We Like It Stupid…

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, there was an article titled: What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?

In the course of the article, it was revealed that, in Finland, there’s no mandatory testing for kids, little rote learning, and that, for the most part, the Finns prefer to let their teenagers be teenagers.

But buried in the middle of the article was an obvious reason the Finns are creating such bright kids: They actually believe in being smart.

For instance, the Finns are big readers.  They even have libraries attached to their shopping malls.  I’m pretty sure if there was a library attached to Barton Creek Mall here in Austin, the hoi polloi would beat a path through it to Starbucks and The GAP.

And even though the pay for teachers in Finland is roughly the same as what it is in the U.S., it’s a prestigious job there. Applicants for teaching positions in Finland must hold a master’s degree.  There are usually more than 40 applicants for every opening.  But here was another secret: Teachers have more freedom in the way they teach than American educators do.

The other interesting facet is that Finnish teenagers are better at deductive reasoning than their counterparts in other counties.

We don’t do smart here in the grand old U.S. of A.  In fact, we’re a country that despises smart people.  The smarter you are, the more you’re distrusted.  There’s been an anti-intellectual bent to our makeup since the early 1800s.

Our presidential picks are the most pronounced manifestation of this part of the American psyche.  Eisenhower over Stevenson.  Bush over Gore.  (Does anyone remember the sturm und drang over Gore’s “eye rolling” during debates with Dubya?  Yes, being dumbfounded by dumbness is a crime in this country.)

And think about what gets the most coverage in our 24-hour news cycle: Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and any missing, presumed-dead blonde.  (We can talk about the meaning of the fascination with the destruction of popular female celebrities and the popularity of dead blondes another week.)

And then there’s the continual assault on science by religious nut jobs.  They’ve been remarkably successful in muddying the water in the mind of the public and laying the groundwork for such asinine notions as a degree in Creation “science.”  (And no, I’m not going to use the term “Intelligent Design.”  What’s intelligent about placing reproductive organs next to waste organs?)

We are a silly and shallow people. 

We don’t care about our kids being educated.  Not really.

We want them programmed.  We want someone else to cram the right dates into their heads so they can get into the right college.  Not because we think they’re best suited for college, but because the corporate college culture has convinced parents that their children won’t succeed if they don’t have a four-year degree.  We don’t care if they can think for themselves.  We just want them to think the “right” thing.  (Whatever that may be according to an ever shifting goal line.)

Smart people are portrayed as nerds, know-it-alls, eggheads, and geeks.  Our greatest heroes are sports figures, many of whom leave college unable to understand the multi-million-dollar contracts they’re signing.

And the people who don’t give a shit about intelligence at all are just as bad as the “I want my kid to get a college education, but I don’t want them to think” types.  The, “I don’t know nothin’ and I’m proud of it” crowd may look as if they’re of a different ilk, but they’re really not.  They’re just more vocal and more extreme. (If you want to see deep down, balls-to-the-wall, crazy-stupid, take a gander here.)

But let’s not forget that 98% of Americans believe in angels, while fewer than 50% believe in evolution.  The only country in the developed world we beat out on the “evolution or not” scale was Turkey.  Awesome. 

So, hooray for the dumb!  You’ve won!  Our culture revolves around you and your dumbness.  We feed you junk food and you love it!  You get fat from the junk food and we give you useless diets to fix it.  We pollute the news with celebutards and you’re transfixed by their fascinating, train-wreck lives. 

You want to vote for someone you’d like to have a beer with.  As if the presidency were a drinking game and you were going to be there in the Oval Office doing Jello shots. Ye ha!

You love big titties and little minds.  You adore monosyllabic words because big words make you feel stupid.  You worship the trivial and the vain.  And should anyone dare make you gaze at yourself with an ounce of self-reflection, you will crucify them.

God Bless Amurika.

25 thoughts on “We Like It Stupid…

  1. Agreed! What I want to know is how did we get from someone like Jefferson who could read the New Testament in Greek and who studied more math at the university than an engineering major takes these days to the retard in the White House today?

    Americans spend a lot of time demeaning the educational system but they fight anything that would actually improve the process. You can tell how respected teaching is by the pathetic wages teachers are paid.

    Over the course of time, have we undergone a dramatic shift in values or did we, as a nation, never value knowledge to start with?

  2. Without disagreeing with your main point, I have to point out that this:

    Bush over Gore.

    is not true. Gore handily beat Bush. The fact that Bush is President isn’t a triumph of the dumb people, it’s a triumph of the evil people.

