush (2008), by Elvin T. Lim, examines speeches and 40

    public papers noting shortened sentences, simplified diction, the proliferation of

    platitudes to show a pattern of increased pandering to the lowest common

    intellectual denominator, combined with a mockery of complexity and analysis. 44 Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter (2008), by

    Richard Shenkman, argues that the dumbing down of our political culture is linked to

    the decline of organized labor and local party politics, which kept members informed

    on matters of substance. Building on arguments put forward in books such as Whats

    48 the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004), by

    Thomas Frank, Shenkman shows how the political right has been able to don the

    populist mantle even as it pursues policies that thwart the economic and social

    interests of the average voter.

    52 Meanwhile, the political left is unable to argue that those average Americans are in

    some way responsible for their own exploitation because they are too shallow and

    misinformed too stupid to recognize their own interests. One of Shenkman's

    solutions is to require voters to pass a civics exam.

    56 Former Vice President Al Gore obviously has a dog in this hunt, and his book The

    Assault on Reason (2007) argues that the fundamental principles of American

    freedom descended from the Enlightenment are being corrupted by the politics

    of fear, the abuse of faith, the power of an increasingly centralized media culture, and 60 degradation of political checks and balances favoring an imperial presidency. The

    results of that perfect storm include the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the continuing

    threat of global warming, the squandering of respect and sympathy for the United

    States after 9/11, and the nation's dependence on foreign oil. Most notably, Gore 64 argues that the democratization of information and the community-building power of

    the Internet can play important roles in the creation of a well-connected citizenry

    and the restoration of a rational democracy.

    Nevertheless, several books with an emphasis on education and the young argue

    68 that it is precisely the point-and-click culture of the Internet that is damaging our

    intelligence and our civic culture.

    Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World (2008), by Naomi S. Baron,

    shows how the proliferation of electronic communication has impaired students' 72 ability to write formal prose; moreover, it discourages direct communication, leading

    to isolation, self-absorption, and damaged relationships. Worst of all, the prevalence

    of multi-tasking of always being partly distracted, doing several things at once

    has diminished the quality of our thought, reflection, self-expression, and even, 76 surprisingly, our productivity. Baron's solution is to turn off the distractions and focus

    on the task and people at hand. Her conclusions are largely affirmed by Nicholas

    Carrs cover story in the July/August 2008 issue of The Atlantic: Is Google Making

    Us Stoopid? which prompted a recent dialogue in The Chronicle (Your Brain on

    Google, July 11). 80

    Carr, author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google (2008),

    argues that daily use of the Internet may be rewiring our brains for skimming rather


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    than for the sustained concentration that is required for reading books, listening to

    lectures, and writing long essays. Obviously, such rewiring is going to have the 84

    biggest impact on the rising generation appearing in our college classrooms: the

    "digital natives."

    The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and 88 Jeopardizes Our Future (2008), by Mark Bauerlein, provides alarming statistical

    support for the suspicion widespread among professors (including me) that

    young Americans are arriving at college with diminished verbal skills, an impaired

    work ethic, an inability to concentrate, and a lack of knowledge even as more and 92 more money is spent on education. It seems that our students are dumb and ignorant,

    but their self-esteem is high so they are impervious or hostile to criticism.

    Approaching his subject from the right, Bauerlein mentions the usual suspects

    popular culture, pandering by educators, the culture war, etc. but also reserves

    96 special attention for the digital technologies, which, for all their promise, have only

    more deeply immersed students in the peer obsessions of entertainment and fashion

    rather than encouraging more mature and sustained thought about politics, history,

    science, and the arts. For Bauerlein, the future of American democracy looks dim

    100 unless we can counter the youth culture with respect for the knowledge of those over


    The most wide-ranging cultural study extending Hofstadters analysis up to the

    present is Susan Jacobys The Age of American Unreason (2008), in which she

    104 argues that American anti-intellectualism has reached unprecedented heights thanks to

    the converging influences of junk science, fundamentalism, celebrity-obsessed media,

    identity politics, urban-gang culture, political correctness, declining academic

    standards, moral relativism, political pandering, and the weakening of investigative 108 journalism, among other factors. Jacoby also supports the view that technology has

    damaged our ability to focus and think deeply. Her vision of the future is a nation that

    is unprepared for the global challenges we face.

