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 Child 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 …

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