    Our greatest heroes are sports figures, many of whom leave college unable to understand the multi-million-dollar contracts they’re signing.

    Even as exaggeration, this is just silly cultural prejudice. If you believe this, you’re not paying attention to the things athletes actually say, write, do with their lives, etc. A few illiterates among the college graduate athletes, no doubt. Many? I doubt that it’s a higher percentage than rich kids with business degrees. Or among actors and musicians, our other culture heroes.

    Also, I don’t think that 98% of Americans agree on anything.

  3. Scraps —

    You’re right. Only a whopping 70% of Americans believe in angels:


    But considering that acccording to this article — http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/24/AR2005122400701.html

    “Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That’s not saying much for the remainder.”

    I don’t think you’ve undercut my point.

    And the fact that Gore didn’t blow Bush out of the water to the extent that voter fraud could “swing” the election is more than enough proof of American dumbfuckery

  4. Susan Jacoby has a new book out about this very thing which I’m looking forward to getting. The Age of American Unreason. One bemusing point is the way in which American stupidity is accompanied by arrogance; many Americans don’t know shit, don’t give a shit, and don’t think they have to know shit, thank you very much.

  5. Ah, now I have a possible victim.

    Caroline, can you look at the PISA data the WSJ discussed (www.pisa.oecd.org) and tell me how “The U.S. placed in the middle of the pack in math and science” is anything close to a valid claim.

    I couldn’t find it, but I’m (mostly) an American public-school graduate.

  6. Ken,

    Does this help?


    >>This report summarizes the performance of U.S. students on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), comparing the scores of U.S. 15-year-old students in science and mathematics literacy to the scores of their peers internationally in 2006. PISA, first implemented in 2000, is sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental agency of 30 member countries. In 2006, fifty-seven jurisdictions participated in PISA, including 30 OECD jurisdictions and 27 non-OECD jurisdictions. The results show the average combined science literacy scale score for U.S. students to be lower than the OECD average. U.S. students scored lower on science literacy than their peers in 16 of the other 29 OECD jurisdictions and 6 of the 27 non-OECD jurisdictions. Twenty-two jurisdictions (5 OECD jurisdictions and 17 non-OECD jurisdictions) reported lower scores compared to the United States in science literacy. On the mathematics literacy scale, U.S. students scored lower than the OECD average. Thirty-one jurisdictions (23 OECD jurisdictions and 8 non-OECD jurisdictions) scored higher on average, than the United States in mathematics literacy in 2006. In contrast, 20 jurisdictions (4 OECD jurisdictions and 16 non-OECD jurisdictions) scored lower than the United States in mathematics literacy in 2006. Differences in student performance based on the selected student characteristics of sex and race/ethnicity are also examined. Following the presentation of results, a technical appendix describes the study design, data collection, and analysis procedures that guided the administration of PISA 2006 in the United States and in the other participating jurisdictions.<<

  7. I wish it weren’t just politics as well. Unfortunately we have a huge strain of quack medicine, quack science (you did mention evolution denial), and quack cosmology. The number of people who take themselves out of proven treatments to heal themselves with crystals and disproved herbal supplements is ridiculously high.

    I’ve said it over and over again that I don’t care what people believe but I sure want some testable hypotheses behind my public policy.

  8. We’d be better off if we got the federal government out of the eductation business completely. Turning to the government to make our lives better or to lead society is an enormous mistake. It only leads to things like the broken education system plus higher taxes that are wasted. Unfortunately, both parties are fairly committed to one form or another of bread and circuses and are willing to spend our money ruthlessly to get or maintain power.

  9. I disagree with this, Stan. There are things corporations are good at, and things the government is good at. Without the rule of law (which requires the creation, enforcing, and adjudicating of them; i.e., our three branches of government), capitalism merely becomes fascism, or feudalism.

    My friend who is a historian once told me that capitalism, democracy, and the rule of law are like the three legs of a stool. With the three of them operating in balance, a society benefits. Knock one of the legs out, and things fall apart.

  10. Stan, this is a huge hot-button topic for me.

    A private school can pick and choose who it educates. Not just in terms of who can pay the fees, but what the kids’ capabilities are. So a private school may report excellent test scores. because it doesn’t have to educate any kid who comes through the door. And a heterogeneous group of kids is going to be more expensive to educate than a group of kids, because their needs are all over the place. In order to make it even passably affordable to educate special needs kids, immigrant kids, poor kids, gifted kids all at once, you need the purchasing power of the government, and you need to take the possibility of payment off the table.

