STUPIDITY: THE FORBIDDEN WORD IN THE CLASSROOM

I whole-heartedly recommend the delicious collective volume edited by psychologist Jean-François Marmion, The Psychology of Stupidity (2020; originally Psychologie de la Connerie, 2018; trans. Liesl Schillinger) for its truly glorious outing of all types of thoughtlessness. It is really thought-provoking! Marmion’s volume warns that stupidity is hard to define and explore because it has multiple facets. It is easy to recognize assholes like Donald Trump, his contributors explain, but it is much harder to understand why people daily showing their intelligence professionally can say and do truly foolish things.

One thing that I should note is that persons are never wholly intelligent. Whenever uber-computers Deep Blue and Alpha Go are mentioned, AI detractors make a point of noting that they lack general intelligence and are only good at performing specific tasks. I think that a common mistake is believing that intelligent human beings possess general intelligence, which is not at all the case. To avoid offending other persons, I’ll mention that in my own case, I appear to have a certain talent for language, but my alleged intelligence evaporates the moment I need to apply it to other disciplines (yes, maths) and I have certainly made appalling, stupid mistakes in my life. I am also totally talentless for sports, which means that I would always get a basic pass for Physical Education. I am stupid, then, on many more fronts than I am intelligent, but because I am hard-working, my primary school teachers got the impression that I am mostly intelligent. As I grew up, I kept up the pretence by shedding the subjects at which I am stupid until I got in the niche where I seem to excel, more or less (let’s not exaggerate).

Among the many paragraphs I ended up underlining in Marmion’s book, I’ll reproduce here one from Jean-François Dortier’s chapter “A Taxonomy of Morons” which provides us with an insight into how school and intelligence (or stupidity) originally connected: “When, at the end of the nineteenth century [in 1881-2], Jules Ferry made primary education compulsory in France, it appeared that certain students were incapable of absorbing routine instruction. Two psychologists, Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon, were asked to create an intelligence test in order to identify such children so that they could receive an adapted education. This test formed the basis of what would later become the famous ‘IQ’—the Intelligence Quotient”. Today, Dortier adds, we use euphemisms (‘learning disabilities’) to avoid referring to children once commonly described as ‘retarded’, just as we don’t speak of ‘gifted’ children but of “children with ‘high potential’”.

I have never taken an IQ test, an instrument which I find of very little use. In fact, I think it is totally ridiculous, since having a high score does not mean a person is particularly useful to the welfare of humankind. If you are interested in this matter, I have just learned searching information for this post that there is something called Mensa International, a non-profit association that gathers together 134000 persons all over the world with IQs “at the 98th percentile or higher on a standardised, supervised IQ or other approved intelligence test”. What these persons are doing to stop climate change, or end the war in Ukraine, is not known, hence my mistrust of this kind of classification. What Dortier’s passage suggests, nonetheless, is that there was a moment in history when it might have been possible to organize all schools on the principle of IQ scoring, which is as frightening to me as the idea of eugenics. Happily, public schools were organized on the basis of providing students with the same education, though it is true that some students were horribly discriminated because of ableist prejudice and that others with special needs were awfully neglected. We were saved, at least, from carrying our IQ emblazoned on the school uniform, which is a relief.

This does not mean that there are no differences in learning capability among children, or that the school does not emphasize them through assessment, which I have opposed here recently. Reading Marmion’s Psychology of Stupidity it seems obvious that there must be a direct correspondence between the number of adults that show remarkable intelligence and those who enjoy wallowing in stupidity, and the number of children in both categories, despite the current pretense that all children are equally capable and will demonstrate it if given the right kind of education. I have been defending the idea that education should make the most of each person’s abilities and I hate any kind of classification that separates children according to academic performance—I still shudder to recall a fourth-grade teacher who had us shift seats at the end of each week (or was it day?) depending on how we had done, placing the best students at the front and the worst ones at the back. It is ugly to do this to children, but we all know cases of adults whose learning abilities are limited and who were already like that as kids. I am not speaking here of children with manifest problems, but children who could not and would not be educated and who have become adults that despise intelligence and learning. Thousands are displaying on social media each day what can only be called a profound stupidity, and, as we are seeing, the phenomenon begins as soon as children are given a smartphone, around age ten.

