Monday, September 27, 2010

Duh, No — Double-Duh!!!

Slightly more than two years ago, this blog featured an essay entitled, "On Stupidity" and — true to form — this blogger failed to note that the essay was Part 1 of 2. So, in the time-honored tradition of better-late-than-never, here are both essays about the tsunami of stupidity that threatens to engulf us. In the Age of Teabaggers, a double-dip analysis of the malaise of our time is anything but redundant. If this is a (fair & balanced) attack on our national asininity, so be it.

[Vannevar Bush Hyperlink — Bracketed NumbersDirectory]
[1] "On Stupidity, Part 1" — August 1, 2008
[2] "On Stupidity, Part 2" — September 5, 2008

Hold The Phones! This Just In (9/27/10, 5:30 PM CDT):

[x Pearls Before Swine]
"Rat's Public Service"
By Stephan Pastis

Click on image to enlarge. Ω

[Stephan Pastis is a native of San Marino, CA and attended the University of California at Berkeley, earning a B.A. in Political Science in 1989, followed by a J.D. from the UCLA School of Law. From 1993-2002, Pastis worked as a litigation attorney in the San Francisco Bay area. At this time he also tried to fulfill his childhood ambition of becoming a syndicated cartoonist by submitting different concepts to syndication agencies. "The Infirm," "Rat," and "Bradbury Road" were rejected, but "Pearls Before Swine" was accepted by United Features in 1999. It started publication on December 31, 2001, and Pastis left his day job in August 2002. His latest book is 50,000,000 Pearls Fans Can't Be Wrong: A Pearls Before Swine Collection (2010).]

Copyright © 2010 Stephan Pastis

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On Stupidity
By Thomas H. Benton

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"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 book accusing Americans — particularly young ones — of being stupid.

The most influential book in that genre is surely Richard Hofstadter's 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, 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."

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, "I'm 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 — 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 Hofstadter's time, it's grown steadily worse over the past 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.

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 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-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.

The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric From George Washington to George W. Bush (2008), by Elvin T. Lim, examines speeches and 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.

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 What's 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.

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.

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 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 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 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' 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, 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 Carr's 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, 2008).

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 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 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 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 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 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" unless we can counter the youth culture with respect for the knowledge of those over 30.

The most wide-ranging cultural study — extending Hofstadter's analysis up to the present — is Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason (2008), in which she 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 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 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 "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.

  • 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.

  • Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills matter).

  • Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.

  • 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 student.

About half of the concerns I've 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: small classes, high standards, and full-time faculty members who are backed by the administration.

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 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.

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 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.

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.

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, 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 month's column. [Wake up, blogger!]

[Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholars Program in the Arts and Humanities at Hope College in Holland, MI. Pannapacker is the author of Revised Lives: Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Authorship (2003), and he is currently preparing two books, Walt Whitman's Cities and The Legacy of the Rural Cemetery Movement in America. Pannapacker earned a B.A. in English at St. Joseph's University, an M.A. in English at Miami University, and a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University.]

Copyright © 2008 The Chronicle of Higher Education
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On Stupidity, Part 2
By Thomas H. Benton

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Last month I reviewed a collection of recent books (The Chronicle, August 1, 2008) arguing 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 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.

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 exploited.

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 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 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 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 what's happening in 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 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 problems with writing and critical analysis will somehow not matter.

Some observers, such as Marc Prensky, who wrote Don't Bother Me Mom, I'm 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 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 today's students must also learn — just as we all did — 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 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 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.

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 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:

  • 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, 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 broken.

  • 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.

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. It's extremely hard, but teachers have been doing it for generations.

For example, I have continued to lecture in many of my courses, but I have gradually learned to make lectures more stimulating and interactive by 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 intervals of rest — in which concentration can slacken for a few minutes, as concepts are considered and discussed — before the harder analysis is resumed.

Such lectures have to be carefully prepared, but they are also spontaneous, and always open to interaction, because that's 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, in which they make their own discoveries rather than simply repeat what they think I want to hear.

It's 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, 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 training them in the use of evidence and rational argumentation.

One of the most effective things I've 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 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.

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.

That doesn't 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 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 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.

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 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 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 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.

And that strikes me as unambiguously stupid. Ω

[Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholars Program in the Arts and Humanities at Hope College in Holland, MI. Pannapacker is the author of Revised Lives: Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Authorship (2003), and he is currently preparing two books, Walt Whitman's Cities and The Legacy of the Rural Cemetery Movement in America. Pannapacker earned a B.A. in English at St. Joseph's University, an M.A. in English at Miami University, and a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University.]

Copyright © 2008 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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