Comedian Ron White warns
people not to marry somebody who is beautiful but stupid. He explains that a
plastic surgeon can fix ugly, but "you can't fix stupid." The audience laughs.
Who hasn't had a painfully frustrating experience with an annoyingly stupid
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However, I think that Ron is wrong. You can fix stupid. The problem is
that stupid doesn't fix itself. Philosophy and education were developed
specifically for the purpose of fixing stupid. If people are still stupid even
though they've been through school, then their school needs to be fixed.
What is stupidity, and how can
it be fixed? In the dictionary, stupid
has several definitions. The
first three refer to stupid people. According to the first definition, a stupid
person is "slow of mind." However, slowness by itself isn't necessarily a
problem. Slow but steady sometimes wins the race. A person who is slow of mind
may simply need a bit more time to think things through or a bit more coaching
and practice to develop a particular skill. Coaching and practice are
particularly important for developing skills in mathematics or music.
The second definition of stupid
links stupidity to carelessness:
"given to unintelligent decisions or acts : acting in an unintelligent or
careless manner." That kind of stupidity could result from a character flaw,
rather than from a defective brain.
The third definition of stupid
is "lacking intelligence or
reason." What is reason? The dictionary says that reason is "(1) the power of
comprehending, inferring, or thinking especially in orderly rational ways :
intelligence (2) : proper exercise of the mind." Thus, stupidity can be the
result of a lack of mental discipline. If so, then education can "fix stupid" by
helping people develop the proper kinds of mental discipline. I believe that
"fixing stupid" ought to be the main purpose of schooling.
Stupidity is an age-old
problem. To solve it, human societies developed philosophy, which means love of
wisdom. The ancient Athenians developed a seven-course curriculum for teaching
wisdom: grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music.
The purpose of Athenian education was to develop a boy's mind and character so
that he would become a good citizen of the Athenian democracy in peace as well
as war. The ancient Romans embraced this Athenian curriculum. The Romans called
these studies the liberal arts because they considered them appropriate for
freeborn men, as opposed to slaves.
The liberal arts have always
been valued in societies with a democratic or republican form of government.
These arts have always been taught to children who were expected to grow up to
be somebody. They have always been withheld from children whose participation in
political decision-making was unwanted. That explains why white girls and black
boys and girls in the United States weren't allowed to go to the schools for the
rich white boys.
Interest in the liberal arts
waned during the Dark Ages but was revived during the High Middle Ages, with the
rise of the first universities in Europe. In Northern Italy during the
Renaissance, wealthy families also cultivated a curriculum that they called the
humanities. It included such subjects as literature, philosophy, and history.
Like the liberal arts, these studies were intended to promote pleasant and
productive political discussions within the ruling class. Nowadays, people must
also understand a lot about science before they can play a productive role in
The liberal arts, the
humanities, and the sciences provide the kinds of skills and knowledge that one
needs in order to participate meaningfully in a democracy. In fact, the word civility
, which most people use to mean
good manners, originally meant training in the liberal arts. Unfortunately, the
liberal arts have been deliberately suppressed in public schools in the United
States. In particular, language arts teachers have been pressured to stop
teaching grammar. Yet grammar provides the basic concepts that you need in order
to start studying logic. Without skills in logic, you cannot reason. If you
cannot reason, you are unreasonable.
Stupid doesn't fix itself
because people who have poor thinking skills are unaware that their thinking
skills are poor (a phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect). People with
poor thinking skills don't notice that they make mistakes in thinking. After
their thinking skills improve, they develop the ability to judge their level of
skill; but by that point, they are no longer stupid.
Stupidity can be fixed through
an education that places a heavy emphasis on literacy, the liberal arts, the
humanities, and the sciences. Unfortunately, "progressive" educators such as
John Dewey promoted ineffective methods of reading instruction and then
deliberately suppressed training in the liberal arts, the humanities, and the
As a result, even many people who have been to college "don't know
much about history, don't know much biology." Worse yet, their lack of training
in the liberal arts has left them unable to reason and unable to notice that
they are unreasonable.
The solution to this problem is simple. First, we must
teach reading; then, we must teach the liberal arts, the humanities, and the
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