People are a Lot Smarter Than They’re Allowed to Be
By Dennis Loo (2/20/14)
Because I’m an educator and spend a lot of my working life in classrooms and in my office interacting with students, I have the frequent opportunity and responsibility to see firsthand what students know, don’t know, and how they handle new information.
The young, as the saying goes, are our future.
They are also, to a considerable degree, our present.
In any of the great movements in history – revolutions, the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the anti-war movement, the Occupy movement, and so on – young people have been at the forefront, in many cases making up not only a plurality of the participants but constituting much of those movements’ leadership. Young people are additionally responsible for most of the new musical and art forms. Finally, they make up the bulk of those who serve as soldiers in wars.
Yet despite this – or perhaps because of this – our educational system treats young people as much dumber than they really are. As one of my students, Edith Flores, wrote in a recent paper:
When [the US prison camp at] Guantanamo opened [in 2002] I was still in High School, which might explain why I was unaware and unknowledgeable about the details. Many schools do not teach their students real life politics. It seems as though they do not like to discuss true events. The denial of knowledge brings with it ignorance, especially when it is about important issues that need to be dealt with. Teachers cannot expect students to fight for a good cause if the students are not given the right tools for it. The educational system here in the United States is just simply ridiculous. They focus on having students memorize information for a short period of time rather than truly understanding it and learning it long term.
We can especially blame No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top for this focus on memorization and for the mania of constant standardized tests. NCLB and RTTP are both products of neoliberal philosophy that treats education as if knowledge were assembly line products or “deliverables.” Overlooked in this approach is the fact that critical and holistic thinking are not commodities that can just be handed to people the way McDonald’s gives you a Big Mac. The self-esteem movement is also culpable in this regard for treating young people as too fragile to be corrected when they’re wrong. (The idiocy of “inventive spelling” being an example of this, infantilizing juvenile errors as “creativity” and not pointing out to children how words are supposed to be spelled, condemning many of them to never being sure how certain words should be spelled.) Some educators from disadvantaged groups, in the name of helping their people advance, eschew rigor in the mistaken belief that these groups cannot meet those standards – a truly condescending approach - depriving them of the opportunity to fulfill their real potential as truly sophisticated thinkers. Finally, the business model for education’s view that students are customers and teachers are service providers – again, a product of neoliberal thinking – has also harmed education substantially, making getting high scores on student evaluations of faculty forms more important than giving students a rigorous and challenging education.
If you give students a chance to rise to their considerable potential, however, you find out some really heartening things. Here is another excerpt from Edith’s paper:
As part of our SOC 305 class syllabus we all received instructions on the two basic stages to cognitive development as described by Benjamin Bloom; after reading it carefully I knew I would really learn from this class, and I knew that the professor … must really care about his students, education, and the future enough to have that be a part of his curriculum. I honestly wish I would have been made aware of Guantanamo sooner, but at this point I cannot keep blaming others, from now on I have to take the responsibility to inform myself and to take the appropriate steps towards achieving a solution.
Many of the questions raised at the event, such as the number of minors in these prisons and the drones, were other issues I was unaware of. It was shocking information. For many years I have chosen to stay out of political issues, sometimes it just seems better not to know, but that needs to stop, because there are people in need who are suffering and waiting for someone, anyone, to take a stand and fight for equality and truly make this country a better place.
Standing on the sidelines and expecting others to do all the work will not eliminate the problem, instead it adds to the problem. Once a person is knowledgeable about an issue such as Guantanamo, they become an accomplice by allowing it to persist. It is frightening that while the United States government might think they have everything under control, there may be groups of people brainstorming ideas on how to counterattack. It would be foolish to think that our actions will not bring consequences. People are very likely to seek revenge. We cannot expect the victims to simply sit back and accept everything the United States is doing and not want to do anything about it. It becomes a never-ending cycle of violence. It is imperative to understand that it is completely unacceptable for the United States to abduct people and torture them solely because they “might” be dangerous to us. The government tells us that they are protecting us and that they are keeping our country safe from terrorists, and we are expected to believe them without any questions. [Editor's note: The links in this are not in Edith's paper but have been added for the readers' convenience as additional material.]