    And we, as a society, expect a huge amount from our schools–way beyond the minimal standards of tuition. Lice checks, mandated abuse reporting, counseling, learning-disability detection, remediation. It all costs money. So every time education funding is reduced, either these programs suffer (and many of them are legally required and can’t be cut) or the education itself does. A private school may have to deal with some of the same issues, but their clients can afford to pay for additional services.

    I don’t know of a single private corporation that has been able to make a serious ongoing success of public education. Many of them have gone under trying. Others require more funding from the government than the regular public school programs do.

    Society has a vested interest in educating its citizens: if nothing else, the kids in school today are going to be the ones changing my IV and overseeing my retirement funds and running my government when I’m a doddery old person. I want them well educated, and I don’t begrudge the tax dollars that go to that.

    It’d be nice if we could, as a culture, shift toward valuing smart; maybe helping kids to know more and feel smarter themselves might make them less hostile to smart.

  11. Madeline certainly beat me to the punch. Well-said.

    I would only add the idea that government “interference” leads to broken systems is simply falsified when you look at what such “interference” has done overseas in more heavily socialized countries like Norway, Denmark, etc., where people are more educated, more content, healthier, etc. than they are in what often seems socialist-phobic America who is consistently outranked in desirable social and economic measures.

  12. Yeah, I was thinking about all them Scandinavians when this came up, as Rach and I are contemplating emigrating to Denmark when the time is right.

    I know I frequently sound like a rabid doomsayer here, but, guys, it’s hard not to surmise that we’re getting to watch the mid-stage of the fall of the American empire.

    I’m all about democracy, but when you spend most of your life watching damn near every indicator falling, at least partly because the electorate is so aggressively uninformed and uncaring, you gotta wonder if it’s still possible to put Humpty back together again.

  13. For the past day I have been thinking about evolution and how it has effected our society. In the barest sense evolution merely states that those that don’t reproduce don’t propagate. And this is kind of a backward statement of the survival of the fittest. It is the survival of the fertile. The next generation is populated by those who reproduced. From Darwin’s time until twenty or thirty years ago it was assumed that those with the resources to feed their offspring would reproduce. That assumption seems not to have been active for several generations. There seems to be no challenge to survive, no natural selection. Our society may believe in evolution, but doesn’t seem to practice it. Everybody survives. Now what? A good manual on what to expect is Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”. Diamond wonders at the high level of native intelligence of neolithic people who are displaced by mean, stupid people with superior immune systems. This is a very interesting paradox that we may be experiencing in some way today. It makes you wonder?

  14. Rory, I think of society like a river.

    At the start, that water may just be a trickle, and you can stop it or redirect its course as you like with just your hands, but as you let that water flow and flow, it eventually becomes a river, and by that point standing in the middle of the river trying to hold it back or redirect it with your hands is both futile and stupid.

    I wonder, constantly, if the American collapse has reached the point yet where we will not be able to turn back the flow of the river, not as a matter of determination to stop it, but as a simple matter of inertia.

    Have we? Haven’t we? What can we do to put the country back on a course that matches its ideals and currently illusory beliefs about itself as a great, educated, free country?

    Bill, I don’t think it has anything to do with “survival of the fittest” — ie: “not being mean enough” or “not practicing population selection” or “not letting everyone survive” — which is a badly abused idea in social politics.

    Evolution and natural selection is happening: we’re selecting for ignorance by failing to incentivize education, whereas other countries have avoided this problem (but not through implementing ideas about challenge and natural selection). Instead, we exist in an age of pronounced cultural evolution, where traditions and ideas are the warriors and casualties, not genes and bodies. That is, everybody survives, though their particular culture may not.

  15. Morgan – corporations don’t belong in education either. Local government, possibly state government is where social programs belong. Decentralize the power and keep it closer to the people paying for the services. It doesn’t end the problems, but it keeps us from sliding into an autocracy. We may have local bouts of power mad crazies trying to control everything. At least it would be local instead of like that crowd of power mongers from both parties we have now.

    We need to cripple the power at the federal level to keep abuses like those of the past two administrations (and their congresses) from happening.

  16. I absolutely agree about government needing to remain in control of education, Stan, and that was the point I was trying to make — though it came out rather incoherent.

