The Shamelessness of Shaming

There’s a reason education sucks, it’s the same reason that it will never, ever, ever be fixed. It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you got. Because the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners, now. The real owners, the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians, they’re an irrelevancy. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. [..]

But I’ll tell you what they don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago.

You know what they want? Obedient workers,­ people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it.

~ George Carlin

I was watching one of those videos showing how stupid kids are these days. It was the 2014 video from Texas Tech University. I think I’ve seen it before or one of the videos like it.

But the video itself isn’t important. It was highly edited and far from being an honest polling or scientific survey. It’s easy to focus on a few people and try to paint an entire demographic in bad light. It’s the same way the American media, political elite, and middle-to-upper classes love to shame the poor. It is good to keep in mind some of the kids in the video might be the first generation in their family to have gone to college.

This shaming has been going on for the entirety of US history, which is a relevant fact. Do the makers of such videos know the history of shaming? If not, what excuse do they have for being ignorant? It is fair to dismiss this bullshit shaming out of hand, because it is bullshit. People who participate in it are the ones who should feel ashamed.

The motivation behind the video, that of shaming people, irritated me. I went to a mediocre high school. And I know many people have gone to even worse high schools. Teachers are underpaid and overworked, and it just gets worse in poor areas. Few students get a good education and aren’t prepared for college, if and when they get there. I dropped out of college because of how underprepared and overwhelmed I was, although depression and learning disability played a role.

Anyway, the following are some of my thoughts.

* * *

I try to stay humble and keep perspective.

I know that when I came out of high school I was extremely ignorant. If anyone had asked me any questions about history, I would have given some really clueless answers, assuming I responded at all. It has taken me a couple of decades of serious reading and research to lessen that vast ignorance and I still remain ignorant about most areas of knowledge.

Learning is hard, for most of us. On top of that, many people have bad or uninspiring experiences of school. I suspect it is a rare person who makes it out of school with curiosity intact and a love of learning instilled in them.

I do find it sad that Americans aren’t better educated. But shaming them for a failed education system isn’t likely to improve anything. I understand the humor of wrong answers. And yet I save my outrage for the social problems and political incompetence that keeps producing ignorant Americans, generation after generation.

* * *

Ignorance is the starting point we all have in life. And it takes immense effort to move very far from that starting point.

I doubt people are more ignorant than they ever were. The closest equivalent to the Civil War for earlier generations might have been the War of 1812. If you asked young Americans a few generations ago why the War of 1812 was fought, most probably couldn’t have told you. It simply wouldn’t have felt relevant to them. Even talking to the older generations alive right now, those of my parents age and above, I’m constantly surprised by how little they know about American history and world history. It certainly isn’t limited to a single generation.

In the not too distant past, most people didn’t have much if any education at all. Even in early 20th century before universal public education, few Americans graduated high school or even elementary school. A large part of the population wasn’t even literate generations ago. In the late 1800s, about 1 in 5 Americans couldn’t read. Even though our education system is far from perfect, the improvements in public education are vast. We should fully appreciate that, even as we seek to do better.

I’d make another point. People tend to only know about what is close to their lives. When I was growing up, the Cold War was still going on. When my parents were growing up, the last of the Civil War veterans and former slaves were still living. When my grandparents were growing up, the last of the Indian Wars were fought. When my great grandparents were growing up, Reconstruction was still happening or had ended not too long before. When my great great grandparents were growing up, the Civil War took place—some of them having been born born near the death of the last American founders and could have met John Quincy Adams.

For most of US history, the country was young. No event was further back than a few generations. Now that we are in the 21st century, the the major events that shaped the country are beginning to feel ever more distant. There is also simply more history to be learned. Learning about US history for a kid born in the past was easier for the simple reason there was less to learn, but even then most Americans didn’t learn much history.

We are only shocked by ignorance today because, unlike in the past, we have come to believe that people shouldn’t be ignorant. It used be that people didn’t care about history all that much, for it didn’t put a roof over their heads or food on their tables. It is interesting that the world has changed so much that we now consider ignorance, the normal state of humanity, to be a mark of shame.

If we actually care about knowledge so much, why don’t we improve education and fund it better for all students?

* * *

I was thinking about what kinds of knowledge is valued.

Kids these days are taught a ton of info, a wider spectrum of knowledge than in past generations. For example, I bet the youth today know more about the larger world than did the youth a century ago. WWI was the first generation of Americans who even saw much of the world beyond US borders. And now traveling the world is common.

What we are taught is based on what those in power deem important. But that is dependent on historical situations and events. At present, kids are probably learning a lot about the Middle East and their knowledge in this area would put most adult Americans to shame. The focus of education in the past, for those who got an education, would have been far different.

I’ve talked to my parents about their childhood and young adulthood. My mom didn’t even know about the Cold War until the Reagan presidency, despite her having been born in the early Cold War. My parents barely knew what was happening in the Civil Rights movement when they were in high school and college. My parents didn’t know about sundown towns, even though my dad grew up in one and both of my parents went to college in one.

My dad also had never heard of bombing and terrorism of Black Wall Street, which occurred a short distance away from his mother’s childhood home. She moved to a major Klan center in high school. Her and my maternal grandfather had to have known the town they moved their young family to was a sundown town, as there were signs that said so. Yet no one talked about any of this and my father was raised in ignorance.

