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February 24, 2007
On the Spread of Stupid

The recent revelation that high school seniors are less competent now than a decade ago probably won't be met with the outrage it deserves, in light of considerable increases in per pupil spending during that period. Public schools are like congressmen, in the sense that most of us agree they are a lousy bunch, but tend to be pretty pleased with our own.

I recently crushed the dreams of about 400 high school students. I was asked to give them career advice, and so I told them to stop believing that they can achieve anything they want simply by wanting it. "I Believe I Can Fly" may be an uplifting song, but it's a stupid life philosophy. You can't fly. If you study about ten times harder, and have an ounce of common sense, and work really long hours, then perhaps you can build yourself a plane, and then you can fly. Otherwise, get used to walking.

It was not altogether well-received. I think they are used to being told that they will achieve their dreams, as if dream-achievement is some kind of massive entitlement program, and one is enrolled in it simply by aching for things.

I asked these students how many have a MySpace account. Most of the hands flew up. "Facebook?" I asked. More hands. I got the same response when I asked who had an Xbox, or a Playstation, or a Wii (don't ask).

This came to mind when I saw the latest news about NAEP scores, revealing that while high-school students are getting better grades and taking more advanced-placement courses, they are decidedly less proficient at the fundamentals of math and reading. On a hunch, I checked into statistics on teen Internet use. The Pew Charitable Trust's research is the most comprehensive I could find, and their data only go back to 2000, but the results are striking. Eighty-seven percent of teens report regular Internet use. While Al Gore (along with public school IT administrators) may tell himself these kids are downloading Frost poems and physics problems, I suspect otherwise.

Eighty-one percent, however, report that they regularly play games online. And most prefer instant messaging to "old-fashioned" emails, which is unsurprising. One can be partially literate and still text-message, after all. Email probably feels too much like composition.

It's not the technology that I'm suggesting might deserve blame, mind you, but the stupid things that our ignorant children, under our incompetent tutelage, choose to do with it. Consider that the average teen in the Pew study reported spending about 18 hours a week in some form of social activity with other teens, either in person or online. Another Pew study found, for example, that the majority of American teens are active on one or more social networking sites. Add to this the reality that nearly half of U.S. high-school seniors work 20 or more hours per week during the school year (very likely with other unskilled people), and the picture becomes clearer: a large portion of high-school seniors spend nearly 40 hours a week interacting primarily with other ignorant individuals. It's almost as if we've made the study of stupidity a full-time job for them.

Then, to remedy this, we stick our kids for six hours a day in front of teachers who largely lack a coherent pedagogy, and many of whom can't meet the very standards we expect them to help our children achieve. And we wonder why children don't have the basic skills to write — or even comprehend — an essay. Clearly, the government isn't spending enough on education, right?

But don't believe the data if you're not inclined, just listen to teenagers talk. I don't mean your own teens, who I am sure are brilliant, but other people's teenagers. Go to the mall and just listen. People knock homeschoolers for not exposing their children to "socialization," but maybe it's a good thing. Being socialized into a society of idiots is not exactly great preparation for life success.

We have allowed our children to spawn their own personalized societies, worshipping as we do at the altar of individuality and personal space (the very name of the most popular social networking site reflects it: MySpace). To be sure, teenage years are a tribal time, when the overriding desire is to belong. They are called to their species like bees to honey. But this is precisely why we have to channel this impulse; given his druthers, the average teenager would like nothing more than to spend every scrap of time with other teenagers. But that's not a model for learning, or for maturation; it's Lord of the Flies.

The social impulse is a good thing, but as families disintegrate, and churches become less community than fleeting social club, we seem to offer our children little in this regard. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that they cling to each other like shivering animals. In this respect and many others, these national tests that we are so enamored of administering to our children are really more telling about our own performance.

I read somewhere that we know a boy is becoming a man when he seeks the company of men over boys. If that's a true standard, then we are lodging our boys in perpetual childhood (girls as well), extending past high school and into college. If you live near a university, take a walk on campus during lunch on a school day. Ask yourself whether you see young men and women in training, or boys and girls on extended vacation. In fact, something nobody seems to have mentioned yet, given the jarring news that high schoolers are doing poorer even as they take more college prep courses, is that maybe this is preparing them for college, given the sorry state to which so many universities have sunk.

But perhaps picking a fight with higher education, in the same post where I pick on high schoolers and their teachers and their parents and the rest of us who let news like this roll off our backs without changing our behavior one bit, is, well, just one fight too many.

Which is what I excel at, you know.

Posted by Woodlief on February 24, 2007 at 11:54 AM