Monday, January 12, 2009

Dumbing-down for idiots

So I'm innocently rummaging about YouTube when I encounter, for the first time, the name of Charlotte Iserbyt, author of The Deliberate Dumbing-Down of America.

I've always been kinda wary of people who talk about "dumbing down". To me it's a code-phrase that translates, roughly, as "I'm perfect, therefore any change in the system that produced me must axiomatically be for the worse". But this woman has credentials. She's a "former Senior Policy Advisor in the US Department of Education". She's author of a book billed as "without doubt one of the most important publishing events in the annals of American education in the last hundred years." A "Barnes & Nobel #1 Bestseller", no less. I was curious to see how you earn that kind of publicity.

Looks like the easiest way is to write it yourself.

False modesty is not one of Iserbyt's faults. In the first chapter of her tedious diatribe, she sets the tone by informing us: "Undoubtedly, this chapter may be one of the most important since the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Wilhelm Wundt, and John Dewey et al."

Excuse me?

Actually, on a closer reading, she's not claiming what I first thought she was trying to claim. What she wants to say, what she would say if she were capable of stringing together a coherent thought, is more like: "Although short, this chapter lays the key philosophical foundation for the whole book. It explains how the philosophies of Rousseau, Wundt, and Dewey et al. reflect a total departure from the traditional definition of education."

"Traditional definition of education"? Yes, that's her own phrase. And that -- fully two sentences into the thesis of this 738-page essay -- is where the gangrene sets in. She cites The New Century Dictionary of the English Language (Appleton, Century Crofts: New York, 1927):
The drawing out of a person's innate talents and abilities by imparting the knowledge of languages, scientific reasoning, history, literature, rhetoric, etc. -- the channels through which those abilities would flourish and serve.

Hmmm... 1927. What exactly makes Messrs Appleton, Century Crofts more authentically "traditional" than Rousseau, who predated them by more than a century and a half? If their ideas differ from Rousseau's, doesn't that imply that they are rejecting him, not vice-versa?

This she contrasts with "the new, dehumanizing definition" used by twentieth-century educational psychologists. The remainder of her book is packed with countless interpretations of this "definition". What she seems to object to, in them, is summed up in Prof Benjamin Bloom's dictum: "The purpose of education is to change the thoughts, feelings and actions of students."

Of course, to define education is a challenge that has flummoxed far better minds than Iserbyt's, over the centuries. Charles Dickens, for instance, devoted a lot of ink to ridiculing the educational theories of his day, which favoured the teaching of hard facts (Hard Times) and practicalities (Nicholas Nickelby). The closest he comes to approving of any schooling is the classics-based, "character-forming" liberal education received by David Copperfield.

Waitaminute -- "character-forming"? Wouldn't that be another word for "changing the thoughts, feelings and actions" of the subject? Admittedly, Copperfield's character is formed less by his teachers than by his peers in the school; but still, given the paragon that he grows into, Dickens must feel that his school is doing something right.

Or let's see what Montaigne has to say of education. Turns out, he also favours a, make no bones about it, liberal education with the emphasis on the teaching of sound and virtuous habits of mind, and with the pupil given great freedom in determining and shaping his own learning; he advocates "a tutor, who has rather a well-made than a well-filled head".

Let's go back further: beyond Dickens, beyond Rousseau and Montaigne. Plato believed that the highest purpose of education is "knowledge of the Good": that is to say, the ability to recognise the quality of virtue itself, the essential property that makes something -- anything -- "right" or "wrong". Or, in other words: it is to instil a moral sense. To change not merely the "thoughts, feelings and actions", but the very values and desires of the students.

Iserbyt's "traditional" definition of education is, in fact, anything but: it is a deliberate rejection of the ideas of those, in earlier generations, who have bothered to think about the subject. Like so many nineteenth-century "traditions", it was made new and radical by and for the Victorians; it is a dysfunctional product of a dysfunctional age.

In case you're curious about the other 737 pages of Iserbyt's work: I have, at considerable personal discomfort, skimmed through the meat of it (about 425 of those pages). She seems intent to prove that US education policy in the 20th century has been hijacked by Communists (she points the finger in particular at such anti-American subversives as Roosevelt and Eisenhower, although she also regards Reagan, Bush and Nixon as pansy-waisted sell-outs), and directed to the aim of selling out the US to some kind of ill-defined supra-national government. The cast of the conspiracy, and the precise nature of this "government", shifts from chapter to chapter: but she is in no doubt. Whoever They are, They're all in it together: traitors to her country.

Whatever that is.

In her YouTube video, shot by who-knows-whom, she casts herself as a naif suffering from a devastating failure of self-awareness. She is outraged to learn that to hold a political position, she is expected to know about practical politics. She is aghast to find herself being trained in the rudimentary techniques of persuasion and crowd manipulation -- tactics that will be familiar to anyone who's ever worked for a company with more than 100 employees. She is indignant that teachers are expected to "challenge and change" their student's views.

Among the training she received was how to silence "resisters" (dissidents) by elisting them to serve on committees, flattering them that their opinions are important, while still ignoring them. I think the most telling testimony to her own obliviousness is this: that it still, to this day, doesn't seem to have occurred to her, how she became a "policy adviser"...

I don't know if she's insane, an idiot, or just plain lying. I do know that her YouTube video has been viewed more than 50,000 times, and has a five-star average rating.


Ruby Apolline said...

Yikes. I might have picked this up as I am susceptible to books that tell me I am a member of an elite, smarty-pants group that sees the truth of things. Thank you for saving me the headache.

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result: happiness; Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty-one pounds, result: misery."
-Wilkins Micawber

(La Diva uses this as her email signature).

To your list of actual "traditional" educational theories, I might add the lengthy discourses of Signore Settembrini from Mann's The Magic Mountain. He is, I think, supposed to represent the Western Enlightenment tradition and reaches back to Plato (even uses the Socratic method) to educate the main character, like, all the time.

Settembrini views education as essential to the moral upbringing of citizens of a polity, which creates in them the ability to form a rational, virtuous (here primarily meaning life and truth-loving) and humanist society. Basically, philosopher-kings. He is opposed by the seductive "Oriental" mysticism of certain patients at the sanitorium and an insane, yet brilliant, Jesuit.

vet said...

I think that she's not exactly The Latest Thing. Most of her works are dated some years ago, although she's still active -- she campaigned for the arch-revisionist, Ron Paul, last year.

I looked at the obvious news sources for mentions of her name (which is pretty distinctive, fortunately). I was pleased to see that FOX doesn't seem to acknowledge her at all. But WorldNetDaily does.

I haven't read Mann, but I've been thinking about putting him on the list... Thank you for the reminder.