Stupid is the New Black.
Okay, so maybe it’s not so new, but Stupid has been trendy-chic for, in this current mini-age, as I estimate, at least since Forrest Gump elevated impaired intelligence to near-godlike standards. (Don't bother correcting me; this is when I first noticed the enthusiastic trend towards mass ignorance in this country.)
So what pissed me off enough to start this latest screed? I finally saw an episode of “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” Of course I'd heard about it, only in passing, and chuckled it off as yet another cheap attempt to titillate the masses. I hadn't seen it until last night.
Kelli Pickler was the celebrity guest. I don't have broadcast/ cable/ satellite TV, so I've never seen an episode of “American Idol.” But within one minute my jaw was on the floor, and not because of her singing talent. Because of her unbelievable lack of even the most basic grammar school knowledge.
I offer these Picklerisms:
When asked what European country Budapest is the capital of:
“I thought Europe was a country.”
On Budapest itself: “I know they speak French there, don't they? Is France a country? I don't know if France is a country, but I'm gonna say France.”
On hearing the correct answer: “Hungary? I've heard of Turkey, but... really??”
And my favorite: When offered the multiple choice question “Which is the name of a president?” and given the three choices: Johns Hopkins, Franklin Pierce, and Brigham Young:
“Why can't you give me an easy one, like George Washington? … Okay, so I'm gonna go with “Pierce” because both of our names start with “P”. Oh, and his name has a lot of the same letters as mine; it's just missing an “L”. And a “K.” And I have pierced ears.”
What I think is the genuine crux of this particular biscuit, not just for Ms. Pickler, but for a lot of our students, is what she said in reference to Budapest: “I've never even heard of it.”
Oh, and she also struggled with determining how many “E”s were in the word “watermelon.” (To be fair, the next contestant could not decide how many “E”s were in “mathematics”, so he chose to put the burden of the task onto his fifth-grade partner, who then proceeded to save his pathetically stupid ass.)
Okay, granted, very few folks in the U.S. need a Ph.D in Hungarian Studies, and I have no idea of the percentage of Americans who visit Budapest every year (I'd love to spend a few weeks in the area). But a rough general knowledge of THE REST OF THE WORLD is probably a good thing to have. You know, for like, parties and shit. Impressing potential fuck-buddies. Trivial pursuit.
It was tragic. What started out as gruel for ridicule soon showed out as a horrible example of what happens when the shortcomings of our educational system get air time.
By the end I felt horrible, not just for Ms. Pickler (who I'm told is one hell of a singer), but for all the Ms. Picklers; victims of a criminally underfunded, over-tinkered educational system that too many times puts bar graphs and abstract statistics (the stuff of promotional brochures) in its front yard and buries the educational welfare of its students in the basement.
Seriously. Come on, folks! Why didn't she know these things? They're not difficult. What happened to her to make her think Europe was a country and not know that France was?
Kelli Pickler is a victim. Not just of a weak education but of a society that many times eschews extra-American knowledge, that finds refuge and sanctity behind the jingoistic belief that we are the Greatest Country on Earth. That national pride demands that we pursue a limited, self-centered propogandist agenda instead of a world-centric, inclusive, survey of the world we happen to live in. (As if giving equal time to other cultures is an indication of a weakened sense of patriotism.) And I don’t just mean by introducing jingoistic rhetoric into the pliable minds of our future, but simply by not bringing home the importance of places and people outside our borders. We deny by ignoring.
(And no, I am not forgetting that there are many schools whose curricula are globally oriented and pan-culturally egalitarian. But they are as islands in the pedagogical ocean.)
Some friends I grew up with in The Bronx also share a bit of this xenophobic dearth of basic geography. They're not bad people. They're not evil. They simply have never been imbued with a pertinent reference or intellectual imperative to seriously undertake various subjects such as global studies. Or for that matter, spelling. One friend had never heard of the Sistine Chapel.
Am I an elitist? Really? I honestly don't think so. A snob? Pffft, yeah, but not in this subject.
I've witnessed firsthand the calamitous attempts made by some college students to write an essay. It's a miracle some of these weren't handed in in crayon. Every grammatical and syntactical error you can possibly imagine shows up in these scribbles. And I'm not picking on a few students. I'm talking widespread problem.
The U.S. was ranked 17th in an assessment of the education systems of 50 countries, behind several Scandinavian and Asian nations, which claimed the top spots. Finland and South Korea grabbed first and second places, respectively, in a global league table published by the education firm Pearson, while Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore ranked third, fourth and fifth, respectively.
If we are indeed the Greatest Nation in the World, why the hell can't we do better than this?
Someone argued with me that Ms. Pickler is from North Carolina and the implication was “Well, isn't the reason for her lack of knowledge obvious?” Ummm . . . no. Not to me. (Well, maybe. NC just passed the Motorcycle Safety Abortion Bill, which states that . . . no. No. Must Not. Digress. Must. Not. Digress. Uurrrrggghhh . . . )
Color me Pollyanna, but I still believe education can and should be of universal high quality, regardless of the geographical area. This, despite the regional and cultural differences between our Greatest Nation’s different cultural regions.
Take for instance New York City, the city of the ages. Long pimped as The Biggest, The Best, The Most This, The Most That, etc. Surely a city of this immense size, record-setting diversity, and nearly-unlimited resources must have an educational system unparalleled by anywhere else, no?
