I'm probably going to get some flack for this, but ce la vie. I want to know how we've helped our kids--boys in particular--by taking the stigma out of looking stupid. I come from an era where people at least wanted to act like they had some sense...and certainly expected their kids to. We now live in such a "compassionate", PC, "sensitive" culture that it's now cushy to look ignorant. And it's SO indelicate to recognize when a kid acts like he's dumber than a box of rocks. But that's just it--when he's ACTING that way (by choice) why isn't he embarrassed?

I'm a high school teacher, and before you crucify me, I need to make it clear that I'm only too happy to help kids who honestly are struggling to understand something. I'm not talking about a kid having trouble understanding algebra concepts or needing help figuring out his grammar assignment. I would never call a kid "dumb" just because he needed some extra help with academics. Sometimes facing the challenge and having to work through it (even with help) is the essence of the learning process. What I'm really talking about is kids who come to school and act like they can't figure out what they're supposed to be doing---and then don't have sense enough to be ashamed of themselves.

Let me give you some examples from my classroom:

I'll have instructions on the board detailing exactly what the kids need to start on in class: some will still sit there and say, "now, what do we do?" Sometimes I just look at the board and point, inviting them to see what's on the board--but that requires reading and following the instructions, which is quite beyond the scope of some of them. But then when you realize that frequently, I've already READ these instructions to the entire class, and they were too "out-to-lunch" to notice that I was even giving the instructions, uh, he-LLO!?!?!

Others will listen to detailed directions spelling everything out in dumbed-down, basic English, complete with lots of hand gestures (just so they can understand the instructions that are both on the board and in the book) and will say when it's all finished, "I still don't get what we're supposed to do" (note carefully---not HOW to do it, but even just WHAT to do). Sometimes you'll see the blank look in their eyes and think, "use your head!"

Countless times in one day, I hear myself saying "follow your model" (meaning the example in the book). You'd think that the concept of looking at the example that shows how to do something was a secret that only comes to a select few through an act of divine revelation. But when you're in the middle of an activity and realize that the person you're saying this to is the FIFTH or SIXTH person to be called upon---and he STILL hasn't figured out what's going on (or even what page we're on in some cases), it goes from exasperating to ominous. That's when you wonder how some of them are going to grow up and figure out how to do their own shopping, pay their own bills, and generally have sense enough to come in out of the rain. It's a times like these that I wonder if Obama-care will have group home coverage.

Then, when it's all said and done, there will be kids sitting there who didn't do the activity at at all and have nothing to show for it when it's time to collect the work. They'll say "I didn't have a pencil" or "I didn't have a piece of paper" or "I didn't know what page we were on". When you say something like "wouldn't it have been better to borrow a pencil (or a piece of paper, etc.) rather than just not doing the activity and taking a zero on it?" They're like "Oh...."

Then there's my favorite excuse, "I didn't understand it". I have to curb my urge to be very sarcastic at this point and ask in a very teacherly fashion what better strategies they might have employed when they didn't understand something, rather than just not doing the work? (It's not like I haven't been there the whole time, available to help). And for me to assume that they'd think to use their glossary, flip back a couple of pages and look at the lesson that led up to the activity, or open their notebooks to yesterday's class notes (assuming they took any) and figure out that the activity is just rehashing the concept that has just been taught, my Heavens...was I expecting Einstein? It's not that these kids really are stupid--they may have an above average IQ--but they act like they don't have enough common sense to come in out of the rain, because it's no longer chic to EXPECT them to. And Heaven forfend lest they should feel ashamed of themselves.

The point of all of this is, we've de-stigmatized looking stupid. We've made it easy and comfortable to look like you're too ignorant to figure out what you're supposed to be doing. I can't write on papers the comments that the kids really need to hear--that's "being negative" or "using shame", and some bleeding-heart mommy might complain that her little darling was made to feel bad. Meanwhile, who's challenging her "little darling" to step up to the plate and act like a MAN who's got something going ON? And if he's never challenged to act like he has any sense, when, pray tell, is he going to acquire any?

