Dumb is the New Smart: The Perversions of American Education

January 06, 2009

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Dumb is the New Smart: The Perversions of American Education

An earlier version of this essay was delivered at the H.L. Mencken Club’s Annual Meeting; November 21-23, 2008.

Under the general topic of malevolence, wickedness, and evil, a vocabulary exists for self-imposed harm, for example, self-mutilation or self-abuse. But such words always denote individuals—not collectivities—inflicting harm. It is almost unthinkable that, say, an entire ethnic group would knowingly injure, let alone kill itself. Masada or Jonestown-like incidents are so riveting since they are so exceedingly rare.

Let me suggest a third form of evil-doing that combines both elements: a group—not an individual—deliberately hurting itself. To simplify, we’ll call the pathology Social Kevorkianism, after the infamous Dr. Jack Kevorkian, inventor of the suicide-facilitating machine. Its defining element is the pursuit of destructive policies whose injurious collective nature is patently observable, and, of the utmost importance, behavior continues regardless of demonstrable harm. Serious destruction is now welcomed by recipients though they might not fully understand its evil character and perpetrators may believe themselves blameless.

We are not inventing new terminology for its own sake, the phenomenon really does exist, and if one had to identify a place where it thrives, it would be blacks “helping” educate other blacks who struggle academically. This is not the usual “lets try it since it might work” desperation that infuses today’s educational reform menu (for example, charters, vouchers, merit pay for teachers, phonetics etc.). Those measures are certainly plausible and may even occasionally perform as advertised. We are talking about crackpot panaceas all championed by blacks themselves, whose foolishness is indisputably apparent, nostrums that have repeatedly proven disastrous and, critically, their application are guaranteed to exacerbate the educational woes of African Americans.

It is, unfortunately, a bountiful catalogue and includes such well-known, black-lauded toxic “cures” as Afrocentric instruction, inculcating inflated self-esteem at the expense of genuine academic accomplishment, treating street slang as a bona fide language (Ebonics) so as not to stigmatize the inarticulate, insisting that black teachers be hired as role models regardless of competence, litigation to bestow diplomas on those incapable of reading them, forced racial integration for zero academic gain even if this pushes white taxpayers out, and demanding racial quotas when expelling or otherwise punishing troublemakers. For higher education, add vacuous vocationally worthless majors like Black Studies, lowered admission standards to ensure a mismatch between a student’s ability and the college, giving credit for remedial work to inflate graduation rates, teaching blatant feel-good falsehoods as “history,” whose net benefits are decidedly negative.  

One might think that these poisonous panaceas would sufficiently debilitate struggling blacks for all eternity, but, as they say on late night TV infomercials, wait there’s more.

Dr. Jack is as busy as ever and his latest black-endorsed “debilitator” contraption is transforming troubling, anti-academic achievement behavior into “giftedness.” This is far more than Newspeak “war is peace” dishonesty; this imposes genuine harm under the guise of kindness. So, rather than punish Joe Gangbanger for violent insubordination, some black educators “solve” the problem by twisting his noxious outbursts into something more laudatory—giftedness! And, if outsiders object, naively insisting that disorderly conduct totally subverts learning, defend this reconstructed reality as culturally valid, a lifting of the accomplish-killing stigma beleaguering black youngster. No matter the miscreant will leave school illiterate despite his or her alleged “talents.” Nor does it matter that this “helpfulness” so as to gloss over impertinence will drive decent, committed teachers out of the profession. The battle is over cosmetic, supposedly helpful labeling, and the costs be dammed even if the casualty is one’s own supposedly cherished racial or ethnic group.  

Some Background
The battle for racial equality in education has bed many chapters, but the most recent installment concerns access to programs for the intellectually gifted. These are small potatoes in today’s educational colossus, typically just a special class overseen by a specialized teacher though in some large cities there are math and science high schools. They seldom exceed 5% of all students, and unlike those mired in poverty consuming social services, let alone the physically or mentally disabled, these students hardly drain the school’s budget. A cost/benefit analysis might show these programs to be an incredible bargain—push little Mr. Brains a bit harder, wait twenty years, and voilá, the iPod.