New York City officials openly admit that a high school diploma earned in our public schools today does not mean that a student is ready for college. In fact, 80 percent of New York public school graduates who enrolled in City University of New York community colleges last fall still needed high school level instruction—also known as remediation—in reading, writing, and especially math. Despite the department's proclamations, that percentage is up, not down, from 71 percent a few years ago. Algebra, which is a CUNY graduation requirement, is by far the most challenging for the city's public school grads: Just 14 percent pass the CUNY algebra placement exam.
Oh, and BusinessWeek's article on the subject blames who? Parents. Yeah, we’re back to early 1970s psychobabble-shift-the-blame-onto-parents crap for the poor showings of our nation's progeny. (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-08-19/the-real-reason-americas-schools-stink).
Okay, fine. Maybe parents are partly to blame. I think everyone involved in this viscous circle shares blame, at least a little bit. But ask a group of educators why they are stymied, frustrated, and feel like they're throwing bricks into the Grand Canyon, and several complaints crop up over and over:
Lack of clarity about the goal of schooling. Jamming facts into a kid's head to be simply regurgitated at test time is bullshit. The kids hate it, the teachers hate it. Kids learn in a wide scope, not just statistics. Socially, emotionally, linguistically, ethically, and physically. These are all parts of child development; we can't just artificially inflate the Regent's scores and let the rest go to Hell.
The result of this force-feeding is that kids become more and more resistant. They actively push away the things being pushed at them. They are locked into a system they have no control over. I am in no way saying let the inmates run the asylum, but when administrations are focused entirely on test scores, or the government decides to “get tough” and rate the teachers solely on the students' performances (or on student reviews, a completely asinine practice if there ever was one), we rapidly destroy any desire to continue learning. Or teaching.
And this rigidity comes with a higher price: the “one size fits all” circle of Hell. One size does not fit all. Not in clothing (except tube tops and we won't discuss that sartorial atrocity), not in education. By attempting to create a universal rubric we deliberately ignore the fact that children learn differently; Johnny's visual mode is not Rainbow's tactile experience, nor is it RaShawn's ability to absorb any lecture thrown at him.
No Child Left Behind. Holy moley, what a fustercluck this is. First of all, it was ridiculously underfunded, so its efficacy was hobbled from the start. Sure; issue the mandates then cut the funding. And because the till is dry, teachers sometimes have to get supplies using funds from their own pockets. (Thank god their pay is on par with most organized sports professionals or we’d be in real trouble.) And when’s the last time you bought a textbook? Caviar and cocaine are cheaper. By adopting an insipid idea of mass standardization focusing on an outcomes-based system (yes, we’re back to tube tops), we force teachers to teach to some hypothetically universally fair and comprehensive test instead of teaching to the students themselves. Every year we have thousands of good-hearted people wandering naively, wide-eyed, and without body armor, into the educational equivalent of the Fire Swamp who, honestly, want to do some good. They want to teach, to make things better. And they find themselves stymied by the Rubrics Of Unusual Senselessness, trapped in a system designed by Rube Goldberg on a six-day bender. And when NCLB fails in a district, what happens? Sanctions are imposed, from curricular reorganizations to firing personnel “relevant to the failure.”
And, oh yeah. Empowerment. In some places the students have too much say in the running of their classrooms. Which is not to say that they shouldn’t have some. But when empowerment gets in the way of learning by enabling students to have too much effect on the way educators need to do their jobs, then we have a big problem. And that’s nothing compared to the pressure we put on our educators by holding their students’ performance ratings over their heads as evidence of their efficacy. Or even dumber and dumbest: using students end-of-year personal evaluations to a significant degree as an indicator of their professor’s ability to teach.
True story: some friend’s kids came home a month ago (they’re nine and in third grade) and told me that the Big Test they had to take in two days was Very, Very Important. And, they stated, their teacher urged them on to take their time, be sure about their answers, and to do as best as they could because their test scores would reflect directly on her job rating.
I blame the System. I blame the inability of administrators, parents, and citizens everywhere to resist the urge to categorize, systemize, and quantify that which cannot be deciphered into bar graphs. We insist on relying on the deniability factor, that which excuses failure because we followed the fucking survey's results instead of becoming attuned to our students' needs and developing as teachers who can see, evaluate, assimilate data, and modify our methods as we go. We continue to fail because we fund our educational system so poorly that we continually put our teacher’s hunger to better the world on a starvation diet. We continue to fail because the trend is to privatize what we can in order to put a dollar value on everything in sight. We continue to fail because we do not teach the Kelli Picklers the importance of why it’s critical to know that Europe is a continent, that France is a country, and that Budapest is the capital of Hungary.
Why is it relevant? Because you live on this planet. Your life and the lives of your friends and family rely directly on understanding how it works. You need to know what it looks like, where things are, what the state of the world is, at least in a general way. You need to know what the hell is happening and why. Because you live here and because of that you are partly responsible. And most of all, you need to know this shit for the simple reason that your ignorance, especially on national TV, does not validate your personal point of view but instead makes you look like an idiot. And provokes evil malcontents like me to scribble petulantly vitriolic screeds like this that 12 people will read.
We need to stop programming the life out of our educational system. We need to let our professionals do their jobs, the jobs they trained for, and we need to fund these professionals as professionals should be funded, especially since they hold the future success or failure of our society in their hands.
Corporatization—in nearly all incarnations--leads to cultural death and economic slavery.
Kelli Pickler is a victim of the Greatest Country in the World.
No Child Left Behind my ass.