Under the guise of improving our “failing schools,” free market fundamentalists are imposing “solutions” that make it impossible for teachers in K-12 to teach anymore and force most of them into teaching students to the test. I have been teaching at the college level for over three decades in one form or another at institutions in four states, ranging from the most elite private schools to large public universities to small open admissions colleges. In the last few years I have noticed a noticeable decline in incoming students’ ability to think holistically and to cope with a large mass of information. They have become accustomed to “study guides” (which didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate) which at their worst amount to sheets telling students precisely what they have to memorize for the tests and at their best amount to telling students what they can afford to ignore about what the professor has been trying to teach them. The net result is that students have not been trained in how to make a mass of information coherent and useful for themselves (or for others) and do not largely know how to draw inferential conclusions since they have been trained in the banking method of teaching: here’s what you need to know, now memorize it. I have even had a student or two tell me when I asked them a question on a test that explicitly required them to find the right answer through inference because neither I nor the readings directly told them the answer, that I was asking an “unfair question.” When I responded that life does not come with an answer key and that drawing inferential conclusions is what we need to learn how to do in life or else we’re going to be forced to accept other people’s conclusions as our own, the objections stopped and a light bulb went on.
I do not blame students for this. This is how the educational system has been training them.
People are a lot smarter than they’re allowed to be. If we want a better world we need to give them the chance to become sophisticated thinkers, not only our students but people of all ages. You cannot raise and train rigorous thinkers in a hot house. They have to be immersed in the rough and tumble of real contradictions and clashes between varying perspectives. Truth, as we say here, emerges through contention. I’m going to close with this excerpt from a major white paper that I initiated and wrote with a terrific team of California university faculty in 2011 entitled “Cooking the Goose That Lays the Golden Eggs: California’s Public Higher Education System in Peril.” The American Association of University Professionals (AAUP)’s Journal of Academic Freedom published it in 2012.
Life does not come with an answer key. The correct and best answers to all questions are not always definitively known in life at any given point before the fact, and incomplete and indirect information is the norm rather than the exception. Primarily due to the influence of the privateers, the educational system is increasingly becoming one in which the main emphasis is memorization and giving back to the teacher what the teacher has dispensed as the answers in order to pass the tests. Students are not being properly and adequately taught how to analyze, weigh information, think holistically, decide between competing claims, and make wise choices based on frequently incomplete information. This grows all the more significant when there is a growing storm of false or misleading information emanating from people and organizations trying to seduce people into buying their wares, whether those wares are commodities or ideas. Should this trend persist it will mean that our society will become increasingly intellectually impoverished, because its citizenry has become vulnerable to being manipulated by hucksters, opportunists, and those who have more ready access to mass media by virtue of their owning media, possessing a lot of money, and/or having friends in high places.
This site aims to accomplish two related goals. First, it complements Dennis Loo's book Globalization and the Demolition of Society so that people reading the book can get more deeply into it. (See navigation bar above, labeled "GDS Book Annotations"). We believe that his book is a landmark, providing a solid foundation for politics of a new path. Taking such a path is critical to humanity and the planet's future. As his book's dust jacket states:
[F]ree market fundamentalism - also known as neoliberalism - makes us not more secure or prosperous: it tears the social fabric and undermines security, leading inevitably to disasters on the individual, regional, and global levels.
Neoliberalism is based on the mantra that market forces should run everything. It aims to eliminate job and income security, the social safety net (including welfare and other social guarantees), unions, pensions, public services, and the governmental regulation of corporations. It consequently undermines the basis for people to voluntarily cooperate with authority as almost everyone is increasingly left by themselves to face gargantuan private interests, with governmental and corporate authority ever more indifferent to the public’s welfare.
Those in charge of our collective fates in government and business personify a heartless system based on profit and plunder. They have been relentlessly instituting profoundly immoral and unjust policies even while they insist that they are doing the opposite. We, on the other hand, stand for and are fighting for a radically different system and set of values than this.
Second, in order to get at the truth and because the ways in which humanity's historic striving for understanding and its capacity to wonder and imagine are very rich and diverse, we seek to reflect that richness and diversity on our site. See "About Us" on navigation bar. We intend to be engaging and compelling, as the best investigative journalism and art are, and relentlessly scientific, rigorous, and direct, as those who cherish the truth are. We believe that we can be both accessible and sophisticated. As Loo lays out in his book,
Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. The contrast between the methods and goals of the neoliberals and those of us who seek an entirely different world is stark. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 326-7)