I worry about what this all portends for the future. In the same way that we, as a society, have destigmatized laziness, irresponsibility, and immorality, we have now made it acceptable to not use your head. Well, we see where laziness, irresponsibility, and immorality have got us--what will our social acceptance of voluntary ignorance bring? Personally, I see a lot of dark clouds on the horizon---oh, nevermind...it's already raining.

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Comment by Dave S on September 27, 2009 at 1:43pm
I've read a great many forum posts, blogs, and articles that say that our children are becoming more lazy, selfish, and less self-reliant. They dodge responsibility, and seek shortcuts to "success" i.e., unrealistic visions of material wealth and fame. I'm not a teacher, or parent, so I really can't say for sure. I believe it's still up to those who raise them, but it has to be a tough job fighting the thousands of hours of garbage our kids are exposed to in the media. They face an army of spoiled celebrities, and a minefield of reality shows that teach us that being self-serving scandalous brats is a sure ticket to fame and fortune. This is something I, and my girlfriend will be facing soon enough. I'll just try to keep in mind the lessons of my parents.

One other thought. In our civilization, we have gone through periods in which we have distrusted and demonized intellectuals, asking questions, questioning policy and law labels you as a troublemaker or a member of the lunatic fringe. We seem to be coming out of (hopefully) just such a time. While I won’t ascribe this to a grand conspiracy, our society, particularly the media, seems to have let personal and civic responsibility, as well as intellectual pursuits fall by the wayside. I hope to see this trend end, and soon. I hope to see rational, mature debate rather than infantile shouting and name calling in our politics and journalism. I hope to see unbridled enthusiasm for scientific and spiritual discovery, and responsible, open-minded analysis of ideas and theories. Again, I realize it’s up to each family to teach their child the love of the journey, not just the destination. So when my child asks me for a Playstation 10, do I instead get him the chemistry or erector set my father gave to me?
Comment by Ben on September 26, 2009 at 5:58pm
I agree with you Todd, as a male high school student myself I see this every single day. Its perfectly acceptable, no encouraged to act stupid. People who you know ar perfectly capable of doing what they're required to do so often just act stupid because its funny, being intelligent does not fit the accepted sterotypes of high school student. I though am an in higher level of classes, shielded from so much of this, I mean who chooses to study Chemistry over Agriculture? Certainly not the kids that are at school only for the social aspect.

Sadly I don't think there is anything a teacher can do to change this, generally the aura of the teacher and the subject play a large part but none seem to really be able to get rid of it entirely.

Will its sad though, many of these aspects of young men are becoming ever more prevalent in young women too. Acting stupid constantly, we have our Paris Hilton esque individuals who see ditzy as best.

I can't really speak for years gone by but when ever I've ever done anything stupid around my grandfathers they most certainly let me know, I think that needs to come back.

Hopefully my generation will grow up soon but I'm doubtful of any signs of progress before they turn 30.
Comment by Sir on September 26, 2009 at 12:31pm
I think men are portrayed as stupid because:
* as Aristotle said, comedy is about characters you think are worse than you (stupider, more venal, etc.); and
* it's politically unacceptable for such a character to be a woman.

And it's not other people I'm talking about, or not only. Go back and watch Ricky point out to Lucy how dumb she's being. To (my) modern ears, it's a little offensive.

Sad for comediennes, who have to give up a lot of the best lines.
Comment by WWHayes on September 26, 2009 at 12:00pm
I could go on and on about the political implications of this, but really it'd be hijacking the thread. As a man in college myself, it's painful to see how really helpless some of my peers are. I completely agree with you from painful experience in classrooms from middle school to now, as a senior in college. What's worse is that this entire debacle only perpetuates the stereotype that men are really just overgrown children, worth only slapping a wrench into their collective palm and telling them to use their hands, because their minds are worthless. And, in a devilish twist, they call it progress. Sadly, there's no real way to combat it. Nepotism and connections all too often mean more than competence, so these kids will probably wind up making more money than me, with 1/8 the ability. Wow. Just bummed myself out...
Comment by thehuhman on September 21, 2009 at 3:20pm
Todd, you mentioned --boys in particular-- I wonder if their male role models are acting all that smart. I mean, if you watch much TV these days, it seems that the guy is always portrayed as stupid... maybe that has something to do with this phenomenon. I'm referring to the likes of:
Home Improvement
The King of Queens
Everybody Loves Raymond
Comment by Jeremy Gross on September 21, 2009 at 12:01pm
I taught math at both the college and high school levels. I call it "baby-birding" the teacher. A baby bird demands that the mother catch the worm, chew it up, digest it, and spit up the remains into the baby bird's open mouth. Students demand their teachers do the same with knowledge, often with the same level of panic. It's awful to watch. Education should be about developing mental autonomy, but so many students are so passive and helpless that mental autonomy will never arrive for many of them.

