She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it).

- Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Thursday, August 20, 2009

If you can't read, you're stupid.

That seemed to be the major theme of the video I just watched in my teaching practicum. The video was a compilation of images and voice overs (I assume) with material taken from a 1940's/50's study of members of a mostly oral, rural community in Stalinist Russia.

The people of a small village, most of whom were illiterate or just learning to read, were given a series of questions and intelligence tests, interviewed, and surveyed within an inch of their lives - all to prove that illiteracy equals stupidity (or, at the least, dreadful close-mindedness). But the video, while amusing at times, was wholly unconvincing as an argument for the advocation of teaching writing, and did not really prove its initial point about literacy.

I am a new writing teacher, and I'll be the first to support the establishment that pays my bills and keeps me fed, as well as the pastime that brings me hours of enjoyment. However, this video fails to convince me that literacy is important on the basis that it vastly improves uncultivated human intelligence.

First of all, intelligence tests, as a rule, are simply useless. Standardized tests meant to prove college performance (not intelligence, though many people seem to equate the two) such as the SAT or the GRE have (I'm not making this up) about 0.9% accuracy when compared with actual college performance. [That's from the statistics of a psychology department using only psychology students in the study, but still - the point remains that it's just not a major factor in prediction.] One wonders why colleges continue to use them, except that they are a useful weeding tool. What they actually weed out, I have no idea. I admit that I don't know the accuracy of actual intelligence tests, but I do know that when you try to pin down a sociologist or psychologist (or any person, for that matter) on what intelligence actually means, he or she very rarely has a concise answer. Most of the time we talk about different types of intelligence: emotional intelligence, spatial intelligence, verbal intelligence, etc... When asked how to define intelligence, well, how would you define it? I can't.

But if that isn't enough to convince you (and I don't know why it should be), lets examine the actual tests administered to these farmers, factory workers, and laborers. First, they are asked to put things into a grouping, to sort these objects: a hammer, a saw, a log, an axe. Now, we are told (by my teacher, and afterward by the moderator) that the right grouping (and by right, I assume this means intelligent) is the hammer, saw and axe (tools) opposing the log, which does not belong. We are given the dialogue of three women who sorted the objects this way: they put the log, axe and saw together (because one can cut the log with the axe or saw), and then they put the hammer, saw, and log together (because if one has a saw, one doesn't need an axe). I understand the conventional way to classify these tools, not because I actually use any of them, but because I've been through years of public school and have learned how to classify things in accordance with standardized tests which judge standardized thinking. What gets to me is that we assume that people who sort things rationally, and not, perhaps, purely logically, are therefore less intelligent. Can someone explain this to me? Why are their answers, based on practical experience, and very creative in terms of the possibilities of the objects as groups, are less intelligent than the purely logical, abstract game of classifying the tools?

Another question, which I completely fail to see the use in, was, "What is a tree?". The questioners wanted the people to define a tree. Not getting the responses they wanted, they told the people to describe a tree for a person who had never seen one, to which the woman being questioned answered, "Then why is he asking about trees? If he's never seen them?" Everyone laughed, including me, but the point is entirely relevant and so much more perceptive than just describing/defining a tree (who could really define a tree? What would you use for criteria?). How could a person who'd never seen a tree (didn't know they existed, we'll assume) ask for its definition?

Because when it comes right down to it, all these intelligence tests and writing games are really nothing more than logic games. They are exercises in syllogisms. All bears who live in cold climates are white. All of North America is cold. North American bears are white. - When they gave these first two premises to the laborers, the laborers replied, "I don't know what color bears are in America. I've never been there, so how I can I tell? You should only speak about things you know." The literati criticize this, amazed that these simple people can't understand the game - the syllogism. But I think a more discerning person would realize that isn't the entire story. Because the syllogism is useless - it has no practical application. The laborers are intelligent enough to realize that there is no practical use, and realistically, how could they be expected to know the color of bears they've never seen? To me, this is the kind of thinking we want in the writing classes - it seems like the kind of thinking we've spent the last week (and academia has spent the last century) trying to produce. Reality checks - real, applied logic. Not taking things on hearsay - waiting for actual evidence. A syllogism is wonderful in a synthetic argument, but it won't help a bit in actual analysis and that's what we're supposedly trying to teach. In actual analysis, I would not jump to a conclusion unless I had proof. A syllogism is (excepting geometry) not proof of anything.

None of the examples convinced me in the least. And, most curious of all, towards the end of the movie the words to an anthem (almost a hymn) praising Stalin rolled over the scenes. The words were something like (pardon my paraphrasing), "Thou staunch heart, thou fount of joy, thou beautiful wisdom, Stalin, light of the world," and so on, in that vein. I supposed the purpose of that was to show us that uneducated people will follow anything because they lack the intelligence and the critical mindset that individualism (itself a product of literacy and education) brings. But this makes me laugh, and surely you do too, because it's very obvious that these people didn't write that hymn, were not capable of writing it. Which begs the question: who did? Who wrote that song? A writer. An academic. A literate, well-read person. Or at least, someone well versed in hymns and eulogies. So, where does that leave us? It is wrong to follow the status quo without question when that status quo is a lie or is wrong - but who is the more intelligent: the lemming who jumps off the cliff or the lemming who writes the "jump here" sign? Educated people write lies that they know are lies, and they sell them as truths to simple people who will believe them on the basis of trust. I'm not excusing ignorance, I'm just trying to point out that the ignorant people in that video seem to me to be smarter than the wise people who made it.

Anyway, sometimes academia just gets to me. A lot of people seem to equate a diploma with knowledge, a high IQ score with actual intelligence, literacy with understanding. I understand why - there is a correlation between these things - but not, necessarily, causation. I know many people who've never been to college who are better read and capable of more precise literary analysis than a lot of the pompous, abstract goofballs I've had to read these last two years. I'm not bitter - I just think that two things are very true: namely, that if we want literature to survive into the next century, we should focus on teaching it and making it relevant instead of trying to beat dead horses or participate in the current literary criticism circus acts and (2) just because no one understands you, it doesn't make you an artist (or intelligent).

And all the questions they asked, to which they didn't receive the right answers, just remind me of the lesson we learned only last week: if you aren't getting the answer you wanted, it's probably because you are asking the wrong question.

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