Monday, January 2, 2023



Are most Americans educable? Many think so. Otherwise they wouldn't believe that proper schooling would resolve a daunting array of social problems such as: culturally integrating immigrants, curtailing drug abuse, enhancing national competitiveness, reducing racial injustice, cutting down unwanted pregnancies, even curtailing sexually transmitted diseases.   

Such problems probably could, in fact, be eased if Americans were more knowledgable and thought more effectively. But is the common failure to do either of these a consequence of a lack of education? Perhaps the real culprit is a widespread lack of educability coupled with a lack of motivation. 

For education to be effective a majority of citizens must possess sufficient intelligence, maturity and curiosity to benefit from it. But suppose they don't. Suppose a great many, perhaps even most, Americans are not educable, only trainable. Consider the durability of P.T. Barnum’s observation that “There’s a sucker born every minute.” (Contemporary evidence suggests far more suckers are born per minute than that.) Or ponder the lasting appeal of H.L. Mencken’s dictum that “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” Consider the enduring popularity of charlatan evangelists and grifting politicians —especially Donald J. Trump. 

I've some experience in dealing with insufficient intelligence, maturity and curiosity. I spent nearly 50 years trying to interest undergraduate "students" in our planet. You know, that little orb that sustains our very lives. I sought to interest them in its: origin, age, health, catastrophic events, weather, varieties of people and customs, and so forth. And I used every teaching aid and graphic demonstration I could think of to make these things come even more alive. Nevertheless, a fair number of "students" always responded with open-mouthed indifference. 

Sometimes the only question at the end of a lesson would be: "Will that be on the test."  It reminded me of the Chinese proverb: "When a finger points to the stars, the imbecile looks at the finger." 

It's undeniably true that "you can't cure dumb." And roughly half of the U.S. population is below average in intelligence. And in these days of low applicant numbers and lax admission standards, some of that half are surely be attending college. But a lack of intelligence isn't the only problem.  
Perhaps it's not even the primary problem.  

For instance, this course I taught was required. The students had to take it. And as Plato explains: "Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind." Perhaps this was what, at the root, explained much of the indifference I encountered.  Some students must have been saying to themselves, "They can make me attend, but they can't make me care."

What else might have contributed to their indifference? How about immaturity? The Bible says, "Strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age." (Hebrews 5:14.) Lots of kids haven't aged enough, nor are they yet selfless enough, to appreciate much of anything that transcends their late adolescent self-absorption. Education truly is "wasted on the young." 

Lack of curiosity is another factor. While curiosity is absolutely required for meaningful learning, it is not measured by IQ tests. Indeed there is no standardized test I know of that measures curiosity. But some students seemed largely devoid of it. Yet to be educable, as opposed to merely trainable, one has to have at least a modicum of that precious commodity. Not wanting to know as a means to some other end, mind you, but wanting to know as an end in itself. 

Why is the curiosity so frequently missing? What happens to it? Here's one possibility: stupidity coupled with a lack of imagination. But there are others. For instance: being so consumed by fear, or anger, or emotional hunger to focus on anything else. Then there is being besotted by drugs. Or a simple a lack of readiness? (Curiosity in these "students" will emerge: just not yet.) But whatever the reason, if curiosity is missing, even the best lessons go to waste. 

Can we remedy this ineducability? Somewhat. These steps might help: 1. Rethink compulsory education. 2. Enroll more adults and fewer adolescents in college. 3. Recognize the vital difference between training and education. (Training only teaches you to make a living. Education teaches you how to carefully consider what makes living worthwhile.) 4. Use every available tool to bring the instruction alive. 5. Try to start where most of the students are. Still, remember, you can't cure dumb. 

Of course every teacher inevitably faces some degree of indifference. That is why Sisyphus should be the patron saint of teachers. Remember, Zeus sentenced Sisyphus to eternally push a giant boulder up a very steep hill. When he finally reached the top, the boulder would roll back down. Then Sisyphus would have to push it up again, and again, and again. That's what every teacher does. Repeatedly push the boulder of knowledge up the same steep hill of stupidity, ignorance, and indifference. It's a wearying and thankless task. But if you quit pushing and just pretend, you are a fraud. So, if you care about what you are doing with your one and only life, keep pushing or find another job.


 To examine these issues further, see articles at