cultural tendencies: how do we teach stupidity?

As we live it, one of the most important functions of an education system is to cull genius. However, given that genius — like stupidity — exists only to the extent that others recognize it, this means the educational system does not simply cull genius, but must also produce it. And one of the easiest and certainly most effective ways of culling genius is to cultivate stupidity.

In the US, for example, math classes provide a key site for the production of stupidity. Our math pedagogy consistently churns out students who have difficulty with mental math, are intimidated by word problems and conceptual reasoning, and regularly underachieve. This remarkably low level of math skills — even after ten years of math classes — is considered “normal”. Those who survive the lack of drills, out-dated curriculum, and their teachers’ ever lower expectations are designated geniuses.

Similarly, in China, English classes manufacture stupidity. The Chinese EFL curriculum relentlessly produces students who have difficulty participating in simple conversations, are intimidated by novels and poetic meaning, and regularly underachieve. This lamentable low level of English skills — even after ten years of daily English lessons — is considered “normal”. Those who survive the lack reading exercises, test driven curriculum, and their teachers’ ever lower expectations are designated geniuses.

However, when we turn our gaze away from our respective home fronts, it is obvious that elsewhere in the world it is possible to teach English (or in the US a foreign language) well. Likewise, Asian and Indian programs cultivate excellent general math skills. More tellingly, US American math and Chinese EFL teachers share the belief that a particular form of knowledge (math or English, respectively) cannot be taught. Also, in both the US and China, the social effects of low math or English scores are disproportionately high with respect to the actual knowledge obtained. In US schools, for example, low math scores mean that a student may be kept out of higher level science classes, while in China, English scores are a graduation requirement. Indeed, the US situation is even less extreme than the Chinese, where English tests also determine graduate school admission and job opportunities.

All this to make a simple point du jour. Both US American and Chinese students learn when we provide adequate training, interesting curriculum, and challenging standards. The question, of course, is not so much — can we teach math or English? — but rather, what social purposes do horrific pedagogy serve?

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