On Anti-Intellectualism

Jordan Weissmann of Slate shares a mind numbing story that calls into question the President’s intelligence. Titled “A Small But Soul-Crushing Illustration of Donald Trump’s Economic Illiteracy,” he concludes:

“At some point, it appears Donald Trump heard somebody say that the United States cannot grow as fast as China or Malaysia because we have a ‘large’ economy. No doubt, what they meant is that the U.S. is a highly developed, rich nation and therefore can’t expand as quickly as developing countries that can still reap large gains from taking basic steps to improve their living standards. But Trump did not understand it that way. He apparently thought that when whoever he was listening to said “large,” they were talking about population. Therefore, in his mind, if China grows at nearly 7 percent per year with its 1.4 billion people, the U.S. should be able to do it too. This is the man who millions of voters are relying on to bring back jobs.”

Many anti-Trumpers will interpret this middle school-like error as disqualifying. A President has to have a modicum of economic literacy, doesn’t she? But there are lots of others whose school experience was so negative that they are suspicious of anyone or anything academic in nature. They trust people who work with their hands way more than they do people, like journalists, who work with words.

It’s easy to write off these people’s anti-intellectualism as simple-minded, but there’s more to it. Listen to their stories and inevitably they’ll talk about classmates’, teachers’, or employers’ negative preconceived notions of them. Their strongest memories of school are of a pervasive arrogance that often takes root early as a result of homogenous ability grouping or “tracking”. In the way they design curriculum and evaluate student work, educators routinely define “intelligence” far too narrowly, agreeing that those especially good at reading and writing have it, and those whose “smarts” take less academic forms, do not.

Formally educated professionals aren’t intentionally arrogant, but often, they convey a sense of superiority in subtle and nuanced ways. Not being in touch with one’s arrogance doesn’t negate its impact.

We talk about education’s importance all the time without acknowledging the underlying antipathy many have for formally educated know-it-alls who would never conflate the meaning of a “large economy”. One particular friend of mine, who is unconventionally smart and happened to vote for the reading-averse President, would conclude one thing from Weissmann’s story, he’s an arrogant prick.

Is that because my friend is just another irrational right wing nutter or are formally educated people like me to blame? At least in part.

What Amanda Ripley and Her Amazon Reviewers Get Wrong

Ripley has written a book titled “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way“. Thanks to my brother (shout out to Ohio, not California), I recently read an article by Ripley based upon her book. Given my frustration level while reading the article, I’m not sure I could get through her book. Her Amazon reviewers loved it though.

What does Ripley and what do her reviewers get wrong? That you can improve schooling in the U.S. by arguing that Finnish teachers are far, far superior to American ones. I assume Ripley wants to help improve American schooling. She’s right that teacher education programs in the United States are not nearly as selective nor rigorous as Finnish ones. But in the excerpt at least, she doesn’t even bother exploring the reasons why, let alone propose solutions to the problem.

Dear Ms. Ripley, there are lots of reasons why teacher education programs in the U.S. aren’t as selective and rigorous as in Education’s Holy Land ( let’s create some ed jargon baby, EHL). Maybe the most vexing one is best illustrated through a question.

Whose recent performance is most impressive, Peyton Manning’s or Dexter Filkins’? To which most people in the U.S. would ask, who does Filkins play for and why haven’t I heard of him? Filkins is an outstanding writer, who, when he’s not writing books, plays for The New Yorker. And he just published an amazing story on Qassem Suleimani. Who does Qassem Suleimani play for and why haven’t I heard of him? Two teams really. Iran and Shiites worldwide.

You haven’t heard of him because American culture is anti-intellectual. How can anyone expect teaching to be a deeply respected profession when we reserve our highest pedestals for athletes, actors, and other entertainers?

Ripley also illustrates how dangerous a little knowledge can be. She’s critical of how short teacher candidates’ apprenticeships are in the U.S. I am too. Just the other day I was cringing in my office as colleagues next door weighed the merits of eight-week long professional apprenticeships.

But the problem is even worse than Ripley lets on. Not only are they far too short, increasingly candidates spend a lot of their time co-teaching because of growing standardized test score anxiety. Given the momentum for tying teachers’ evaluations and compensation to students’ test scores, an increasing percentage of principals and teachers are reluctant to “hand over” their classrooms to teacher credential candidates. Ripley doesn’t bother peeling that onion at all. Literally and figuratively shortchanging future teachers’ professional preparation is just one of other unintended negative consequences of standardized test score mania. We’ve lost our minds.

Absent from Ripley’s article, we obviously have to improve teacher compensation to have any hope of raising the profession’s profile and making teacher preparation programs markedly more selective. Related to that, we have to improve the work conditions—meaning fewer or smaller classes; more time to develop curriculum, prepare for classes, and assess student work; and fewer authors, elected officials, and businesspeople ripping teachers for not being more Finnish.

Postscript—peel more of the onion by reading Anu Partanen’s December 2011 essay in the Atlantic, “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success“.