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Choosing Stupid [Apr. 5th, 2010|09:09 am]
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None of us are born knowing how to make good choices.   We don't get to choose our parents, to start with, and so as babies we come into the world already subject to someone else's choices (good or bad); for years after that, we are legally constrained by the choices others make for us.   Those choices open to us (if we have parents who allow children any choice--some don't)  are, for a considerable time, trivial.   They do give us a chance to experience ambivalence or express preference ("Do you want to wear the green or the yellow?") but when either T-shirt is acceptable, the choice has no consequences attached (except on St. Patrick's Day, of course.)   Parents who want their children to be able, as adults, to discern good choices from bad have to let their kids make choices that have consequences attached, and then explain how the choice and the consequence were connected, and how to predict the consequences of choices, and then what to do when you've made a bad choice and the consequence bites.   Just punishing a bad choice doesn't cut it...what's needed is education.

Punishment is easier for parents and those in authority than real education, and seems initially less risky as well, because education (real education) leads to the educated individual who can actually think and learn on his/her own.   And who may choose the new smart choice over the traditional (now shown to be stupid) choice. 

Although teachers don't have to know a lot more than those they teach (it's great if they do know a lot more, for several reasons)  they do need to know thoroughly what they're teaching--a teacher cookbooking a lesson from a teacher's guide--a teacher who doesn't really understand the material--ensures that the student will not learn all the student could, and may well end up learning badly--confused at best, learning to fear and hate learning, at worst.   "Teachers" here refers to all involved in sharing information with others: parents of children, family members with one another, instructors in the workplace or elsewhere, coaches...all of them, not just teachers/instructors/professors in formal educational institutions.   

I bring this up now because Jaime Escalante, the brilliant math teacher who taught high school math--including calculus--to students believed to be incapable of learning more than 2 + 2, died this past week, and the difficulties he had, in teaching students not only math but how to make smart choices--difficulties that included the jealousy of other teachers and the resentment of parents--exist all over the country and have caused many of our adult population to choose stupid over smart.  

On the face of it, you'd expect people to want to make smart choices, and seek out the information necessary to make smart choices, but...that's not what we see, looking at real people in real situations.   A lot of people choose stupid.  People who choose smart in some areas of their lives choose stupid in others (and that includes me--I'm not pretending that I make only smart choices.)   We are taught to choose stupid, when we are taught by those who find it easier if we choose stupid, and even if we struggle out of those particular situations, we're still left not knowing how to choose smart over all.

Why would anyone want someone else to choose stupid?   Why would educational institutions, which you'd think (if you didn't look) wanted to teach children and young adults to choose smart, continue to teach choosing stupid? 

Because it's easier.    It's easier moment by moment--in the home or in the classroom--to privilege docile, conforming behavior over learning either facts or how to make choices.  It's easier to say "Because I said so," or "Because the Bible says so," than to explain how things work and why (as a result) this choice is smart and that choice is stupid.  It's easier to throw a dismissive label on the child who isn't perfectly docile and conforming (deviant, disturbed, disruptive, "at-risk," attention-seeking, etc.) than to consider whether that child's comment, question, complaint has merit and convey to the child whether it does or not and why, in a way that empowers the child to make smart choices.   It's easiest of all to keep children and adults from the information they need  to make smart choices, and then punish them for stupid ones.  

It's also less scary to those with control issues to have followers/citizens/students who know even less than they do, who do not challenge authority, who do not ask inconvenient questions or threaten to break out of the mold into which authority has put them.  Those who have control over others usually don't want to lose that control--they want to stay on top, and they want those they control to stay safely subservient.  Teaching their subjects to think means risking their own position.   What if one of those kids really is smarter than the teacher, even knows more than the teacher?   What if a member of the congregation finds out that the preacher doesn't actually understand the holy book?  

