Cool to be dumb

October 25, 2010

I had an odd little flashback today. As a guest in a training class where the icebreaker was to share a fun fact about yourself, I mentioned that I had been in the National Spelling Bee in
197[CENSORED] and got to meet the First Lady at the time. About a year ago,  I shared that same fact as a comment on John McIntyre’s delicious blog, You Don’t Say (http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/, and if you don’t peek in on that blog regularly, you should), and was obliquely ridiculed by another commenter, who seemed to feel that memorizing arbitrary lists of useless words was a waste of time for a preadolescent.

One thing that the National Spelling Bee does today which it did not in my day is televise nationally, usually on ESPN. Anyone with basic cable, therefore, can witness the contestants querying the judges about word origins, parts of speech, and usage. If you’ve ever watched this event, on TV or in person, you know that the children, ferociously competitive without exception, do this extensively. I can affirm from experience that many years from now, these techniques help not only communication skills but analytical skills in general, specifically left-brain skills. Moreover, I can also affirm from experience that the words themselves are far from useless. Words such as stochastic, risible, supercilious and internecine occur and have recently occurred in my work life and Internet reading. Heck, even Frank Costanza referred to Elaine once as supercilious. (http://www.seinology.com/scripts/script-90.shtml) So why does the commenter on McIntyre’s blog think this is a waste of time?

Assuming that commenter is American, he is a symptom of a peculiar and, I hope, momentary trend in American societal development. Some time in the recent past, perhaps in the past sixteen years, Americans seem to have lost respect for being smart. Put another way, it’s really obvious we’re more dumbed down than ever.

This Sunday’s Washington Post carried an article and, in the print edition, a catchy pop quiz entitled, “The tea party warns of a New Elite. They’re right.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/22/AR2010102202873.html) The New Elite is deliberately anti-intellectual. They’ve lost curiosity toward many subjects. They ridicule true intellectuals as if “elite” were something to be avoided. An Ivy League degree is something to be scorned; Christine O’Donnell is proud of not having gone to Yale, and her supporters are proud of her for not having gone to Yale. (My guess is, so is Yale.)  Newt Gingrich used the term “elite” a lot in 1994 to deride those opposite him on the political spectrum. (He, having a Ph.D in history himself, is a clearcut case of the pot calling the kettle rusted. But I digress.) This is well-documented: http://thinkprogress.org/2007/04/22/gingrich-liberalism-vatech/; http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/commandingheights/shared/minitext/int_newtgingrich.html, especially risible because of his use of the oxymoron “elite mainstream;” see also http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1994-11-12/news/1994316001_1_newt-gingrich-washington-elite-programs We can hardly swing an Internet cat without hitting some frothy-mouthed anonymous bloviator grousing that the President or some other commentator is an elite. He’s too intellectual. They want a President who’s ‘a regular guy! Someone they can have a beer with! Here’s a terrific example of just that from a comment today, reproduced verbatim, to an opinion column written by Yale grad Anne Applebaum:

We have had it with all of you ignorant elites, get out of our way already! All we have to do is cut and past from Wikipedia and we can all see what the delusional fantasists from Yale still are on the WaPo’s payroll to brainwash into us their sense of inbred superiority based on hedonistic, secular, and Satanic wicked and sinful blindness:
Her parents are Harvey M. Applebaum, a Covington and Burling partner, and Elizabeth Applebaum of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. She graduated from the Sidwell Friends School (1982). She earned a B.A. (summa cum laude) at Yale University (1986), where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. As a Marshall Scholar at the London School of Economics she earned a master’s degree in international relations (1987).[4] She studied at St Antony’s College, Oxford before moving to Warsaw, Poland in 1988 as a correspondent for The Economist

My word. I had no idea being smart and well-educated was a detriment.

Look, I don’t want someone in the White House who’s a regular guy, or gal. I want and need someone who’s way smarter than I am. Someone who’s dumber than I can get us all killed. (I’m looking right atcha, Dubya.)

Finally, it wouldn’t be a Shut Your Everloving Piehole rant without a jab at the radical right. Their collective lack of intellectual curiosity is summed up in that bumper sticker you’ve no doubt seen on the road: “God Said It/I Believe It/That Ends It.” OK, I get it: Some people believe the Old Testament + New Testament = the complete, inerrant word of the Almighty, and no other faith’s holy books need apply. Go ahead and believe that G-d created the heavens and earth. …Don’t you want to know how? Don’t you even care? (I’m still looking at you, George.)

Now, I know that bumper sticker’s been around a long time. And there will always be a few folks who sincerely believe it. But it’s dangerous to put such people in charge of determining our children’s science curricula (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/31/national/31religion.html and many others) and textbook content (http://tfninsider.org/2008/10/15/creationists-launch-first-strike-against-evolution-in-texas-science-standards/) at a time when those children will grow up to compete with kids in other countries who received a much more solid science and math education. We need teachers and parents who cherish and honor intellectual curiosity, more than ever. We need people who are not willing to be intellectually lazy. We need elites.

Elite. Teach your children it’s not a dirty word.

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