Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not yet completely sure about the universe. -Albert Einstein
Not long ago I came across something that leaped out and smacked me in the face with its significance, the sort of idea that’s unique not only for its elegantly simple presentation, but for the vast scope it covers. I’ve been familiar with and considered it for years, but paradoxically I’d never actually defined for myself nor explored in terms of its practical effects in a larger view. Oh, there’s no doubt that I’m a latecomer to this party…plenty of people know about it, I just wasn’t one of them until recently.
I’m referring to the Dunning-Kruger effect, the hypothesis detailing ‘a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes.’ Fair enough, it’s hardly a secret that not-so-bright people don’t realize that they’re not so bright. They tend to perform tasks badly, and being unaware of their poor performance, never catch on to the whys and wherefores of that poor performance and never learn from their mistakes…which leads with very few exceptions to their becoming enmeshed in a vicious circle of mediocrity in all kinds of areas.
I confess that like many other people who’ve also come to the same conclusion, in my microcosm it I’d always thought it sufficient to be able to recognize such people as mere obstructions in life, but reading Dunning and Kruger’s work on the subject has been a sharp reminder for me that simply working around the incompetent is not enough.
Whys? Easy enough to answer: there are so many of them out there, and their numbers seem to be rapidly increasing.
It’s important to keep in mind that I’m not talking about universal incompetence; if that were the case literally nothing would ever get done and never would have. At the risk of stating the terribly obvious, people are relatively smart and adaptive creatures and we wouldn’t have achieved the level of development we enjoy as a species if most of us were simply stupid. Nonetheless, it’s becoming obvious that in America at least, we took a wrong turn somewhere, that as a people, we’ve stagnated in our progress. Worse, our nation is rapidly devolving into a de-industrialized and authoritarian State that bears little resemblance to the country it was a hundred years ago. Warts and all, we used to be a country that understood liberty better than others, we were innovative and strove for change for the better. One thing’s for certain: our forbears were not the status quo loving, insecure lot we are today, fearful of change or anything that’s perceived as a threat to our oh-so-precious safety.
I’m talking about the sort of targeted and specific incompetence that took over a hundred years of patient direction to achieve, primarily through public education. Not surprisingly, the culprit has been none other than our old nemesis, The State.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, America bought into the idea that along with industrialization and the mass production of goods that had been so successful in manufacturing things in recent years, it would be just dandy to mass produce education…and indoctrination…in people as well. The Prussians had recently developed this method of mandatory public education, and like many of the authoritarian nationalist schemes of that era it seemed like a pretty good idea to fledgling central planners everywhere. The climate in the US at that point of rising xenophobia and the desire for uniformity in public thought helped set the stage for Progressives like Wilhelm Wundt, John Dewey, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller (among others) to promulgate the collectivist and Statist objectives of their brand of enforced public education, and history shows that they were successful beyond their wildest dreams.
If you’re not familiar with it, the Prussian system was a teaching methodology designed to stamp out good little worker bees assembly-line fashion, trained to be complacent with their station in life and compliant with every demand of the State. An elite of those better educated but still proven unquestioningly loyal to the State were promoted to lead the proletariat, rewarded with elevated status and material success commensurate with their skills and the zeal they demonstrate in supporting the system. It specifically avoided developing creativity and independent thought, reasoning these were skills the worker classes didn’t need in their roles as mass produced labor.
It’s an intricate but fascinating story in a grim Machiavellian way, and thanks to the efforts of revisionist scholars in recent years, it’s available online to anyone interested in learning about it. There are two sources I can recommend that I believe excel at communicating the history of collectivist indoctrination in a comprehensive manner: the works of John Taylor Gatto and Charlotte Iserbyt.
John Taylor Gatto was a highly regarded public school teacher in New York City up until 1991, when while still the current New York State Teacher of the Year, he decided he’d had enough. Quitting teaching, he devoted himself to educational reform thereafter, stating explicitly that he was no longer willing to hurt children. He is the author of several books on the subject of education, multimedia projects, and most recently his work on the documentary film series The Fourth Purpose. His book The Underground History of American Education: A School Teacher’s Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling is available in print as well as freely available online at his web site.
Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt is an American freelance writer who served as a Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), U.S. Department of Education during Ronald Reagan’s first term, and staff employee of the US State Department (South Africa, Belgium, South Korea). A self-styled whistleblower, she’s drawn attention to the hazards of the misuse of technology in influencing American public school students. She’s a prolific writer and her book the deliberate dumbing down of america is offered as a free e-book on her web site, one of several books and articles she’s authored.
