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Education and “Stupidity”

The Tyranny of Schooling: An Inquiry into the Problem of “Stupidity”

by Lewis A. Dexter
Basic Books, 182 pp., $4.50

Lewis Dexter’s book is the first of what, I anticipate, will be a series of books by many authors criticizing American educational policy fundamentally from a conservative position. I do not count Koerner or Rickover as predecessors of Dexter, because these critics and others like them accept universal compulsory school attendance in principle, though they decry the condition of the public schools. Dexter is more penetrating and radical; also, within the limits imposed by his special point of view, more perceptive. He ruminates quietly and clearly about education, and his coolness and restraint tend to conceal that his attack, though gentle, is explicitly directed against the most fundamental assumptions on which public education rests.

Most of what Dexter says is both true and important, and on the whole he says it well. His major thesis is that the schools demand, reward, and certify a particular kind of intellectual functioning, humiliating and stultifying all youngsters who do not posses it and leading them to define themselves as stupid so that they are discouraged from developing what little potential they have. This is not new. Leading recent works on education, like Frank Riessman’s The Culturally Deprived Child1 stress the same point. But critics like Riessman are literally constructive; they suggest alterations in and additions to the existing educational edifice: instructional techniques that permit less academically-minded students to approach intellectual goals by using alternative skills, and expansion of the concept of education to encompass a wider variety of goals as valid and appropriate. In education, this is the established liberal position, which unquestioningly defends equality of opportunity and unquestioningly assumes that the most important function of the schools is to promote it. Dexter doubts this assumption, and his analysis must therefore follow very different lines.

Dexter’s position on stupidity, as I understand it, is this. Stupidity is real and important; it is not a social artifact, or simply the consequence of the recognition by our society of certain kinds of intelligence and the rejection of others. It is almost certainly partly genetic in origin, though stupidity also results from emotional damage, and from response-patterns that prevent the stupid person from receiving messages transmitted on middle-class wavelengths, like Martin Deutsch’s celebrated observation that lower-status children have a higher threshold of auditory response than middle-class children. Though their hearing is just as acute, they are not aware of what the teacher says because they live in an environment that is often so noisy and chaotic that they would not function at all if they did not keep most noise tuned out. A less liberal way of putting it is that they don’t listen to the teacher unless she screams at them, and often not even then. Whichever of these factors accounts for academic ineptitude or stupidity, Dexter sees the condition as essentially a stable state, largely irreversible. Compulsory school attendance makes stupid people stupider by shaking their confidence in what little ability they have; but nothing the school might do would enable them to transcend their established intellectual limits.

The answer, then, is to stop forcing them to attend school. Dexter points out that comparatively few people make a mess of their lives through sheer stupidity however low their IQ scores may be; and society has no right to confine them in schools and needle them for not being smarter. Schooling, in any case, does not help them; and there are many useful jobs they could do without it if they were not barred from employment by irrelevant requirements that applicants present diplomas to qualify for almost any kind of work. Their presence in the schools swamps the academic function, especially as the concept of socially, if not legally, compulsory education is extended to the college level.

The present mass attendance at colleges means that most colleges are swamped by students who have only slight motivation and who lack the cultural background for some awareness of what education can mean. In the prewar days, the proportion of students who either were strongly motivated and/or came from a cultured background was such that they had an influence on their fellow students who lacked such a background. Now, the critical mass of motivated or cultured students is generally too low for them to have any influence on others….

For the United States, the solution at present would seem to be to shut down most of the state-supported junior and community colleges, to withdraw the whole system of government and other aids for mediocre students at the college level, and to return to the notion that the university is designed essentially for just two classes of people: (1) those who are preparing for what may genuinely be considered professions and (2) those who are driven by a genuine intellectual hunger. Obviously, many employers would have to give up the irrelevant requirement of a college degree, if this were done and, as a matter of practical politics, there would have to be some preliminary spadework done to disabuse the public of its false notions about college.

Dexter is less aggressive toward the public schools. He does not recommend abolition; but notes that the educational establishment has been oversold as an instrument for insuring and, if necessary, compelling equality of opportunity; and he suggests that a wholesome attrition would naturally ensue if employers would quit demanding diplomas as credentials for positions in which they were irrelevant. I find this naive. Employers already know that the diplomas are irrelevant to job skills, but they want two other things for which Dexter does not provide. They want assurance that the application can stick out four years of petty constraint without making trouble; and they want to reinforce a procedure that keeps young people out of the economy as long as possible. By requiring diplomas for employment, our business leaders create a situation in which unemployed youth become subject to their draft boards almost as soon as they hit the labor market, which cannot absorb them in any case.

The portions of Dexter’s argument that I have quoted or summarized so far seem to me perceptive and, on the whole, sound. But the book nevertheless leaves me with strong misgivings. Dexter’s position, and the proposals that stem from it, are morally defensible even though undemocratic because—and only so long as—they promise to relieve from the thralldom of the school those students whom it injures. Their rescue seems to Dexter—and to me—worth more than it will cost in the loss of rather dubious opportunity. The title of his book implies that he intends this rescue. Perhaps, but then what are we to make of the following recommendation?

