The Dumbass Factor
This spring, a group of eighth graders exposed the leaders of a multinational corporation as a drove of braying dopes. It started, of course, on Facebook where the kids tweaked Pearson, a profitable testing company to whom New York State pays millions, by exposing one of its “reading comprehension” exercises as nonsense. The incident—and the response by Pearson—was extensively covered by the news media, significant for its revelations of the silly weaknesses of the high-stakes testing regime. What received no discussion, however, was the window the snafu offered into a deeper problem: private interests leave our public schools even more vulnerable than ever to the whims of poorly-educated fools, thus deepening a long-term stupidity crisis in American education.
As for the particular passage that so irked the eighth graders, by now its details are well known. A pineapple boastfully challenges a hare to a race. So far so good, if—to borrow a line from Cheers—surrealism is your cup of fur. The hare dismisses the proposition as “some sort of joke,” after all, “you aren’t even an animal? You’re a tropical fruit!” Some of the animals in the forest think the pineapple has a trick “up his sleeve” but an owl observes that “pineapples don’t have sleeves.” When the race begins, the pineapple stands still and the hare wins. In a fittingly Milton Friedmanesque denouement, the animals eat the loser.
If the story seemed pointless, the reading comprehension questions following it made even less sense. Children were asked, for example, “Which animal spoke the wisest words?” To most people, it might seem that the hare’s reaction—that the pineapple was merely a talking fruit and therefore not a credible competitor—was the most relevant and sensible. But to the test designers, the correct answer was the owl, on account of his brilliant insight that pineapples didn’t have sleeves. Pearson strenuously defended this answer, in terms that suggested that its own officials lacked basic literacy skills. In a letter to the New York State education deputy commissioner, obtained by Time magazine, Pearson’s Chief Measurement Officer, Jon S. Twing, insisted that the owl was indeed the wisest animal in the story, because his observation turns out to be the “moral of the story,” and that the answer could not be the hare, who is “presented as incredulous that a pineapple would challenge him to a race, but overconfidently agrees to race a pineapple.”
Wait, let’s stop right there. How is it “overconfident” for a rabbit to agree to race an immobile fruit? The not-so-careful reader will note that particularly given that the hare won, his confidence was justified. One wonders how Jon Twing graduated from middle school, or what qualifies him to preside over tests that now drive curriculum and determine the futures of millions of teachers and students.
These tests determine whether children advance to the next grade, whether teachers remain in their jobs, whether schools receive federal funding and in some cases, whether schools stay open. Yet, those in charge of the tests are not educated enough to understand them. Indeed, this is a problem that many people in the education world don’t want to talk about: the tendency for anti-intellectualism and stupidity to drive policy and ultimately, shape the classroom experience. It’s an old problem, but privatization, by introducing profit motives that have zero relation to learning or educational standards, greatly worsens the situation. Let’s call it the Dumbass Factor.
It’s a perennial challenge to improve education in a society deeply suspicious of learning. The extent of American hostility to intellectual pursuits—and the ways that this hostility shapes our education system at every level—was admirably described by Richard Hofstadter in 1963 in Anti-intellectualism in American Life, and more recently by Catherine Liu in American Idyll, her study of anti-elitism. This attitude contributes to an environment in which teaching is not prestigious, not valued, and thus, does not attract people who have themselves been academically successful. Every public school parent—and student—has stories about history teachers that don’t know when Reconstruction was, and English teachers who have never heard of William Faulkner, or appear ignorant of the meaning or spelling of commonly used words. Most American teachers “Report Card” knows personally are very well educated indeed, but international data show that they are not as typical as they should be. Compared to countries like Finland with successful education systems, U.S. schools do not attract teachers with advanced degrees in the subjects they teach, or even, except briefly through burnout mills like Teach for America, people who graduated from competitive universities. This is an ongoing problem: if we as a society don’t value learning, we are not going to invest in—or properly respect—those who teach. Our disrespect for this project, rooted in our disrespect for intellectual life, is not new.
But here’s what is making it much worse: the profit motive. The presence of so many organizations that need to make a profit for their shareholders—whether testing companies like Pearson, for-profit schools, for-profit school management companies, or textbook manufacturers—rewards shallowness and punishes intellectuality. Does anyone think the need to compete more fiercely and increase profits has improved the intellectual quality of our movies in recent decades? Books? Music? Could those even be serious questions? In all these areas, commercialization has increased the Dumbass Factor by a vast and incalculable rate.
Likewise in education. Anywhere that for-profit charter schools have been studied, for instance, their students underperform those in traditional public schools. This makes sense: a for-profit organization must reward the shareholders rather than pay to attract qualified teachers or buy more books. Some principals take these jobs because—as we saw in Philadelphia—of the opportunities to cash in through corruption rather than out of commitment to education.
But it’s not just the profiteering: privatization also produces dumbness through a mad Ayn Randian anything-goes mentality. For example, in Louisiana, a voucher system—rushed into being by a school board whose newly-elected officials’ campaigns were financed by our own mayor—has so little oversight that students were allowed, in at least one instance, to use the vouchers at a religious school that was not even licensed to operate as a private school, and whose teachers were not certified. Mayor Bloomberg and his hedge fund friends are sophisticated, intelligent people. But in the name of free markets, they’re happy to put policies in place that will condemn millions of people to living in what journalist Charles Pierce calls “Idiot America”—a place where the notion that dinosaurs and humans roamed the earth at the same time is a serious possibility.
We’re even seeing this at the university level. This country has long been able to boast of excellent public universities. But the best of these have been extensively privatized, with academically disastrous results. At the University of Virginia, a board controlled by private interests and funders—through machinations still unclear—in June engineered the resignation of its president, by all accounts a beloved leader and serious sociologist, for reasons that, according to a Slate article by University of Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan still haven’t been concretely explained, except through absurd business-mumbo-jumbo about “change” and “strategic dynamism.”
As the Rail went to press, the president was reinstated after much objection on campus and beyond, but the ongoing scandal underscored the extent to which in higher education, as in the K-12 world, decisions to deprive schools of government funding have led to a complete takeover of formerly public institutions by philanthropists from the business world, and thus a deepening of the stupidity crisis. It’s a situation in which a university founded by, as Vaidhyanathan puts it, “a stocking-wearing guy who studied Greek and Latin for fun,” has tried to fire a serious scholar for refusing to run the school as if it were a hedge fund or an Internet start-up.
Rhetorically, denouncing political enemies as anti-intellectual dopes is not a smart strategy. One risks being dismissed as an elitist. But “Report Card” is not intending to be politically clever, but rather to raise a real problem. The rush to privatize continues apace. Luckily, there is plenty of resistance: the disastrous Philadelphia plan discussed in the last “Report Card” column is on hold, thanks to public outcry. But vouchers have just been proposed in the legislature, here in New York, where we like to think we operate at a slight remove from “Idiot America.” Let’s not fool ourselves. The forces of reason and wisdom can win, but it will be much harder than racing a pineapple.