To an intellectually unsophisticated outsider, however, a gifted program must appear almost magical and thus worthy of forced entry. Children enter these programs and then, in some mysterious way, attain super test scores, are admitted to Ivy League schools, and then earn big bucks. That this accomplishment flows from superior innate intelligence, diligence and relentless parental pressure typically goes unnoticed—one “gets” this fantastic capacity merely by showing up as if one grows into a hulking Hercules simply by visiting an NFL weight room. And here’s the problem that sets Dr. Kovorkian in motion: blacks and Hispanics are severely under-represented in these programs while Asians are grossly over-represented. So, since these experiences “bestow” immense economic advantages for those admitted, and since all education-related advantages should not racially discriminate, it therefore follows that blacks and Hispanics should get their “fair share” of these magical, life-enhancing opportunities.

The idea of proportional access to gifted classes may even seem a natural historical progression, the next logical step in racial progress. But, here’s the obstacle: entrance requires demonstrating superior intellectual ability, usually via an IQ test, and blacks and Hispanics just cannot surmount this test-based hurdle. How, then, is this impediment to be overcome? New York City has tried special tutoring for blacks and Hispanics to help them pass the entrance exams for top-notch math and science high schools, but it failed. Elsewhere a court order has done the trick. In some instances abolishing these programs altogether solves the problem though this only angers white and Asian parents who want these programs. Alternatively, black and Hispanic children might be pushed to study harder so as to extract every benefit from their cognitive abilities. But, given a choice between being a grind and what Dr. Kevorkian might offer, the ingenious Doctor comes to the rescue.
New and Improved Definitions of Gifted
How might struggling, even barely literate black students come to be labeled gifted? Just leave it to Professor Donna Ford, holder of an endowed professorship at the Peabody School of Education, Vanderbilt University, and a renowned, well-published expert on gifted education for African Americans. In 2008 she won the Distinguished Scholar award from the National Association of Gifted Children. Ford begins by claiming that no universally accepted precise definition of intelligence exists, so almost anything can be “intelligence.” Fuzziness established, Ford then asserts that black children can be gifted though not according to existing flawed definitions. In particular, blacks are disproportionately endowed with certain under-recognized, under-appreciated abilities qualifying them as intellectually superior. These include a knack for expressing emotions, a language rich in imagery, a skill at improvisation, a superior sense of rhythm, a flair for humor, expressive body language among other “gifted” attributes. This hardly exhausts black giftedness and she compiles multiple commendable “black cultural styles” to be added to this stellar inventory, notably spirituality, oral tradition, harmonious communalism, and expressive individuality.

But, if these black youngsters are so gifted, why are academic outcomes so pitiful? No problem, according to Professor Ford. Without a scintilla of data Ford claims that black students learn to be under-achievers by being sensitive to social injustices, astutely witnessing the contradictions between academic learning and life experiences or growing wary of the school promoted meritocratic ideology. Academic under-performance is further compounded by ubiquitous racism, negative stereotypes among teachers and school administrators, and if these were inadequate to thwart academic mastery, black students come to see the racial, class and gender discrimination in both their schools and the larger society. Still, a skeptic might inquire, are blacks intellectually up to par, as measured by traditional tests, with all those striving Asians and whites flooding gifted programs? Of course they are, Ford responds. Traits traditionally defining “gifted,” i.e., aptly solving complex problems, these are all there, she blithely asserts, and at requisite if not superior levels, but “…may be hidden due to substandard educational experiences.” In other words, struggling African American students are hidden diamonds in the rough and, for good measure, possess innumerable other “gifted” traits certifying them superior candidates for admission to all those elite classes inexorably leading to Yale or Harvard.

If Professor Ford were the only proponent of this wacky giftedness, matters would not be so bad. In reality, she is only one voice in a much larger “We’re all gifted!” chorus. The sainted hero in this adulteration enterprise is Howard Gardner (who is white), a frequently honored, endlessly cited, Harvard education professor. His theories of intelligence are ubiquitous in the new and far more inclusive gifted literature. Gardner posits eight “multiple intelligences”: linguistic, visuospatial, logical-mathematical, musical, interpersonal, intra-personal and bodily-kinesthetic (this list grows as Gardner discovers additional “intelligences”). These terms reflect his definition of intelligence as a “psychobiological” ability to solve problems or create products of value in a culture. Note well, they reflect a particular culture, not universal adaptability, so among the Navajo, a talented basket weaver is considered “intelligent.”