Also, helicopter moms ensure that none of these precious darlings ever feel bad for any reason ever, least of all shame for being clueless. I was a tough teacher, rigorous, and a strict grader, and burned myself out. I taught to the brightest students, had interesting historical anecdotes for the mid-level students, and sent the bottom students to remedial math and let remedial deal with them. It got me fired more than once, and eventually I changed careers.

My personal bitterness aside, I don't know how to handle the deliberate dumb-asses except to make it really hot for them, or to ignore them. These kids can be influenced by their peers, by outside groups they belong to like Scouting, 4H, church youth groups, and so on. They can be influenced one-on-one, if your school provides office hours. But there's more of them than you, and they're hoping that you'll give up in exasperation before you make each of them pay for their behavior.
Comment by Todd Serveto on September 20, 2009 at 10:06pm
I teach Spanish...and I love my job. Not all of my students are like the ones I described. But what's vexiing is the fact that the kids that are honestly don't seem to have sense enough to be embarrassed about acting like they're too goofy to figure out what's going on. That just didn't happen in previous generations. You may have had trouble with the work or not liked your classes, but you didn't want to look like an idiot in front of your peers. The fact that there WAS a stigma attached made looking stupid something to avoid. But we've tried so hard to take any shame out of it that kids no longer seem to mind--and it's no longer considered acceptable to call a spade a spade. We're also supposed to pretend that he's "having trouble".
Comment by asa c mcguire on September 20, 2009 at 9:34pm
All I can say is I feel for you! Thats why I talked my wife out of teaching HS History. She would be expected to teach the required curriculum and only the way she was told to teach it. Being the next Oh Capitan my Capitan in this day in age no so easy. It sounds like you teach math if so even harder for you. Its hard to inspire most to want to do math especially lower level classes. It sounds like you care so maybe the "eureka" will hit soon.
Comment by Sir on September 20, 2009 at 9:19pm
I don't think PC has anything to do with this.* It's a guess, but I think it's mandatory schooling. You're forced to be somewhere you don't want to be, and the things the teacher tells you to do don't have anything to do with status relative to your peers... so naturally there get to be a large group that pursue other means of status, and those that do what they're told -- or do something intellectual because they like it -- are lower in status than those that pursue status instead. (Usually. Orson Scott Card tells the tale that at his high school, the football captain was a little embarrassed about being football captain... because a group of geeks, led by Card himself, had the nerve to make cute songs ridiculing jocks. It worked. But usually, status goes to those who seek it, and since nobody cares if you get an A, it's done by sarcasm, physical strength, and chutzpah.)

I'll say this for certain. Every student, or almost every student, in your class would be fully capable of following instructions if he wanted to.

*About PC: students in the classroom being clueless is older than PC. But now that I think about it, a teacher could have really shamed a student when I was in school in the 1970's, pre-PC, by saying things like, "So you decided to getting a zero would be better than borrowing a pencil. Not real bright, huh?" At that time we didn't want to look stupid, but we also didn't want to look smart. So you had to look street smart. Have confidence, have snappy comebacks, and don't do too awful in school, because you're supposed to pretend you're too smart to care about the assignments, not too dumb to do them if you wanted.

So maybe PC is deeply related to this, if they truly don't mind looking dumb.

Ever read It's Your Time You're Wasting? It's from a UK bottom-tier school. Funny, but it sounds like it would make the worst inner-city school in the US look like grad school.

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