All of the thought and effort that’s gone into deconstructing modern education has arrived on the scene none too soon; we are at a critical juncture in our nation’s history. After more than a century of ‘scientific’ public education, indoctrination, and Skinnerian training, the chickens have come home to roost with a vengeance. We have a country full of people who while reasonably capable of performing their jobs, have never learned the basics of creative or independent thought. They can play the most intricate of video games, but lack the skills needed to think their way out of a paper bag in far too many instances. Worse, since the State has indoctrinated them so well with its peculiar brand of non-logic, any trouble or obstacles they encounter in life caused by the State itself are often simply overlooked by these folks as if they didn’t exist, blinded as they are by State worship. This hearkens back to Dunning and Kruger’s observation that people deficient in reasoning skills don’t learn from their mistakes and will repeat them without ever realizing the fundamental problems at the root of their failures.
They can’t spell, punctuate or compose a paragraph competently, skills that were considered essential for children growing up a century ago. As Orwell’s Newspeak in 1984 removed the ability to commit thoughtcrime by destroying language, so too have the public incrementally lost the ability to communicate effectively…without even realizing it. As the situation deteriorates, so-called educators excuse its failure by promoting the idea that the proper use of language constitutes ‘elitism,’ one of the worst pejoratives in their arsenal of epithets flung at enemies to silence them whenever they cross its will.
When we’ve reached the point of speaking or writing in little more than grunts, the mere concept of resisting control and coordinating efforts to change things for the better can escape the grasp of the average person, but this is of course the desired result from the central planners’ perspective: why would they want to encourage their subjects to develop any cognitive skills that might lead to dissatisfaction with their assigned role within the hive?
Keeping the public ignorant just doesn’t work any more, not in today’s world with its greater reliance on brainpower rather than horsepower. People haven’t changed one bit in thousands of years, but the stakes are higher than ever before as technology improves and has an ever greater effect on them with its faster communication, capability for intrusive surveillance and more lethal weapons.
Look at just a few of the assortment of people in occupations that can be (and have been) skewed, distorted or perverted by Leviathan’s training in its dogma of omniscience to make them more dangerous. They’re the mainstream media, like it or not, still the gatekeeper of information for the majority of Americans, cynically using their position to influence public opinion. They’re lawyers, judges, doctors, and scientists interpreting manmade and natural laws, always under pressure to force those laws to conform to the needs of the State first and foremost, even at the expense of rationality and decency.
More ominously, they’re also the State’s enforcers, the soldiers and police…and of course their new Sturmabteilung, the almost universally loathed TSA. In capacities like these they wield great power over other peoples’ lives and property and as such take on massive responsibilities that include (in theory) not only doing their jobs, but respecting the citizens who have trusted them with that power and who rightly expect them to shoulder those responsibilities. However, unless you can willfully ignore the facts or are so deeply immersed in worship of the State that you can rationalize any act perpetrated by someone clothed in its livery, you’re aware that in many cases these responsibilities are given mere lip service as citizens see their rights, dignity and increasingly their very lives destroyed by the State’s minions in the prosecution of one or another of its endless wars against endless enemies; terror, drugs, disobedient client states or even just inconvenient sovereign individuals.
Perhaps the mass and inertia of all those years of enforced ignorance will prove too great a force to be halted. I choose to think otherwise, and that we can turn back to the path of liberty and individual freedom that our ancestors looked to as a goal…flawed though their understanding of it was in execution, it was still pointed far closer to a sane direction than the same old statist systems have always been.
There’s no Utopia out there, as the hubris filled schemes of powerful individuals to attain their version of that goal have so often proven, leading only to misery and slaughter during the twentieth century. I don’t know what all of the answers are, but the good news is that we have a pretty safe bet to begin with as a first course of action: deliberately turning away from the dehumanizing collectivism that has done us such damage for so long. Concentrated power in few hands has led to nothing but grief, but we can reclaim that power, diffusing it back to the citizens and taken away from the usurpers who have so perverted our republic into the monster it is today.
This will prove true in education as well, I do not doubt. Mentoring, homeschooling, and even unschooling are just a few of the options open to us, and doubtless more will evolve once the heavy hand of the State is out of the picture. We can thank people like John Taylor Gatto and Charlotte Iserbyt for helping light our way, but we are the ones who need to accomplish it, one individual at a time…delegating this duty to others has created our current disastrous state of affairs.
We’d best get to it, lest we plummet right past Dunning-Kruger defined incompetence straight into the bottomless depths of sheer Idiocracy.
©2016 by Glenn Horowitz, republished from the original that appeared in the American Daily Herald 2011-2012