My maternal grandparents didn’t get much education. It is understandable that they didn’t know much. But my paternal grandparents were college educated. When the last of the Indian Wars happened in their childhoods, did any of my grandparents know about it. If not, why not? Like the Tulsa Riots, some of those Indian Wars happened not all that far from where my maternal grandmother spent her early life.

What excuses this ignorance? Nothing. Yet this is the common fate of humanity. We remain ignorant, unless we individually and collectively put immense effort toward informing ourselves. There is all kinds of knowledge we don’t value as a society, even when we should.

* * *

The impulse to shame is easy to give into. I do it myself on occasion.

I think this impulse comes from a place of frustration and apathy, verging on cynicism. We all see the problems we collectively face and we don’t know what to do about them. So, we look for scapegoats. Sometimes that means the youth and at other times it means the poor, minorities, or immigrants.

It is easier to project onto others and pretend one isn’t a part of the problem. It is easier to ridicule others than to try to understand. It is easier to blame than to help. Our laughter has a nervous edge to it, as we all realize the problem points back to all of us. It’s the kind of humor people distract themselves with.

Instead, why don’t we simply deal with the problem?

5 thoughts on “The Shamelessness of Shaming

  1. I should state that I’m not against shaming on principle. Sometimes there are genuine reasons for people to feel ashamed and to have this shame made public. But the target of shame should be appropriate.

    Shame the willfully ignorant, not the passively ignorant. Shame those who misinform and disinform, not those who are misinformed and disinformed because of those others. The tricky part is to tell the difference. It isn’t always clear if someone knows better and is just pretending to be clueless and stupid, for purposes of trolling or as a rhetorical strategy.

    We are all more ignorant than not, which is to say there is always more we don’t know than we do. The important part is whether we are willing to learn. The risk taken in shaming people is that it can shut down the natural desire to learn. Demoralize people enough and they will simply embrace their ignorance. People don’t like to feel bad. If they associate knowledge with feeling bad, they won’t have a positive attitude toward knowledge.

    So, don’t be arrogant and pretentious about what you know. Share your knowledge, instead of merely shaming others for lacking that knowledge.

  2. Here is a comment I wrote to a Psychology Today article:

    “One study found (link is external) that between 1917 and 2012, the level of complexity of the books assigned in high school significantly decreased”

    This article demonstrates the difficulty of critical thinking. The author made the above statement without thinking about the assumptions being made.

    In 1917, many Americans had little if any formal eductation. Few made it to high school. From the late 1800s to the beginning of the 1900s, only half of kids were in school. But even by 1940, 1 in 4 kids were not in school. (link is external)

    The rates of education we have today have never before been seen in history. This can even be seen in IQ measures. The year 1917 was around the time IQ testing began. If we don’t norm IQ results, the average American in the early 1900s was, by today’s IQ standards, functionally retarded.

    That isn’t to say they were overall stupid. IQ tests largely measure abstract thinking skills. Most Americans a century ago had little use for abstract thinking skills. The level of their reading skills doesn’t indicate much. Plus, just because kids were being assigned certain books back then, it doesn’t tell us much about how many kids actually read and understood those books.

    I’m far from saying that America doesn’t have a problem with anti-intellectualism. But we must be more careful with how we think about data. We also should be willing to admit, even in our cynicism, that the world is getting better in many ways.

    For example, violent crime is lower now than it was in 1917. One explanation for that is lead toxicity. Lead began to be widely used in the US in the 1880s, initially in rural areas, and increased along with industrialization in the early 1900s. Besides aggressive behavior, one of the well known results is lowered cognitive ability.

    We’ve regulated lead pollution to a greater degree. Still, many poor areas have remaining high rates of lead from old paint, old pipes, and accrued in the soil. It would be much easier to further teach critical thinking skills, if the most disadvantaged kids didn’t have their brains poisoned.

    There are many things to be considered. My basic point is that we need to think more deeply and carefully about these complex issues. All of us can easily be lured into emotional arguments and fall into cognitive biases. This isn’t just about those other people, those fundies and anti-intellectuals. It’s challenging for even the smartest and most well educated people to use criticall thinking well. That is demonstrated with the smart idiot effect, which easily effects experts.

    It’s not just about education. More importantly, it’s about understanding the human mind, what makes it tick and what are the optimal environmental conditions for its healthy functioning. Instead of blaming particular people or groups, we should look at the larger issues and factors.

  3. It’s easy for the well off to blame people for the problems that are caused by poverty and social misery.

    Unfortunately, a poor quality of education could be attributed to just as easily the rest of society being unwilling to fund a good general quality education.

    In the Finnish system, there is great effort put to reduce inequality for example.

    • The problem is that ignorance continually leads to the same ignorance. If a population isn’t as well educated as it could and should be, then there is no way for that population to know what it would be like to have a well educated population. It is ignorance of ignorance. And ignorance of the possibility of being anything else.

      No one wants to think they are ignorant or stupid. I don’t know about other societies, but in the US that is one of the worst insults. It is regularly how the poor and disadvantaged are dismissed by the wealthier and privileged. It creates a situation where no one wants to admit to the problem itself at a collective level, since it is those other people who are ignorant and stupid.

      People can’t be shamed into being well informed. Instead, curiosity and a love of learning must be encouraged from a young age and throughout the entire education. Maybe as greater access to knowledge increases more people will develop a sense of the value of knowledge and education. All it takes is a single generation that gets a quality education and the whole society could be transformed.

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