A friend of mine on Facebook pointed me to this article this morning.
No, really; go and read it. It won’t take you but a minute or two. I’ll wait…..
….. Back? Okay, good. So, remember how I keep telling you that the Universe has a way of putting things in my path at just the right moment? Well, later on this afternoon, I came across this. No, really; go and read this, too (it’s even shorter than the Ebert piece, and there’s a video of the moment at the end).
All of this has got me thinking about the expectations we have for education, and about the attitude that some of us in the culture have developed as relates to what it means to be an educated person.
Exactly when did it become uncool to be smart? At what point did we decide that ignorance – in speech, in manner, in comprehension – was a virtue? When did it become okay to mock smart people, and to treat educated people with, at best, disdain or, at worst, antagonism? Since when did “educated” become synonymous with “elitist”?
For all the lip service we give as a nation to the idea of education, one would think we’d be better than this. We’ve got all kinds of accountability measures, we talk a great game about competing with other intellectually forward nations, we lament “brain drains” happening to our smaller cities (and our nation as a whole) and rail at teachers for failing to truly educate our kids. We so aspire to send our children to college that we’ve reached a point where applications to those institutions are so numerous that even the best students have trouble finding places to accept them (trust me on this; every spring, I watch as seniors lose their collective shit over essays and applications and acceptance letters that sometimes don’t come).
The reality on the ground, though, under the buzz of all the rhetoric, is very different. We (the collective ‘we’ – present company excluded) don’t want to push the kids too hard, lest we damage their self-esteem. We don’t ‘make’ them read or study or perform, and when some of us try, we’re reprimanded by administrators who are getting pressure from parents who want to make excuses for why their kids “can’t” do whatever it is we’re requiring of them. As teachers, we’re told not to expect too much, to settle for what we get, and to try to make the best of what the students are willing to give us (which, most of the time, isn’t much).
It’s this sort of culture that produces the monstrosities that Ebert is railing against. From my (admittedly limited) perspective, everything from comic-book interpretations of great works of literature to a politically-correct scrubbing of Huckleberry Finn (to the watering down of curriculum in virtually every other subject, as well) is a symptom of an attitude of “what’s the least I can do?”
Granted, this is not a new thing – my generation had Cliff’s Notes, and I’m reasonably sure that some other shortcuts existed before that – but when I was a student, at least, utilizing those kinds of resources was looked down on as a variation of cheating. Now, though, we’re publishing books for use in schools that don’t even put up the pretense of challenging our students; we’re marketing these sorts of bastardizations and modifications as legitimate substitutes for the real thing.
Look; I don’t begrudge anyone having to look up the word “perspicacious.” It’s a doozy of a word, and I’m betting that very few people who aren’t English teachers or avid crossword solvers wouldn’t have to look it up; it’s not exactly something one drops in casual conversation, is it? I appreciate straightforward speech as much as the next person – I’m not (always) of the opinion expressed by Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett in The West Wing that, “anyone who uses one word when they could have used ten just isn’t trying hard enough.” I will say, though, that I’d rather have ten words than live with this:
No; what I object to is the seeming disdain that came with the Amanpour’s vocabulary choice. The fact that the incident has drawn as much attention as it has – and that the word has been labeled as “fancy” with what I perceive as no small tone of sneer – is what I object to. I continue to be horrified by the attitude of students when I hand them a book that I expect them to read; the look of utter shock on their faces infuriates me every time (“But, Mrs. Chili; this book has, like, TWO HUNDRED PAGES! You can’t really expect us to READ all that, can you?!”), and forget expecting them to look up words they encounter in that reading that they don’t already know. I object to the attitude that being smart is something to be avoided.
When we have a rich and nuanced vocabulary, we’re able to express ourselves with depth and clarity. When we know “fancy” words and are able to use them correctly to people who understand them, we open up avenues of communication that make wondrous things possible. Haven’t you ever been frustrated by not having the words to describe an experience, or by being unable to convey an idea with the kind of clarity that satisfies you? Wouldn’t having access to a richer and more comprehensive vocabulary have helped that situation? Why, then, do people resist learning new ways of saying what they think? Why are people who use words with relish looked down upon as snobs and elitists?
I say it’s time we start countering that attitude. We need to stop limiting ourselves (and our children) by elevating “down home folksy” (which, to me, is a euphemism for ignorant) to an ideal. Smart matters. The more you know, the more you’re able to do – and the less other people can take advantage of you.