Comedian Ron White warns people not to marry somebody who is beautiful but stupid. He explains that a plastic surgeon can fix ugly, but “you can’t fix stupid.” The audience laughs. Who hasn’t had a painfully frustrating experience with a relentlessly stupid person? However, I think that Ron is wrong. You can fix stupid. Unfortunately, stupid doesn’t fix itself. Philosophy and education were developed specifically for the purpose of fixing stupid. If people are still stupid even though they’ve been through school, then their school needs to be fixed.
The second definition of stupid links stupidity to carelessness: “given to unintelligent decisions or acts : acting in an unintelligent or careless manner.” That kind of stupidity could result from a character flaw, rather than from a defective brain.
The third definition of stupid is “lacking intelligence or reason.” What is reason? The dictionary says that reason is “(1) the power of comprehending, inferring, or thinking especially in orderly rational ways : intelligence (2) : proper exercise of the mind.” Thus, stupidity can be the result of a lack of mental discipline. If so, then I believe that “fixing stupid” ought to be the main purpose of schooling.
Stupidity is an age-old problem. To solve it, human societies developed philosophy, which means love of wisdom. The ancient Athenians developed a seven-course curriculum for teaching wisdom: grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music. The purpose of Athenian education was to develop a boy’s mind and character so that he would become a good citizen of the Athenian democracy in peace as well as war. The ancient Romans embraced this Athenian curriculum. The Romans called these studies the liberal arts because they considered them appropriate for freeborn men, as opposed to slaves.
The liberal arts have always been valued in societies with a democratic or republican form of government. These arts have always been taught to children who were expected to grow up to be somebody. They have always been withheld from children whose participation in political decision-making was unwanted. That explains why white girls and black boys and girls in the United States weren’t allowed to go to the schools for the rich white boys.
Interest in the liberal arts waned during the Dark Ages but was revived during the High Middle Ages, with the rise of the first universities in Europe. In Northern Italy during the Renaissance, wealthy families also cultivated a curriculum that they called the humanities. It included such subjects as literature, philosophy, and history. Like the liberal arts, these studies were intended to promote pleasant and productive political discussions among the ruling class. Nowadays, people must also understand a lot about science before they can play a productive role in politics.
The liberal arts, the humanities, and the sciences provide the kinds of skills and knowledge that one needs in order to participate meaningfully in a democracy. In fact, the word civility, which most people use to mean good manners, originally meant training in the liberal arts. Unfortunately, the liberal arts have been deliberately suppressed in public schools in the United States. In particular, language arts teachers have been pressured to stop teaching grammar. Yet grammar provides the basic concepts that you need in order to start studying logic. Without skills in logic, you cannot reason. If you cannot reason, you are unreasonable.
Stupid doesn’t fix itself because people who have poor thinking skills are unaware that their thinking skills are poor (a phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect). People with poor thinking skills don’t notice that they make mistakes in thinking. After their thinking skills improve, they develop the ability to judge their level of skill; but by that point, they are no longer stupid.
Stupidity can be fixed through an education that places a heavy emphasis on literacy, the liberal arts, the humanities, and the sciences. Unfortunately, “progressive” educators such as John Dewey promoted ineffective methods of reading instruction and then deliberately suppressed training in the liberal arts, the humanities, and the sciences. As a result, even many people who have been to college “don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology.” Worse yet, their lack of training in the liberal arts has left them unable to reason and unable to notice that they are unreasonable. The solution to this problem is simple. First, we must teach reading; then, we must teach the liberal arts, the humanities, and the sciences.
Photo by Major Redneck
Photo by Leonard J Matthews