Fear chooses stupid, eight times out of ten (at least.)   Fear is a lousy guide to choosing smart.   Once I went camping in early spring, expecting cold rain but nothing worse.   However, I was camping a thousand feet higher than my home, where the prediction was for rain.  So it snowed.   I'd never camped in snow, at that point, and fear told me to get out of there, right then.  In the dark, in the snow.   The smart choice  was to stay where I was until daylight, which I did, having an unrestful night as the snow bowed in the sides of the tent and I pushed them back out, but much safer than I'd have been thrashing around in the woods in the dark trying to find the trailhead and trying to drive down the mountain in the falling snow in the dark.  

In that case, the consequences of choosing stupid would have hurt only a few people.  But in the case of education overall,  acting out of fear means choosing stupid for everyone.   What seems easier at the time, in classrooms and congregations and offices across the nation, means steadily and inexorably teaching the population to choose stupid.   And that's the stupidest choice of all--making a nation less and less capable of thinking, of choosing smart.

Has this actually happened?   Yes.   Take for instance the Texas State Board of Education and its effect on the nation's textbooks.    Texas is a big market for textbook publishers, so if Texas wants changes in the textbooks, it usually gets them--and it wants those changes because of the Board of Education's textbook watchdogs, and the watchdogs want those changes because, to put it bluntly, they're cowardy custards when it comes to the facts of history, political science, and biology (in particular.)   They're afraid that if kids learn what really happened, they won't be loyal and patriotic citizens (which means, thinking the way the textbook watchdogs want them to.)   But before we sit back and sneer at the textbook watchdogs...how did they come into power?  Oh, right, because that's what the governor appointed...and before we sneer at the governor (which, on balance, I'm willing to do in addition to analyze this mess), who elected him?   Who supports the textbook watchdogs?   A lot of parents, a lot of citizens.   And before we sit back and sneer at stupid parents who don't want their kids to learn more than they did, how did those parents get those attitudes?   Who taught the parents?   Um...yes.  Most of them were taught by the same kind of authoritarian fear-mongers who are (still) afraid of reality, afraid of change.   Vicious circle indeed.   

Texas has never led the nation in public education accomplishments.   When I was a kid, I think we outranked Alabama and Georgia and maybe Lousiana, but that was about it.   Unless parents had the resources and the will to provide their kids with books, magazines, and some guidance in using them,  kids came out of Texas schools years behind those from states with a history of good education.   (Our overseas exchange students often could not find courses in the high school that would give them any credits at all when they went back home.)   In the late '50s, there was a brief and very transient interest in better education in my home town, largely due to Sputnik, but it fizzled as the US space program got going and local attention returned to football.   Kids in some Houston-area districts (close enough to NASA) fared far better, but much of the state languished in sleepy complacency about its excellence and in fear of Communism and "godless humanism."   We had, and have, several excellent universities, but they struggle yearly with incoming freshmen who have been kept ignorant of history and biology, and misinformed about politics (including what the Constitution actually says, as well as international affairs) and the nature of scientific inquiry.   Texas politicians interfere, or try to, with teaching even at the university level (most recently closing down a play at one university, and fairly recently trying to get rid of a professor at another.)   

I will get into the religious aspect of choosing stupid in another post (this one's already long and although fear and love of power in religious settings both strongly influence how parents think about education--how they're taught to choose stupid for their children in church as well as by their own schooling--this is more aimed at the educational side.)    My point about education, both in Texas and across the country, is that when parents choose stupid for their children, they directly damage their children and the future of the country.    When parents allow fear (their child might be smarter than they are, might come to know things they don't know, might make choices they would not make and those choices might prove smarter than their choices) to control their attitudes towards parenting and education, they're hurting their children.   Whether parents cooperate with, or merely yield to, those who teach and preach fear and choosing stupid...the damage is done.



From: (Anonymous)
2010-04-05 02:45 pm (UTC)
This is a thought-provoking essay. I don't disagree that public schools are all too often more focused on achieving mediocrity than achieving potential. That being said, at some point we all have to decide if we're going to rise above our upbringing and take responsibility for our own decisions.