    As someone involved in education, I take the concerns of all of those writers quite 112 seriously: The abilities and attitudes of students affect my life on a daily basis. It is

    my job, as I see it, to combat ignorance and foster the skills and knowledge needed to

    produce intelligent, ethical, and productive citizens. I see too many students who are:

    ; Primarily focused on their own emotions on the primacy of their

    116 feelings rather than on analysis supported by evidence.

    ; Uncertain what constitutes reliable evidence, thus tending to use the most

    easily found sources uncritically.

    ; Convinced that no opinion is worth more than another: All views are equal. 120 ; Uncertain about academic honesty and what constitutes plagiarism. (I recently

    had a student defend herself by claiming that her paper was more than 50

    percent original, so she should receive that much credit, at least.)

    ; Unable to follow or make a sustained argument.

    124 ; Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills


    ; Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are

    vaguely understood.


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    128 ; Increasingly interested in the social and athletic above the academic, while

    “needing” to receive very high grades.

    ; Not really embarrassed at their lack of knowledge and skills.

    ; Certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the 132 student.

    About half of the concerns Ive listed punctuation, plagiarism, argumentation,

    evaluation of evidence can be effectively addressed in the classroom. But the other

    half make it increasingly difficult to do so without considerable institutional support: 136 small classes, high standards, and full-time faculty members who are backed by the


    More than anything else, I see the group of books I've listed here as supporting the

    redirection of resources into the classroom, rather than into amenities and 140 administrative bloat. We need to reverse the customer-service mentality that goes

    hand-in-hand with the transformation of most college teaching into a part-time,

    transient occupation and the absence of any reliable assessment of course outcomes

    besides student evaluations.

    144 On the other hand, I am not so pessimistic about the abilities of the "digital natives."

    Different generations have different ways of knowing different configurations of

    multiple intelligences. Pick your era and your subject: How many of us know

    anything about farming anymore or how to read the changing of the seasons? How 148 many of us know how to repair an automobile or make a cake from scratch?

    Of course, we lament that the skills we have acquired at great pains can become lost

    to the next generation, but we can hardly reverse all of it. And it may be that the

    young are better adapted to what is coming than we are.

    152 We can be student-centered and respond to their ways of viewing the world, but at the

    same time it seems reasonable to expect that students also become faculty-centered.

    Students must learn, as we do, to speak across generational lines and gradually

    abandon the notion of a world constructed purely around them.

    156 While I share many of these authors concerns about the pathologies nurtured by new

    technologies, I have to agree with Gore's position that technology must play a

    prominent role in this continuing intergenerational negotiation. There are,

    undoubtedly, major changes taking place in the culture and psychology of the young, 160 with serious consequences for everyone. And there are many steps that individual

    educators can take to deal with those changes.

    But that's a subject for next months column. (below ; )

164 On Stupidity, Part 2

    Exactly how should we teach the digital natives


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    Last month I reviewed a collection of recent books (The Chronicle, August 1) arguing

    168 that Americans, particularly those now entering college, have been rendered “stupid”

    by a convergence of factors including traditional anti-intellectualism, consumer

    culture, the entertainment industry, political correctness, religious fundamentalism,

    and postmodern relativism, just to name some of the usual suspects. Of course the 172 anticipated consequences of the stupidity crisis seem dire enough the end of

    democracy, the economic decline of the United States, the extinction of humanity as

    we know it that one feels compelled to register opposition to the "Age of

    Unreason" by buying a few books.

