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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 information that make it impossible, eventually, even for an instructor in Columbia College to put together for college sophomores an intelligible account of our “complicated and specialized” world. I start with the Negro problem.

Stupidity About Negroes

Teacher’s Edition of Basic Social Studies 4: Esther Aschemeyer seems to be the principal author of the teacher’s guide to this book, while the principal author of the pupil edition seems to be Adaline P. Hagaman. I say “seems” because it is not clear, from the way the publisher has arranged the names, who is what. The “director” of this book—or series of books—is Thomas J. Durell and it is “critically reviewed”—either the book or the series—by Philip Bacon, Professor of Geography, Dean of the Graduate School, George Peabody College of Teachers. Drawings, maps, and charts are by other people. Thus a “team” was assembled by Harper and Row, presumably with the best advice they thought they were getting, and published in 1964.

Let us have a look at what Basic Social Studies 4 has to say about cotton in the United States. The section on cotton in the United States extends from page 79 to page 84. Half of page 79 is a cartoon picture of a white boy, about eleven or twelve years old, standing up at the front of a classroom, in front of other white children, and looking very uncomfortable. This is “Chuck.” The unit revolves around Chuck, who lives “on a cotton farm” and has to give a talk in class about cotton to children who also live on “cotton farms.” About two-thirds of pages 80-1 are covered with a large picture of a cotton field with nine white children standing in it. There is also a neatly dressed white man. Half of page 82 is occupied by another picture of white children in a cotton field and about a quarter of page 83 is taken up with a front view of a mechanical cotton picker. At the controls is a white man; and one can tell very little from the picture about how the machine functions. Page 84 is review and instructions to the children about what to think about. The text contains references to fertilizing, weeding, defoliation—“Does the company expect you to put chemicals on these plants to make the leaves fall off before you harvest the cotton?”—and cotton-picking machines. This is all. Page 132 of the teacher’s guide has a number of sentence completion test questions: Question one requires that the student remember that cotton needs a “warm” climate, and the right answer to Question two is that there are truck farms in the “Rio Grande” valley.

IN 1961 Professor Walter Johnson and Avery O. Craven, both of the University of Chicago, wrote an American History, published by Ginn and Company, for high schools, in which the Negro is discussed so as to give the impression that all his problems are on the way to rapid solution (pp. 640-1), and to prove it, on page 641 there is a picture of Jackie Robinson playing first base. In his 1965 high-school history text, The United States Since 1865, also published by Ginn and Company, Professor Walter Johnson seems to have reversed himself, for on pp. 468-477 he gives as honest an account of the Negro situation as one could expect to find in an American textbook; yet, strangely enough, the old text that one encounters on page 641 in the 1961 book is retained unchanged—even with the picture of Jackie Robinson—on page 409 of the new book. How does one account for this contradiction? If one chooses to stop reading at page 409 in the new book, one can feel that things are improving; if one continues to page 468 one will feel altogether differently.

I did not carefully turn every page in Your Life As a Citizen by Harriet Fullen Smith, George G. Bruntz, with Ernest W. Tiegs and Fay Adams, published by Ginn and Company in 1961; but leafing through it several times I saw no Negro face, and the only contemporary references to the Negro are on pages 220-21, where it is stated that Negroes have equal protection under law. Our United States, A Bulwark of Freedom by Harold H. Eibline, Frederick M. King, and James Harlow, published in 1961 by Laidlaw Brothers, has nothing at all on the contemporary Negro, and precious little about him at all.

Basic Social Studies 5, published in 1964 by Harper and Row, is another one of those faceless “basics.” It is an American history, and the authors are O. Lawrence Burnette, Jr. and Lettie Lee Ralph, with Thomas J. Durell as “director.” It is a cute book, different from the run of American history texts in that it is organized around a number of quite comfortable families who move around in the US. Aside from this it is the same old packaged American History. The modern South is discussed, for example, on pages 353-356 with no reference to Negroes, and all faces are white. Though the book carries the student into the Presidency of John F. Kennedy, the latest reference to the Negro is the Civil War.

Stupidity About Labor

On page 370 of Craven and Johnson’s American History is what looks like a painting or lithograph of the “railroad strike” of 1877. The legend beside the picture states:

Here workmen forcibly drag firemen and engineers from a Baltimore and Ohio freight train in West Virginia. What weapons do you see?

It looks as if some people have guns, but it is impossible to tell from the picture who the people are. Nevertheless the implication of the text in question is that they are workers.

Craven and Johnson’s treatment of organized1 abor is evasive, unclear, and superficial. Thus, the reason for the decline in strength of the Knights of Labor is merely that they lost some strikes. Of the Homestead strike the authors say:

A bitter strike took place in 1892 at the Homestead Plant of the Carnegie Steel Company. The strikers, angry at the company’s treatment of them, shot it out in a pitched battle with the Pinkerton detectives hired by the company. The state militia finally ended the strike.

Of the strife between labor and “militarized” management1 that broke out after the Civil War because of the miserable pay, humiliation, lack of security, and dreadful working conditions, Craven and Johnson give us the following interpretation:

Communication between management and labor had broken down. Consequently, both parties at times nursed unfair notions about one another. What men do not know very often bothers them a good deal more than what is familiar.

In general, labor is treated nervously in history books. Our United States, unlike Craven and Johnson’s American History, however, is willing to state, on page 463, that

Conditions in many factories and plants grew worse. Men worked twelve to fifteen hours a day, sometimes at tasks beyond their strength. Factories for the most part were poorly lighted and ventilated. Faulty equipment resulted in many fatal accidents. An injured worker received no hospital benefits or other compensation.

Our United States points out that entire families had to work because the earnings of one person were not adequate to support a family and that children worked long hours in factories. The long and bitter war management waged against unions is not mentioned. Yet the authors say that “Picketing, the efforts of strikers to prevent the use of strikebreakers, has often led to rioting and bloodshed,” thus placing the blame for labor violence on the workers.

The treatment of labor and of unions seems more balanced in high-school economics texts like Applied Economics by James Harvey Dodd, South-Western Publishing Company, 1956, and Economics by Kennard E. Goodman, Head of the Social Studies Department of West Technical High School, Cleveland, Ohio, and C. Lowell Harriss, Ph.D., Professor of Economics, Columbia University, published by Ginn and Company in 1963. But even they draw a thick curtain in front of the “militarized” opposition of management to labor unions and strikes.

  1. 1

    The Encyclopaedia Britannica’s term. See “Labour.”

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