I suspect however that were we to compare notes, our definition of the "stupid" choice would be wildly different on a number of questions.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-04-05 02:56 pm (UTC)
I prefer that commenters identify themselves; though I don't automatically delete anonymous comments, I will do so if the individual fails to identify himself or herself subsequently.

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[User Picture]From: damedini
2010-04-05 03:05 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this. I`m emailing it to my 13 year old son (email is way cooler than mom lectures). He`s so far a brilliant self-educating sort, but he is too quick to grasp whatever his chosen media (MAD, SouthPark, etc) offer up as opinions. He`ll get there, and I`m teaching him to question everything, and this will help. I love reading your writing!
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-04-05 03:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks. Thirteen is right in the early stages of developing really advanced cognitive skills (you probably realize this, but maybe someone else reading this doesn't.) Are you familiar with Dorothy L. Sayers' book _The Lost Tools of Learning_? Recommends formal study of logic at about his age, and if I could find my logic text (glances around study, shudders...no luck) I could recommend that or one similar. Helps students become a terror to fuzzy-minded people of all ages and immunizes them against a lot of advertising, political rhetoric, etc.
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[User Picture]From: cdozo
2010-04-05 03:58 pm (UTC)
I feel kind of mean when I sit back and watch G floundering around in a new situation. But he seems to be doing OK at figuring things out and making choices.

I'm sure he'll make his share of mistakes, but thirteen is a good age to make them because you bounce fairly well, you can last a night or so without adequate sleep and you usually have a parent or two around to bail you out, literally or not, if it comes down to that. And I really, really like that he has a cell phone.
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[User Picture]From: masgramondou
2010-04-05 04:25 pm (UTC)
I don't want to get too involved in the educational politics bit of this but I think you are probably being a bit harsh on Texas. Other more politically correct states have bureaucrat inspired blindspots that are equally serious. Richard Feynman's description of California's maths and physics text books in "Surely you're joking" is - IMHO - far more serious because it shows a system that appears to be almost perfectly designed to fail to provide teachers with the right tools (textbooks) for the job.

I think there may be a fear of learning thing, but I think there is a worse fear, a fear of being sued and/or of having made a choice that is mildly controversial. It is the same fear that leads to "no one got fired for buying IBM" and it really doesn't matter whether the fear is regarding evolution or Allah.

What I think is more important is your statement abut choices. A lot of the time it seems to me people deliberately make it so that children can make choices without needing to worry about consequences. Oh they do it for the best of motives (he'll suffer a devastating loss of self-esteem, it'll hurt her feelings ...) but at the end of the day there's a teenager who has no concept that actions have real world reactions and that the wrong choice can really hurt him/her and everyone around them. It starts small by learning that a green shirt looks hideous with blue trousers and causes teasing or that washing is not optional but gradually kids need to work up to bigger things. Same goes for pocket money and the like. Do you buy the sweets now or save up form the XBox? So often what happens is that the child buys the sweets now and then, when he complains about not being able to afford the X Box his parents buy it anyway....
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-04-05 05:02 pm (UTC)
I'm a Texan: I'm entitled to be tough on Texas.

Political correctness has nothing to do with it--refusal to deal with facts is the issue here. It's true that other states have their own issues (though many have the same refusal to deal with the same facts as Texas--one could just mention Kansas) but as I'm not in those states, I stick to what I know best, while aware that the influence of Texas on textbook publishers is huge. As for the textbook watchdogs in Texas...no, they're not afraid of being even mildly controversial...they're staunch advocates of a particular political/religious bias and afraid of other views being heard, let alone adopted.

