At the end of a rainy afternoon I watch the 2003 documentary Stupidity (on YouTube). It’s not very good but at least the producers are brave enough to address the question of why stupidity is so popular in our days (much more so when the documentary was filmed, during Bush jr.’s first mandate).
The key question, which as a teacher bothers me very much, is why, in these times when people are better educated than ever, so many human beings choose to flaunt their stupidity –including the college-educated. As an interviewee explained, today too many people are ‘proud of what they don’t know’ instead of being troubled by what they ignore. Add to this, as Rosa María Calaf commented yesterday, that in the past people would be shown on TV as a kind of reward for their merits whereas now TV has become a parade of people with no merits at all. (Call that backlash, if you will…)
Stupidity, as many observed in the documentary, has many different meanings and I would indeed agree that the academic profession has many members that I would describe as downright stupid, English Literature teachers included. I myself am as guilty as many of my hypereducated peers of being unbelievably stupid at many points in my life, personal and professional. Yet, the kind of stupidity that concerns me is that of the person who won’t bother to overcome their own stupidity even when they are given the tools to do so (and are intelligent enough to realise they’re stupid, of course).
Downward peer pressure, I believe, is a great factor in this sad situation. Making the most of your capabilities, whether mental or physical, means taking the challenge of being different. This may attract admirers but also very often results in isolation. My generation is full of rampant individualists quite ready to step on anyone’s toes to fulfil their aims; isolation is not a huge worry. In contrast, the younger generation, I assume, have grown up in a very different climate, in which the number of cell phone and Facebook contacts are read as clear indicators of one’s popularity. In neither case is the atmosphere the most suitable one for the full development of one’s mental abilities: in my generation because of our fierce individualism, in the younger one because none wants to be taken for a nerd.
All this makes me wonder how athletic people view us, lazybones. After all, if I wanted to, I could join a gym, exercise every day and become as fit as Madonna (minus the botox…). Yet instead, although I don’t exactly flaunt my physical unfitness, I get by as well as I can, just checking that at least I stay healthy. Yet, just think of that excellent film, Wall-E, and see how easy it would be for everyone to let go in a society of very fat people. Also, think of how idiotic it would be for anyone uninterested in sport to demand a university education in that field and then show up in class making it obvious they refuse to exercise. Now, that would be stupid…
It’s hard not to be offensive when discussing stupidity, yet, as my job consists of fighting the natural human tendency towards stupidity, including my own, I worry. I worry, in short, because this ‘pride’ in not knowing is too often found in university classrooms (and offices). It is the worst enemy of those who do want to know, and who are becoming little by little more reluctant to showing their ambition to learn and think.
One is not stupid, remember, because one knows little. One is stupid when, given the chance, one refuses to learn. And that applies to all of us.