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September Issue

Vol 30|No 1|September 2019

Simply Stupid

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

In the past twenty years, technologies have encouraged brevity and simplicity, as messages have grown shorter, paragraphs are an endangered species and tweets now serve as important policy announcements.

In 1994, Sven Birkerts argued in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, that serious, deep reading and thinking were both being supplanted by the new information technologies which offered information that was palatable, simple, enjoyable and easy. Twenty-five years later, his warnings have proven prescient and this shift is being felt in the way people approach politics, voting and citizenship.

Unfortunately, even though much of the new information has also proven unreliable, many folks do not seem to care very much. It seems the Information Age is the Age of Glib. Superficial, simplisitic thinking is fashionable.

There is nothing new about simple-minded or lazy thinking. Schools have been combating this problem with only partial success for many decades stretching all the way back to the 1930s when Hitler and Mussolini used scapegoating and horrific solutions to win the support of angry citizens; and then again in the 1940s and 1950s when Joe McCarthy orchestrated the Red Scare.

In 2019, scapegoating is alive and well as politicians in some countries point their fingers at so-called alien groups and blame society's ills on these supposed strangers. Rather than being judged as evil for this racism, they are applauded by some, just as Hitler was cheered on for his attacks on Jews and "Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, blacks, the physically and mentally disabled, political opponents of the Nazis, including Communists and Social Democrats, dissenting clergy, resistance fighters, prisoners of war, Slavic peoples, and many individuals from the artistic communities whose opinions and works Hitler condemned." Source: Susan Bachrach, Tell Them We Remember: The Story of the Holocaust (Boston: Little Brown, 1995), 20.

We are watching history repeating itself as so-called strong men in a half dozen countries employ the same race-baiting tactics as Hitler with remarkable success.

Unfortunately, about two thirds of American students pass through school without learning to read or think in a proficient manner as judged by the NAEP test of reading. This then makes them susecpetible to the propaganda, manipulation and scapegoating employed by an enterprising and unscrupulous political leader.

Simple-minded, stupid school reform efforts

To see the damage done by simple-minded thinking about complex problems, one need only look at the failed school reform efforts that swept through many nations during the past twenty years -- efforts that foolishly relied upon "high stakes testing" to try to force teachers to work harder and win better results. It did not work.

Politicians on both the right and the left offered this simple solution to improve the performance of schools in many countries by increasing teacher accountability. They ignored and neglected other factors and strategies. While parents and families play an important role in supporting strong school performance by students, for example, the politicians were generally silent on that score and ended up scapegoating teachers without making other changes that might have produced better results. No sense in angering voting parents by asking them to take a more active role in the learning of their children!

This approach is "simply stupid" because improving school performance depends upon dozens of factors the politicians chose to ignore such as poverty, diet, sleep, home reading and teacher capacity building. It is also harmful because it narrowed the focus of the curriculum to just math and reading without actually achieving much progress. In the USA when measured by the NAEP tests, the results have been shameful.

in 2017, 63 per cent of the fourth graders and the eighth graders still scored below the proficient level! Look at the big orange slice of pie below! Those are American students who cannot read or think very well after 25 years of "reform."

If they cannot read or think, how will they manage the complex task of thinking about candidates and their proposed solutions to the problems of the day? How will they resist the propaganda and demagoguery typical of today's politics?

These results are horrible, as 25 years of so-called "reform" have left almost two thirds of American students still stranded below the proficient level and managed to increase the percentage scoring at the proficient level by a meager 8 percentage points. This factory-style, corporate approach to education has robbed children of a balanced curriculum while failing to achieve decent results.

Let's build a wall!

Many countries are now struggling with immigration challenges that deserve careful thought and complex programs, but some leaders prefer to provoke anger and offer simple solutions. They are rewarded for their emotional appeals and attacks rather than their wisdom.

In the USA, both political parties have dragged their heels, unable to come up with a true solution to the problems caused by illegal immigration.

According to factcheck.org, "There were 12 million immigrants living in the country illegally as of January 2015, according to the most recent estimate from the Department of Homeland Security. The estimates from two independent groups are similar: The Pew Research Center estimates the number at 10.7 million in 2016, and the Center for Migration Studies says there were 10.8 million people in 2016 living in the U.S. illegally."

While it may be helpful to improve border security, building a wall is not a meaningful or complete solution to the problem. Its very simplicity and the false claim that Mexico would pay for it make the proposal attractive to angry people who do not care much about facts or complexity.

Any reasonable approach to this problem must take into account a dozen factors and offer plans that help undocumented workers win citizenship or leave. The current situation has deteriorated into a humanitarian crisis as families are separated at the borders and suffering through horrible conditions. And then we have raids conducted by ICE to identify undocumented workers in places like the poultry plants in Mississippi. Even the President has employed undocumented workers at some of his resorts.

It may be that new technologies and social media have contributed to the growth of mentalsoftness.

What is mentalsoftness?

Unless we take care to develop the foundations for rigorous independent thought, we risk raising a generation of young people inclined to accept the sound bites, mind bytes, eye candy and mind candy so typical of the new information landscape. There are, after all, millions being spent on marketing to shape the thinking of consumers and citizens.

Amid complaints of a new plagiarism and much glib thinking, we must keep a watch for the following indicators of MentalSoftness™ - the product of lazy thinking, intellectual channel surfing and the entertainerizing of knowledge work.


Prime Indicators of MentalSoftness™

• Fondness for clichés and clichéd thinking - simple statements that are time worn, familiar and likely to carry surface appeal.

• Reliance upon maxims - truisms, platitudes, banalities and hackneyed sayings - to handle demanding, complex situations requiring deep thought and careful consideration.

• Appetite for bromides - the quick fix, the easy answer, the sugar coated pill, the great escape, the short cut, the template, the cheat sheet.

• Preference for platitudes, near truths, slogans, jingles, catch phrases and buzzwords.

• Vulnerability to propaganda, demagoguery and mass movements based on appeals to emotions, fears and prejudice.

• Impatience with thorough and dispassionate analysis.

• Eagerness to join some crowd or other - wear, do and think what is fashionable, cool, hip, fab, or the opposite or whatever . . .

• Hunger for vivid and dramatic packaging.

• Fascination with the story, the play, the drama, the show, the episode and the epic rather than the idea, the question, the argument, the premise, the logic or the substance. We're not talking good stories or story lines here. We're talking pulp fiction.

• Fascination with cults, personalities, celebrities, chat, gossip, hype, speculation, buzz and blather.

I have been arguing for more than a decade that schools must make complexity a central aspect of learning, equipping students with the thinking skills to manage difficult questions and issues along with an attitude that welcomes the challenge of such thinking. "Embracing Complexity"

Sadly, decades of school research rituals reinforce a cut-and-paste mentality that leaves citizens poorly equipped to think for themselves or manage complexity. Topical research requires little more than scooping and smushing -- behaviors that are enabled by Google. Original thought should be stressed throughout the curriculum.

Schools must end these rituals and engage students in research that requires that they construct answers and make up their own minds. They must teach the young to embrace complexity.

For strategies to equip students with the skills to handle complex issues and questions, consult the 2008 article "Embracing Complexity."

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