It's true that some parents don't let their children experience the consequences of their decisions. But it's equally true that some parents don't let their children make decisions. I live in an area where both kinds of parents exist, and neither (in my opinion) is doing a good job. When you keep your child from knowing anything about other cultures, while filling them full of lies about those cultures--teaching them to hate and fear others--so that they cannot recognize the reality of those other people, that's going to cause (has already caused) serious problems. It's not just Texans who do that. It has been done, and is being done, by many, many cultures, religions, nationalities.
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[User Picture]From: blueeowyn
2010-04-05 04:46 pm (UTC)
I commented on this in my LJ awhile ago.

http://www.texastribune.org/stories/2010/feb/17/meet-flintstones/ - looking at a survey in Texas about evolution, religion and politics. "Prindle says the results recall a line from comedian Lewis Black. 'He did a standup routine a few years back in which he said that a significant proportion of the American people think that the The Flintstones is a documentary,' Prindle says. 'Turns out he was right. Thirty percent of Texans agree that humans and dinosaurs lived on the earth at the same time.'"

And this is the state that is driving the majority of textbooks being published in the next few years. I pity the current students.

For the people who don't fully understand what is going on, the Texas watchdogs are re-writing a bunch of stuff and censoring other stuff and it will affect more states than just Texas. It used to be that California and Texas were the big dogs in the textbook purchase group and they tended to buy books at similar rates and frequencies and had different enough requirements that there were often 2 versions of the textbook. Since California is currently in an economic downturn, they have announced that they will not be purchasing any new texbooks for a couple of years. Since making books is expensive, it is much easier for the textbook publishers to have only one edition and sell it everywhere and Texas is a BIG purchaser of textbooks; they will likely ONLY make and sell the ones that have been properly sanitized for Texas Schools.

Another link
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[User Picture]From: blueeowyn
2010-04-05 04:49 pm (UTC)
I also agree 100% with the concern about people not learning the consequences of choices and how to analyze the choices offered both in the short-term and the longer-term benefits/costs. *sigh*
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-04-05 06:05 pm (UTC)
Although humans, as a species, are the best we know at this, we're really not very good...which is why starting early is important if you want to have adults who can think clearly and carefully about consequences in both short and long term. And almost no one has the processing capacity to do this about every aspect of his/her life.
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From: thefile
2010-04-05 05:20 pm (UTC)
At Aegis Swordschool we have defined some qualities for Stupid:

1. Painful
2. Preventable
3. Self-inflicted
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-04-05 06:07 pm (UTC)
OK, I have to attempt to be funny....so all those footwork exercises that make the quads and hamstrings burn for the next hour or so are Stupid? (Painful, yup. Preventable, yup. Self-inflicted, yup...)

No, I know what you meant. It just hit me funny, as it would apply to a lot of athletic training.
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[User Picture]From: martianmooncrab
2010-04-05 06:58 pm (UTC)
Children are not Property either...
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-04-05 07:13 pm (UTC)
Agreed. But at the moment, after a disappointing recent dive into the history of what happens to children removed from parents...I'm not sure what definition could be used to help people caring for children understand that they aren't property, slaves, sex toys, fashion accessories, status symbols, cookie dough to be cut to pattern, or anything but people in an immature state.
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[User Picture]From: robinanderson
2010-04-05 08:37 pm (UTC)
I am struggling with teaching consequences right now as a parent. I want to teach Ian to think ahead and understand the consequences of his actions, but right now it is hard. I may be jumping the gun with it too as he still struggles with time concepts right now. He knows that when he hears the words 'hour' and 'minute', 'yesterday', 'tomorrow, and 'later' that it has to do with time, but he does not really have a solid frame of reference yet for exactly when all those things are. He only recently began to understand that when the sun sets and you sleep, it will be another day when you wake, but if you take a nap when the sun is still in the sky, it will be the same day when you wake. But since he is already reading (often by himself) and practicing writing and spelling, counting to 100 and able to identify the o'clocks on a clock face it is hard to remember that he is still only 3.
On Easter, after an exciting egg hunt and skipping a nap, he had a behavior meltdown where he started misbehaving just to try to get my attention (I was exhausted and he was overstimulated). He had a time out and then apologized, but I told him that because he was so naughty, he could not get a toy (we needed a stop at Walmart - he does not always get a toy, but sometimes does for good behavior). We also had a chat about how he behaved and I told him that when he behaves badly I don't want to play with him and that at that moment I don't even like him (although I still love him) and that if he does that with other children, they will not want to play with him either. I asked him if he would want to play with another child who hit or kicked or threw things. So I was trying to tie in the natural consequences. Of course, several hours later at Walmart, he was reminded that he could not get a toy and we avoided all isles with toys. But then he finds a placemat with a map of the US States and all the flags (one of his current areas of obsession) and his dad gives in because he is so clever to love educational things and is just too darn cute and apologetic and is after all only 3 and the placemat is a dollar. But in my heart I know this is the wrong message to send, darn it!

