Education for Stupidity

Almost seven years ago, according to The New York Times, Columbia College

…”suspended” its compulsory sophomore course in Contemporary Civilization…as a regretful admission that contemporary civilization had become too complicated and specialized to be taught by the ordinary contemporary [college] teacher.

This is a nice way of saying that there are not enough college instructors with brains enough to put our “complicated and specialized” culture together; the education system has tried to ensure that nobody shall be able to put it together, unless motivated by immense rewards. We can be certain, however, from the world-wide success of numerous American corporations, that many of them, having interests in all continents and under a variety of political and economic systems and technological conditions, have highly paid executives who have put the “complicated and specialized” world system together inside their heads—in their own way.

Professors Wilbert Moore and Melvin Tumin discussed the social functions of ignorance nearly twenty years ago. It is the purpose of this essay to illustrate the development of legitimate social stupidity in elementary and high schools in the United States, to illustrate how inability to put the “complicated and specialized” culture together is taught in school and to show, also, how incapacity is consolidated by fear.

By “legitimate social stupidity” I mean stupidity that is relevant to social goals and is legitimate because it is related to those goals. This means that, throughout their schooling, children must be given subject matter that confirms legitimate stupidity and that whatever challenges it must be withheld.

In an effort to document the hypothesis of the necessity for training children to social stupidity, I chose at random from a large assortment of school texts in the Washington University library. The weight alone of some of these books would discourage children’s interest in learning. For example, A History of the World, by Alice Magenis and John Conrad Appel, published by the American Book Company, and American History by Avery O. Craven and Walter Johnson, published by Ginn and Company, weigh three-and-a-quarter pounds each, and Economics by Kennard E. Goodman and C. Lowell Harriss, also published by Ginn and Company, weighs two-and-a-half pounds. If a child has to carry three such books to school every day, the nine-and-a-half pounds must surely make him wonder, sometimes, whether it is worth it.

I did not look in all the selected books for the same issues but read them with different aims in mind. Thus in a book on economics I looked for some treatment of prices and business cycles, in a history book I looked for discussion of war, The Great Depression, the Negro problem, and so on. Thus I have not been systematic, yet I think that what I shall say about the books gives a good idea of how well they perform the function of instilling socially legitimate stupidity in our children.

All the books give some information, but I am more concerned here with the gaps in the mosaic of …

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