Teaching and Learning and Caring Blog
EL PASO – There is a strong cultural current in the United States that disturbs me. It is a current in direct conflict to our espoused national values of justice and equality. The current is anti-intellectual, homophobic and prone to violence. I think it is dangerous for us to maintain these dissonant dialogues without resolving them. Here is what I perceive around me.
We don’t care much for smart people, especially artists or writers or scientists. The only way it is okay to be smart is if you are rich; otherwise you are probably gay or subversive, dangerous in either case.
We don’t care much for people who speak another language, even though the United States is less than five percent of the world’s population. Even if they also speak English, they are suspect. Despite our crushing ignorance of the rest of the world, we think we know everything that is important to know.
We don’t care much for people who drink wine instead of beer. Wine and all things French (except for fries which we felt the need to rename “freedom fries”) are namby-pamby and not deserving of “American” respect. Even California wine is too French. It is alright to lift weights, but yoga, no way. There is something seriously wrong with every culture except our own.
We don’t care much for unmarried women. They probably hate men, and their sons will surely be gay. We positively detest pacifists and socialists. If you want to prove you are a real man, you need a gun, a truck, a beer gut, a wife with big boobs, and kids who are in varsity sports. And no government handouts, even if health insurance is a rip-off.
We would rather see a movie or shop than read a book, rather watch a game on ESPN than attend a play or a symphony performance, rather listen to talk radio than jazz or classical music, rather eat pizza than try a new dish with a funny-sounding name, especially if it might be good for us.
Who do we believe: the scientist who tells us something or the celebrity who contradicts her? We no longer seem to be capable of evaluating the evidence for ourselves. That might involve math. And besides, evidence, schmevidence.
How did we get this way? In elementary school, we all believe education is important. Children believe it and their parents believe it. Somewhere around middle school, parents still believe education is important, but their children begin to waver, as the cultural messages that kids receive become more mixed. Organized sports begin to exert a powerful influence. Girls get the message that being smart isn’t sexy, and then the smart guys who don’t play sports begin to get marginalized. Some kids become popular, and others become geeks and freaks, kids who don’t fit the mold.
High school offers a few more avenues of respect for smart kids (debate team, academic decathlons, etc., but even those use the metaphors of sports). Every kid knows the real heroes of high school, if not real life, are the jocks and the cheerleaders, the ones with the letterman jackets. And except for a few celebrations of scholarship recipients, honor societies, and nods of approval from the school district and a few parents, life in the silly hallways of high school continues.
Mediocrity is never an obstacle; it might be just the way to go. George W. Bush enshrined this sentiment at a commencement speech at his alma mater, Yale University, in 2001: “To those of you who received honors, awards, and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students I say, you, too, can be President of the United States.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the world wakes up early and goes to bed late learning math and science and languages and geography and business with a seriousness and dedication that it would behoove us to notice. While we argue about March Madness, megamillion jackpots, abortion, and gay rights, the rest of the world is moving on. There is still generally goodwill toward Americans, but we are increasingly seen as ignorant and ridiculous. If we stay on this path, we will eventually become irrelevant.