What does it say when the leading candidate for president in one of the two main political parties in the United States says “I love the undereducated”? Further, what does it say when everyone just sees that as a laugh line?
I’m not laughing.
There’s an uncomfortable truth to what Donald Trump articulated the other night, and that is that perhaps the biggest reason for his rise to precipice of the presidency is because the vast majority of people in this country are “undereducated.” But as Rick Shenkman points out in this piece at the Bill Moyers’ blog, it’s not about being stupid. “Voters aren’t dumb. They are ignorant.”
Why is that? I think it’s arguable that the ignorant masses are the result of a less than effective education system that is cranking out kids with relatively useless knowledge about calculus and the Louisiana Purchase at the expense of the skills and dispositions needed to not become ignorant. Count among those things curiosity, which kids bring with them to school in truckloads when they are young but which quickly fades when forced to hew to the scripted curriculum. Creativity, which again is in large supply in pre-schoolers but gets pressed out of them by sitting quietly in rows and loud, class-ending bells that shut down whatever juices may be boiling at the time. And empathy, which gets ignored in the race for better grades, more bullet points on the college application, and the ranking and sorting of standardized tests.
We’ve trained our kids to wait. They wait to be told what they should learn, how they should learn it, and how to show that they’ve learned it. We’ve stripped them of the agency over learning that is required to avoid the ignorance we now find ourselves confronted with. Is anyone shocked that Shenkman comes to this conclusion about the American populace:
Ignorant voters lack knowledge, but their problem is not that they have trouble learning. The problem is that on their own they don’t try, relying instead on biases of one sort or another to guide their thinking.
Why don’t they try? I know that’s a complex answer, and if you read the Shenkman essay, it goes beyond the education system, obviously. But I would still argue, as John Taylor Gatto did over two decades ago, that we are dumbing down our kids. This may not be new; people have argued forever that the goal of education was to create an ignorant society so that those in charge could get away with whatever their self-serving interests demanded. But regardless of when it started, it’s untenable for this democracy today. (Did anyone else turn that debate last night off in embarrassment?)
And let’s be clear, the Web has added to the problem. For as much as social media has been a boon to learning, it’s also been a totally different boon to the creation of even more biased, echo-filled spaces where people can easily confirm their own worldview without thinking critically or engaging in civil discourse with those that disagree. The Internet can no doubt make us smarter and more educated. But there is a complex literacy around that (and around information in general) that is sorely lacking in our classrooms today. And I’m talking about the adults here, not just the kids.
Our ignorance, not just of the issues of concern to this country but of the larger world around us, can be cured, I think, at least to some extent. But it’s not going to happen with more curriculum, more tests, more data, more homework, more school days, more rules and punishments, more rankings, and more pressure to achieve some crumbling vision of the American educational dream. It will happen by doing everything to make sure that kids have more of a desire to learn about themselves and the world around them when they leave us than when they met us, by giving kids the freedom to pursue their passions and interests, by helping them solve problems that matter, and by encouraging them to do work that matters in the world, not just in the classroom.
We can’t be ok with what this system has to some extent wrought. We should be working hard to rethink that system to eliminate the “undereducated” as a lovable constituency for those hoping to ascend to the most powerful leadership position in the world.