To embrace this formulation potentially certifies everybody as “gifted” and thus, in effect, with all the prestige that comes with being a Harvard professor, Gardner subverts the historically understood idea of gifted education. These eight traits also may only be the first step, so the expansive possibilities are huge, particularly since everyone craves to be “gifted” one way or another. The slow-witted parent with an average child can now invoke a celebrated Harvard professor’s prestige to get her middling offspring upgraded—can’t-sit-still-junior with his big mouth is off the charts when it comes to intrapersonal skills! 

When Dumb is the New Smart

This is a recipe for educational calamity, and for all parties, black and white and everything in between. A full autopsy of Dr. Ford-Gardner-Kevorkian’s patient would uncover multiple patient-debilitating pathologies, all inimical to genuine education. But, we can only highlight a few items from the lab report. Clearly, twisting patently obvious academic deficiencies into something called a black learning style or other commendable traits all having zero to do with anything intellectual ensures a truly rotten education for these newly-minted wizards. This is cultural relativism applied to schooling—everything is a laudatory talent, a standing set of excuses to avoid hard work. Imagine a black youngster struggling to write, never an easy task for anyone, and a degree of painful coercion may be necessary. Now, however, escape from drudgery is simple—he or she can now just explain that he comes from an oral tradition and, so, learning to write is unnecessary, sort of like pushing an Eskimo to learn surfing. This phony giftedness also undermines self-discipline, patience for slogging through boring material, keeping quiet and all else that goes into studiousness. A classroom filled with raucous, undisciplined children is not what it seems; it is, according to Dr. Ford, an classroom teeming with the “spontaneous self expression” so characteristic of gifted blacks. Meanwhile envision a precocious shy young ten year old capable of college-level math trying to coexist with a bunch of loud talkative boys obsessed with break dancing (bodily kinesthetic intelligence, according to Dr. Gardner).

It gets worse. This praised sensitivity to racial justice, hidden racism and incapacitating inequality will transform any school into a Garden of Earthly Litigation Delights. Nothing can escape racially sensitive scrutiny and, rest assured, acrimony will thrive. The newly identified gifted, according to Professor Ford, might see invisible racism everywhere while disagreeable facts become learning-destroying stereotypes. If too many blacks fail an algebra exam, seek out the hidden whiteness of algebra so as to dismiss the unwelcome outcome. Why suffer teachers imposing Shakespeare when allegedly talented students can devise plays showcasing ghetto humor and spontaneous rap-style soliloquies? If too many “disobedient” blacks are sent to the Vice-Principal, demand that the Vice-Principal be work-shopped so as to acquire a keener understanding of how blacks possess the gift of impulsive physical playfulness.  

The awaiting tribulations hardly stop here. With a distinguished black educator (and their white allies) “proving” that blacks are just as gifted as whites, what administrator wants to risk litigation when black parents demand entry to this wondrous, prosperity-generating benefit? What school superintendent anticipates going to court and defending IQ tests as culturally fair when opposing well-credentialed “experts” explains that black students have stellar IQ’s but these scores are obscured by society’s racism? Now, obstacles pushed aside, the rush to enter the gifted classroom is on.

Unfortunately, forcing the academically unqualified into classes far over their heads will inevitably subvert learning for everybody, including African Americans. The newcomers, regardless of their hidden intellectual brilliance, will be befuddled and those admitted by conventional criteria (top 5% of the IQ distribution) will grow bored as teachers dumb down lessons to push everyone to a litigation-avoiding passing grade. Extra funds may go towards hiring “black gifted” specialists to devise unique curriculums for these diamonds in-the-rough. A parallel apartheid-like gifted program may have to be instituted. Ironically, smart whites and Asians will interact with students who re-enforce the notion of black intellectual insufficiency and witness firsthand how educators lie when covering up clumsy social engineering. Such dilution and dishonesty cannot be hidden by devious Newspeak, and the parents of the authentically gifted may soon jump ship. 