    176 I bought seven of them. And I am convinced as if I ever doubted it that, over the

    past several decades, we have become less knowledgeable, more apathetic, more

    reliant on others to think for us, more susceptible to simple answers, and more easily


    180 Nevertheless, I am still suspicious of studies that proclaim the inferiority of the rising

    generation. We've all been the young whippersnappers at some point, frightening our

    elders, and many of us are, no doubt, destined to become grumpy old nostalgics in

    turn. As a teacher, I would prefer to think my students are the ones with the most 184 promise; they are attuned to what is happening in the culture, even if they still have

    much to learn.

    I noted in last month's column that several of the books on stupidity blame the rise of

    digital technologies video games, iPods, the Internet for the intellectual

    188 degradation of the young. The culture of multitasking and Internet surfing has

    apparently damaged their ability to concentrate; nurtured superficiality, self-

    absorption, and social isolation; and created a generation of young people who are

    always plugged in, constantly busy, yet seem remarkably uninformed and 192 unproductive.

    I went on to affirm some of those claims with my own observations. My interests, as

    an English professor who grades at least 1,000 essays every year, tend to focus on the

    skills involved in that kind of work (I know relatively little about whats happening in

    196 math and science).

    Essentially I see students having difficulty following or making extended analytical

    arguments. In particular, they tend to use easily obtained, superficial, and unreliable

    online sources as a way of satisfying minimal requirements for citations rather than 200 seeking more authoritative sources in the library and online. Without much evidence

    at their disposal, they tend to fall back on their feelings, which are personal and, they

    think, beyond questioning. In that context, professors are seen as peevish bureaucrats

    from whom students need to extract high grades on the road to a career in which 204 problems with writing and critical analysis will somehow not matter.

    Some observers, such as Marc Prensky, who wrote Dont Bother Me Mom, Im

    Learning!, argue that students brains have been physically rewired by digital

    technologies, and that our task is to teach students to work with that wiring rather than


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    208 to continue traditional teaching methods that are no longer relevant


    In some respects, I agree with Prensky: Teachers do need to be mindful of

    generational changes. But todays students must also learn just as we all did

    212 how to adapt to generations that came before them, since, except in school, there are

    usually more people outside of one's generation than in it. Age differences may be the

    most underrated form of diversity in education.

    One of the consequences of K-12 schooling (and of college, to a lesser extent) is the 216 creation of a narrow peer group. That segregation by age impairs the ability of young

    people to relate to anyone outside their cohort, as anyone with teenage children or

    first-year college students knows all too well.

    One of the purposes of teaching, as I see it, is to negotiate the differences, real and 220 imagined, between generations. At the moment, that means meeting the digital

    natives where they are, but it also means expecting them to meet the digital

    immigrants the people who were not raised in front of personal computers

    where we are.

    224 As teachers, we need to build upon students strengths, but we should also train them

    against the grain of their experiences.

    Moreover, since the brains of our students are hardly identical (the notion of a unified

    generational culture is always oversimplified), it seems more effective to use a variety 228 of teaching methods all at once the same way it is better to eat a balanced diet than

    to subsist entirely on Grape-Nuts and bananas.

    So what does that mean in practical terms? What does one do in the classroom?

    For me, it still means embracing the traditional essay:

    232 ; Expecting evidence and examples with correct citations.

    ; Teaching academic honesty and enforcing the rules fairly and rigorously.

    ; Getting students into the library and getting real books into their hands.

    ; Teaching them how to evaluate the credibility of sources: why Wikipedia, 236 though useful, is less reliable than, say, the Dictionary of American Biography.

    ; Grading essays carefully, giving attention to the details of grammar and

    punctuation, as well as showing students when some rules can be artfully


    240 ; Emphasizing writing as a painstaking process that involves revision and re-

    evaluation in conversation with other people.

    ; Making a case for why reading, writing, and the liberal arts are vital to success

    in every field.