One acceptable and desirable alternative approach to the problems posed by dull or unmotivated children in the schooling situation is to re-emphasize the moral aspects of schooling. As a practical matter, for a great many people, school is chiefly valuable because it “socializes” them, that is, it teaches them habits and behaviors that are useful to them and society. For instance, American children learn to pay attention to schedules and to be reasonably punctual. And schools do teach cleanliness, neatness, and so forth.

This aspect of the school—teaching people habits that “fit them for society”—is not of necessity very closely related to the emphasis upon intellectual skill and development. Many students who would have no particular difficulty in learning conformable habits do suffer from being exposed to academic schooling. Because of the prestige currently attached to intellectuality and college preparation, school administrators in general spend far more effort in thinking about the academic part of the school. Fortunately, the teacher who is in actual contact with the student very often ignores such intellectual matters to focus on teaching good habits. But this could be done much more readily and efficiently and with better conscience if we returned somewhat to the nineteenth-century attitude: “Be good, sweet child, let who will be clever.”

So, they are not to be freed from the tyranny of schooling after all; but trained to docility in the ways of their betters. This passage is not merely a betrayal of the book’s manifest purpose; it is wildly irresponsible in its ignorance of the way these processes of socialization are actually carried out, like plantation clichés about happy slaves or the determined innocence of German suburbanites who happened to live in Dachau. School administrators and other school personnel, in my experience, feel much freer to devote themselves to meddling with the manners and morals of students than to their intellectual nurture; they are less constrained by their own intellectual limitations and generally unaware or their moral deficiencies. This is especially true when they are dealing with students whom they conceive to be “retarded” or “culturally deprived”—this is when they become egregiously patronizing and presumptuous. Dexter’s stupid are primarily lower-status youngsters—the converse is, of course, false—and breaking them to the shabby genteel folkways of the school is the very heart of the process by which they are confirmed in their stupidity and sense of inferiority. Their failure in school, as they experience it, is not just academic, it is a total failure to be the kind of person the school is willing to accept or even deal with.2

In a footnote Dexter asserts:

At least two capable scholars, who had been laudatory about my earlier work on retardation and schooling, were reluctant to encourage the publication of this book. It seems to them that it might support “illiberal” political trends—McCarthyism, Goldwaterism, etc.

So, I fear it does, which is a shame; because it needn’t have. Dexter’s basic argument does not require it; for there is nothing in conservatism as a social philosophy that impugns human dignity or lessens respect for the individual—on the contrary. This book, however, seems to me ultimately to abandon conservatism in order to support rather slyly the existing status structure. For example, Dexter proposes—I think very soundly—that guidance counselors be trained and permitted to function genuinely as such, and thus to counsel students to leave school if they are being wasted or made miserable there, instead of serving simply as adjuncts to the schools’ continuing effort to curb truancy and reduce dropout rates. But then he observes:

Practically speaking, any such program is likely to be adopted first in the more affluent suburbs. Although there are far fewer slow learners in these areas than in urban or rural school systems, nevertheless such a start would be advantageous, for in such suburbs, for one reason or another, a good many pupils would be advised and aided to do something other than stay in school—even though obviously quite bright. And so exemption from school would not become associated with stupidity.

For one reason and another, they would indeed. As Dexter suggests, the usual reasons are not very closely related to intelligence. They have to do with race, adjustment to suburban gentility, or as Aaron Cicourel and John Kitzuse have shown in a chilling case-study of the functions of counseling in an upper-status high school in a suburb of Chicago3 , with an imponderable that cannot be reduced to any objective factor, but that represents the guidance counselors’ image of a promising suburban child of the kind that deserves success in a good college. These are not morally acceptable factors in determining who guidance counselors are to cool out of school; and no qualified critic of education can ignore the fact that they are the factors that count.

I suspect it is going to be difficult to bear in mind, during the next few months, that conservatism refers to the traditions under which freedom and dignity can be defended and maintained; rather than to the devices by which an imperilled bourgeoisie can defend its wee privileges, express its spite, and allay its panic. Until I was three-quarters through it, I thought that Lewis Dexter’s book was going to help us to preserve this essential distinction and prevent the conservative position from being rendered wholly untenable by the antics of its present tenants. It doesn’t. But it is worth reading.

  1. 1

    Harper, 1962

  2. 2

    The reader who would like a blow-by-blow report on this process as it reduces Amerindian school children—who are likewise stigmatized in school as stupid and culture-free—to utterly witless and mechanical participation, though it never quite extinguishes their ability to function intelligently in their own culture, will find it in the magnificent new monograph by Murray L. and Rosalie H. Wax et al., “Formal Education in an American Indian Community.” Monograph Supplement to Social Problems, II, 4, Spring 1964.

  3. 3

    The Educational Decision Makers, Bobbs-Merrill, 1963

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