Now picture these Professor Ford-certified “gifted” students leaving school and entering the workforce. The prognosis is not good. It is one thing to survive a school run by accommodating administrators terrified of government lawsuits but quite another to thrive in profit-driven enterprise. Offering up the once sanctioned excuses—I’m an emotional, non-logical person; I’m better with tasks requiring rhythm; I overslept due to negative stereotypes—will ring hollow. Such “gifted” students-turned-employee will probably also be litigation magnets, perceiving discrimination and unfairness everywhere, just like they learned from Professor Ford and her minions. Nor will these new employees, thanks to delusional beliefs about their (hidden) intellectualism talents, accept the inevitable failures that any job brings. After all, they came to understand that it was not their fault if trigonometry or chemistry was gobbledygook; this stuff was only giftedness for the Asians and whites down the hall, and not required for those in more culturally sensitive gifted settings. In a nutshell, these bogus gifted workers may now enjoy lifetime incapacitation thanks to Dr. Ford-Kevorkian’s assistance.

Assessing the Damage
It is simple, as we have done, to castigate those harming people of their own stripe under the guise of uplifting them. Nor is it easy to sympathize with a semi-literate unemployed youngster who voluntarily feasted on the menu of Afrocentric education, self-esteem über alles, and gross historical inaccuracies offered as “speaking truth to power,” all of which brought a degree in Black Studies from a college offering remedial high school courses for counterfeit college credit. That the young man or woman interprets black-facilitated ineptitude into possessing special gifts, all the while citing famous professors and their research, is only the dessert in a banquet of foolishness.

Still, a wise bystander might reasonably plead with Dr. Ford and her followers to stop pushing this nonsense, to instead tell these struggling students that kinetic activity is not intellectual accomplishment or that they are not really gifted. But what can be done beyond these well-intentioned admonitions?  The answer is, not much. In medicine Ford’s or Gardner’s foolishness would be labeled quackery, deceptive advertising and perhaps banned from the marketplace as injurious. Or, cigarette-like scare labels may be appended to this “we’re all gifted!” literature saying that it may cause stupidity is inhaled. But, education is not medicine and it is unthinkable that consumer protection laws might be applied to what transpires in the classroom. Educational snake oil is First Amendment protected and Dr. Kevorkian’s device only requires a publisher sensing a burgeoning market, and all appearances, this market thrives.

There is, however, a totally different perspective. These debilitating but welcomed panaceas are comforting measures to medicate what must be agonizing tribulations. While a troubled individual might drown his sorrows in alcohol or gluttony, academically struggling African Americans prefer inflated self-praise, falsified history, deceptive, labeling and similar delusional tricks to reduce the distress of repeated failure. In pharmacological language, Afrocentric education, elastic definitions of gifted, and all the rest are pedagogical Prozac. This is absolutely understandable, almost unavoidable. Imagine belonging to a racial category always found at the academic bottom, the object of numerous failed, hugely expensive government remediation efforts and whose sorrowful school performance is routinely spoken of as the nation’s number one problem. Distinguished government commissions exist for the sole purpose of reversing your chronic incompetence while fresh-off-the-boat Asians zoom past you on reading and spelling tests. Battlefront reports are inexorably terrible—low test scores, dreary graduation rates, violence-plagued schools and, the mother of all insults, when blacks begin attending a school, non-blacks flee.

It is no wonder, then that when a charlatan arrives to certify your “giftedness” though in ways incomprehensible or invisible to whites, the message is gladly swallowed. And, a “shape up and get off the therapeutic fantasy” will go unheeded for the simple reason that the “shape up” alternative is often unappetizing though it may, in fact, enhance genuine academic accomplishment. Exceptions abound, and more can be accomplished with the available talent, but for most African Americans, current educational attainment levels will not be reversed, so one must find ways of tolerating the pain.    

In the final analysis, then, this massive self-inflicted harm is irreversible and, no doubt, Dr. Jack is hardly finished. Ford, Gardner and all the others will wildly inflate “giftedness” and other self-inflicted debilitations will probably multiply. Gresham’s’ Law certainly applies—bad education will drive out the good—and the disorder afflicting blacks may be contagious. To be frank, most American parents and students, including many whites, crave cheap praise for mediocre educational accomplishment—we are not only all above average, we are all truly gifted.  

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