As I have noted, the supposition today is that no child is stupid but also that children’s self-esteem can be damaged if they are in any way told that their performance is below par. This has turned assessment into a minefield. In 2016 the local Catalan authorities decided to eliminate for that reason the 0-10 scale that we still use at the university to rate students’ performance, replacing it with another system which while apparently more lenient, still classifies children by performance. The new score system is ‘excellent achievement’ (assoliment excel·lent), ‘notable achievement’ (assoliment notable), ‘satisfactory achievement’ (assoliment satisfactory) and ‘no achievement’ (no assoliment). These are the old Sobresaliente (A), Notable (B), Aprobado (C), and Suspenso (D) but with an emphasis on learning outcome rather than assessment, or so did the authorities claim. This year the Catalan Education Councillor Josep GonzĂĄlez-Cambray has tried to replace ‘no achievement’ with the more optimistic ‘achievement in process’ (en procĂ©s d’assoliment) but teachers have argued that this would confuse families, and the ‘no achievement’ nomenclature for fails remains in place.

The struggle to find replacements for the traditional assessment categories is plainly manifesting that the school does not know how to handle the children who are not learning, despite being fully able to do so. It is feared, as I have noted, that they will feel abused if told openly that they have failed, but perhaps what is undermining the respect for intelligence and endorsing the reign of stupidity is, precisely, the supposition that children can be measured by the same system. If I am a child constantly told that my school activities lead to ‘no achievement’, I will do my best to bring the world down to my own level, beginning as soon as I can and with the help of social media. There, the more intelligent people are being mercilessly abused by those who feel free, thanks to the anonymity the media allow but also under their own names, to impose their aggressively stupid views. It’s a sort of revenge of the underachiever that is eating up any authority teachers or the school once had. They are winning the war, as the school can do nothing to revalue intelligence as what it used to be: not something a handful of children have, but something many children can show.

If, in short, all children are treated as equally capable and worthy of attention, which I am sure they are, where do stupid adults come from? The politically incorrect suggestion is that some people are born stupid, by which I mean congenitally incapable of benefitting from an education, even at its primary stage. The politically correct assumption is that the school produces stupidity by insisting on assessment and on presenting the more capable children as children of ‘high potential’, instead of selling intelligence as the more desirable model for all. As I have insisted, nobody is generally intelligent or totally stupid, and it is a question, then, of finding out in which areas each person is most capable. It is also a question of valuing in school other aspects. There might be children whose performance is not particularly outstanding but who are caring and generous. Others might be able to pass solid moral judgement and promote mutual respect. Some could be genius with their hands, rather than their brains. The school, in short, needs to be more intelligent in curbing down a system that, as I see it, produces excess adult stupidity.

The other institution that needs to be more intelligent are the social media. Back in the early 1990s, when I joined the pre-internet BBS (Bulletin Boards System) such as Fidonet, trolls would be shouted down as the disrespectful creatures they are. I had intense conversations of all kinds with a variety of persons all over Spain and we could certainly disagree without insulting each other. Then the internet came on in 1994, and later the social media (Facebook was launched in 2004). They attracted not necessarily less intelligent people but more permissive business models, based on the premise that the more users a network has, the higher income it receives from announcers. Trolls were for that reason welcome, if not directly more welcome, than people who could join in intelligent debate. Add to this anonymity and the populist rule of the like, and the recipe for the growth of worldwide stupidity is ready.

Please, recall that the guy who started the ball rolling, Mark Zuckerberg, was a Harvard University student at the time, showing how close intelligence and assholery often are. His cleverness has led to the massive exploitation of stupidity and the downfall of intelligence as a respected value all over the world. Food for thought.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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