  17. A few quick points:
    1) Any discussion comparing Scandinavian countries to the U.S. has to control for the highly homogeneous population in the former. By way of example, only about 2% of Finland’s population is foreign-born, compared to 12% for the U.S. Ethnically, the Finnish population is 93% Finn, with another 6% Swedes, and 92% of the population lists Finn as their primary language (vs. 82% English for the U.S.). Finland doesn’t have to expend resources on educating a diverse population because, simply, it doesn’t have one.
    2) The percent of the U.S. population who’ve completed high school has continued to increase, from 69% in 1980 to 78% in 1990 and 86% in 2007. The percent completing 4 years of college increased from 17% in 1980 to 21% in 1990 and 29% in 2007. So, for a country that supposedly admires stupidity over smarts (re: the original post), there’s a lot more educated folks walking around the country today than ever before.
    3) There’s a common theme to almost all rants like this – I notice they hardly ever include *themselves* among the unwashed masses whom they’re commenting on. Which is quite an elitist perspective, when you think about it: “See, look how awful the common citizen is, thank goodness I’m above all that!”

  18. Note: I just pulled tagryn’s comment #19 out of the moderation trap. It was probably those multiple URLs that did it in…

    For those who might sometimes wonder, we get a blizzard of crappy comment spam here, and it’s possible that someone might get lost in it. But, as far as I know, we’ve never deliberately held back a post from a real person, regardless of what they wrote.

    …Except for that one guy who showed up and openly announced that his sole intention was to troll. We checked around on another board where he used the same name, and yep, trolling was his hobby. His comments were moronic blunt abuse, so he got banned.

    If you have a comment that doesn’t show up here, try sending an e-mail to us at the ‘To Contact Us’ address above, without any URLs in it, so it won’t get caught in the blizzard of spam that that account gets.

    You should probably also avoid any references to Viagra, Tramadol, or Cialis, and restrain your opinions about whether any penii here require enlargement.

  19. Tagryn, could you put those figures in some kind of context?

    Except #3. #3 is just…what? Pointless, meaningless griping that has no bearing on the facts in any way or form. It’s only purpose is to disprove fact or observation with character assassination.

    But back to context: example, what do those figures mean in light of the disparities between our national education rank and that of other countries (this study places us at 18th out of 24)?

    What about countries as equally ethnically diverse as the States?

    Are the graduates of our schools as educated and knowledgeable as those from other countries? (one needs to look at the quality of the graduates in addition to the quantity — because you, too, can get a “degree” in creation “science” *cough*)

    I get the feeling you might be trying to say “Things are getting better,” or “We’re actually a pretty smart country,” but neither means much when you’re lagging behind the rest of the civilized (and occasionally uncivilized) world and still think and talk as though you are teh smrtist kuntry evar.

    Next let’s drop a bunch of foreigners into Finland’s system; how would their system actually cope with that as compared to our system? Would our system do or theirs do a better job in such a case?

    One has to look at the big picture, because numbers can be used to say anything.

  20. I find it hopeful that there is an actual increase in education “through-put”, but there really is an undeniable “anti-intellectual” bent in our political discourse and our media.

    Howard Dean’s support increased directly in proportion to the amount of education the population had, being highest among people with advanced degrees. And it decreased in the other direction.

    Also, our press would rather report on him screaming oddly than the actual substance of his speeches.

  21. RD,
    Fair enough on the comment on #3, admittedly it was more answering the original post at its level than maturely dealing with the issues at hand.

    Finding a comparable situation for how another country would fare with educating a population like the USA’s is difficult, obviously. Perhaps France, with their immigrant population from Algeria, or the UK? This 2006 report from NCES indicates that France trails the USA in literacy achievement, but is better at math.

    I do think we haven’t reached the point of no return, and that things are in fact getting better, but without comparable historic performance numbers for both other countries and ourselves it’s hard to say what the general trend is. Certainly there’s room for reform. We’re in the global economy now: if native students don’t come out of school with the skills that companies need, its easy enough now to go to China or India to find graduates who’ll do the same job for less pay.

    Throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer: we already spend more than the other G-8 countries per student at the primary and secondary level(Figure 16a). I think it would take a fundamental reform of the educational system, well beyond NCLB, to make up the difference, and I doubt that either the administrators or the teacher’s unions would stand for that.

    Steve – To be sure, some aspects of our culture are less than hopeful – watch an episode of “TMZ” and despair – but you could go watch TV in places like Japan or Italy, or pick up one of the UK tabloids, and reach the same conclusion about them. The entertainment industry (which the news industry is increasingly a part of, sadly) learned long ago that when they want to relax, most folks don’t want to engage their brains too hard. I wouldn’t go from that to say that that means the populace doesn’t put their thinking caps on when they need to, though.

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