    244 Beyond writing exercises, effective teaching requires embodying the joy of

    learning particularly through lectures and spirited discussions that made us

    become professors in the first place. Its extremely hard, but teachers have been doing

    it for generations. For example, I have continued to lecture in many of my courses, 248 but I have gradually learned to make lectures more stimulating and interactive by


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    weaving together multiple threads of analysis using images, video, audio, artifacts,

    and readings and asking the students to perform those readings. The lectures are

    designed to make a sustained argument, but they also have multiple points of entry, so

    that students are not lost after a momentary lapse of attention. Added to that are 252

     in which concentration can slacken for a few minutes, as concepts intervals of rest

    are considered and discussed before the harder analysis is resumed.

    Such lectures have to be carefully prepared, but they are also spontaneous, and always 256 open to interaction, because thats what enables students to make connections on their

    own. Sometimes a student will rush up to the computer terminal and make those

    connections using a video clip from YouTube or by instantly locating a quote from a

    relevant text. That's the kind of engagement and excitement that leads to good essays, 260 in which they make their own discoveries rather than simply repeat what they think I

    want to hear. Its a kind of magic act that works best when a student pulls the rabbit

    out of the hat. I know there are educators who strongly oppose the use of the lecture.

    Chalk and talk, they call it, and insist upon group work. And I respect that view, 264 particularly since it has nearly banished the dry, droning professor, reading from

    yellowed notes. But the taboo against lecturing sometimes impairs the freedom of

    teachers to experiment with a traditional method in a way that can both respond to the

    skills of the digital natives such as interconnectivity and intuition while

    268 training them in the use of evidence and rational argumentation.

    One of the most effective things Ive done is use course-management software, such

    as Moodle, to create courses that are no longer confined to four hours a week in a

    classroom. We use class time for the most intense, live interactions, but

    272 conversations and new materials appear continually between classes, keeping all of us

    engaged as much as possible for the duration of the semester.

    Such hybridized courses, live and online, create the habit of thinking and making

    connections all the time rather than simply showing up and fulfilling requirements. 276 If digital technologies are a contributing factor to stupidity, then they are also part of

    the solution. As Al Gore observes in his book The Assault on Reason, the future of

    communication and an informed citizenry will depend increasingly on the Internet

    rather than on television or the print media.

    280 That doesnt mean we should stop teaching the traditional essay and research paper,

    but it does mean we need to teach students to work in other genres, such as writing for

    blogs and wikis, creating podcasts and PowerPoint presentations, and participating in

    social-networking sites. They need to be comfortable in a variety of online 284 environments, understand Web etiquette, know how to protect their privacy and

    respect the privacy of others, and learn how to evaluate various sources of information.

    But such teaching requires a lot of time. It means being constantly available,

    developing intricate presentations, coming to class early to set things up, and staying 288 afterward for conversations. It requires giving students careful feedback on writing

    assignments and rarely using multiple-choice and short-answer exams. And it requires

    looking for new ways to enhance learning rather than relying exclusively on what we

    already know.


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    292 As a tenured professor though a somewhat harried one, at times I have the

    institutional support to respond to the changing needs of our students. I have the

    freedom to learn from my mistakes and adapt to the changing qualities of our students.

    I also have colleagues with whom I can discuss teaching strategies and the place of 296 my courses in the overall curriculum. I can challenge students and enforce academic

    honesty because I will not be fired (or “not renewed) for displeasing a “customer”

    and using administrative time to enforce standards.

    How much harder is it for the legions of dedicated but disposable part-timers with 300 large classes on multiple campuses the majority of college instructors today

    who are charged with teaching the foundational skills that the "digital natives" are

    thought to be most conspicuously lacking?

    If digital technologies are a cause of "stupidity," it is because we have spent freely on 304 computers among other things without also giving comparable support to

    college teachers. The students have been left to negotiate a cultural paradigm shift,

    comparable to the print and industrial revolutions, with inadequate support from the

    institutions created to help them.

    308 And that strikes me as unambiguously stupid.

    Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of

    English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. He welcomes mail directed to his

    attention at For an archive of his previous columns, see 312


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