By the way, you may be able to answer a question for him. As we have been in the car, he has noticed all the lovely wildflowers on the highways and I have been teaching him the names for the ones I know, Bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrushes, Verbina, Primroses, etc... But I do not know the name of the yellow flowers that seem to be everywhere this year and he has now asked me repeatedly. Two foot tall stalks with multiple branches and yellow flowers at the tips. I am gonna get some photos so I can try to identify them on the Ladybird Wildflower Center website but I thought you might just know... I think they could be Prairie Broom-weed, Tansy Mustard or Wild Turnip. Do you know?
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-04-05 08:59 pm (UTC)
Starting at the tail end--if the plant is about two feet tall and has a head of pale "lemon-yellow" tiny flowers, it's probably the non-native black mustard, an invasive. Broomweed doesn't bloom until later in the year--it's a warm-season annual--and has a different look. Tansy-mustard is smaller and a more golden yellow. However, depending on where you are, you might be getting early Texas Star, and a little later there will be dozens of yellow-flowering Compositae.

Working up: if you present the placemat as a learning tool and not a toy, he will accept that that's why he got it.

For preschoolers, who really cannot control input, managing to prevent meltdowns is preferable to punishing meltdowns when they occur. In other words, overload meltdowns--from overstimulation, exhaustion, hunger, etc.--are a management problem, not primarily a behavior problem. Children aren't the ones who made the decision to be overstimulated, keyed up, hyper, etc. They don't know it's going to happen to them, and they have no tools for handling it when it does. Before the age of about seven, when they enter concrete operations, there are cognitive links that just have not formed and cannot form, no matter how much instruction parents give...or how bright the child. (Yes, you'd think a child who's starting to read and count would have the emotional controls of an older child who's reading and counting at that level, but they don't. They can't.) Thus it's up to adults to either intervene before the child is too hyper to calm down by himself/herself, or have a plan in place to cope with the inevitable consequences. Parents will inevitably screw up on this at times, not realizing that a given child is about to go over the edge, perhaps due to some other stressor the parent hasn't noticed. I sure did. Having a backup plan ("Just in case I don't recognize the point of no return, here's what I'll do instead") helps.

I do get the exhaustion factor (most of my mistakes were made when I was exhausted or grieving after my mother died) but that, too is predictable if we think ahead. Not easy--parenting is just plain hard, no matter what anyone says.
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[User Picture]From: ysabetwordsmith
2010-04-06 01:47 am (UTC)


To "Why choose stupid...?" add "profit." Sheep are easier to fleece. Smart people are better equipped to realize that advertising is bullshit, and keep their money in their pockets.
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[User Picture]From: ndozo
2010-04-06 10:25 am (UTC)

Re: Hmm...

Maybe the unintended consequences of this will be a good thing. Textbooks are too heavy and expensive. Kids are getting back problems from lugging them around. They have to be updated frequently and that's a huge expense both for schools that supply books, and for students who have to buy them. My kids have had some creative teachers who brought together materials not available in textbook form. Often it was primary source material. They usually made photocopies, which troubled me from a copyright pov, but it allowed them to tailor the reading to the curriculum. Maybe textbook publishers will recognize that different markets want different material and create modular texts that can be downloaded and printed out as desired. Some bio texts will have storks bringing the babies, others will be more explicit. If publishers dumb down their books, or if they favor one mythology over another, I think they will eventually lose money.
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