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Sunday, January 27, 2002



Thanks to Professor Trevor Owen for sending me looking for an interview in which Neil Postman discussed his thoughts on stupidity as a teaching tool.

Stirring Up Trouble About Technology, Language, and Education
Neil Postman in an interview with Eugene Rubin for Aurora -- "harvested" on 27 January, 2002.

"The trouble with trying to make kids more intelligent is that intelligence is very difficult....

Aurora:
You say that instead of educating children to believe what they are told, as a traditional education does, we should be educating them to disbelieve. That suggests a radical change in the curriculum and activities of our schools. How would you suggest we do that?

Postman:
Well, I started to give an answer to that twenty years ago in a book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity and again thirteen years later in Teaching as a Conserving Activity. I think the most important thing we can do for our students is to help develop in them a sense of detachment and analytic skill so that they can look at their own culture with courage, calm, and intelligence. I would certainly agree that the present curricula for the most part try to get students to believe what their culture believes. It would be necessary to rethink what we mean by a curriculum.

This doesn’t mean that teachers have to be malcontents, but it does mean that we have to find a way of getting students to know how to think. Now, it’s very easy to say we need to teach students how to think, but it is not entirely clear how we can get students to learn to think. At every teacher’s conference I go to, I hear speakers say that this is what we need to do, but it is very difficult to find one who has a plan for how this might be done.

One possible way of doing that is to abandon the whole idea of trying to make students intelligent and focus on the idea of making them less dumb. This is not just some semantic razzle-dazzle but is exactly the procedure that physicians and lawyers follow, which is one of the reasons I would guess they make so much money. Doctors do not generally concern themselves with what is good health; they concentrate on what is sickness. And lawyers don’t think too much about what is justice; they think about what is injustice. Using this model in teaching would imply identifying and understanding various forms of stupidity and then working to eliminate as many of those as we could.

The trouble with trying to make kids more intelligent is that intelligence is very difficult to define. It tends to be vague and makes people lapse into clich├ęs, but if we concentrate on stupidity we can be very concrete. In one of my essays in Conscientious Objections I try to identify half a dozen types of stupid talk that I think are cureable."

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