As the great legal philosopher, Ron White, warned, “you can’t fix stupid.” But ignorance isn’t the same as stupid. The latter is forgivable because stupid people can’t help themselves. That’s the best they can do. Ignorance, on the other hand, is a choice.
In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Nichols contends that schools are turning out rubes.
You know,” then-candidate Donald Trump said during the 2016 campaign, “I’ve always wanted to say this: … The experts are terrible.” Trump has often been caught at a loss over basic issues of public policy and has repeatedly bashed intellectuals who criticized his lack of substance. He famously exulted, “I love the poorly educated,” demanded that President Obama prove his American citizenship, and cited the National Enquirer approvingly as a source in charging that the father of one of his opponents, Ted Cruz, was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Hah, the twitters laugh at this idiot. He’s so stupid. He’s such a moron. The critics range from teens to grandmas, every one of whom is so much smarter than this. There are two things that can be true at the same time: that President Trump is a dolt and that you are too.
Higher education is supposed to be a bulwark against these kinds of frontal assaults on established knowledge, empowering voters with the ability to know fact from fiction, and to fight fantasy with critical reasoning.
How’s that going? Not well. In the wake of the 2016 election, half of Republicans believe that Donald Trump won the popular vote (he didn’t), while half of Democrats believe that Russia hacked America’s voting machines (it didn’t).
If it wasn’t so pathetic, it would be hysterically funny to watch Ken White try to explain First Amendment law on the twitters, only to be informed by eggboys that he has no clue what he’s talking about. Mark Bennett too. So what if he’s had laws here and there held unconstitutional? What does he know compared to the random twitterer? And when these lawyers with actual knowledge try to explain the error of thinking, they are accused of being condescending, among a plethora of other words, as if they are soooo much smarter than the typical 12 year old or the deeply passionate grandma.
Except they are.
Nichols offers some examples of his own to bolster his point:
When I arrived at Dartmouth, at the end of the 1980s, my colleagues told me a story about a well-known scientist there who gave a lecture to a group of undergrads on international-security affairs. During the question-and-answer, a student waved away the professor’s views, saying, “Well, your guess is as good as mine.” “No, no, no,” the professor said emphatically. “My guesses are much, much better than yours.”
There is a grossly misunderstood aphorism at work here, that we’re all entitled to an opinion. In an absolute sense, this is true. No one can stop you from having an opinion, whether you’re right or wrong, knowledgeable or ignorant, or, sorry to say, stupid. But as Nichols’ example shows, opinions grounded in knowledge aren’t the equivalent of opinions grounded in . . . nothing.
But the problem is more common than some Ivy League smart aleck cracking wise. To take a less rarefied example, a young woman in 2013 took to social media for help with a class assignment. She apparently had been tasked with researching the deadly chemical substance sarin. “I can’t find the chemical and physical properties of sarin gas someone please help me,” the student tweeted.
Her request was quickly answered by the director of a security-consulting firm in London, an expert in the field of chemical weapons. He offered his help and corrected her by noting that sarin isn’t a gas. The student responded in a storm of outraged ego: “yes the [expletive] it is a gas you ignorant [expletive]. sarin is a liquid & can evaporate … shut the [expletive] up.” The security professional, clearly stunned, tried one more time: “Google me. I’m an expert on sarin. Sorry for offering to help.” Things did not improve before the exchange finally ended.
This was a rather famous exchange at the time, as it reflected the nexus of objective fact and the mistaken assumption born of social media equivalence that we’re all peers. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. But then, sometimes, when you reach out on social media, the person who responds is not a dog, but Einstein. And yet, this distinction is lost on too many.
Nichols ascribes this shift to the softening of the pedagogical relationship fostered by schools seeking to cater to their “customer-centric” treatment of students.
Faculty members both in the classroom and on social media report that incidents like that, in which students see themselves as faculty peers or take correction as an insult, are occurring more frequently. Unearned praise and hollow successes build a fragile arrogance in students that can lead them to lash out at the first teacher or employer who dispels that illusion, a habit that carries over into a resistance to believe anything inconvenient or challenging in adulthood.
But it’s not quite so simple. The same downward spiral of knowledge that manifests itself in these flagrant examples has been happening for decades (hence, the 1980s example), and produced scholars and educators who themselves have bought into the nutty theories and taught them to following generations. The days of multicultural math are upon us.
Nor should anyone ignore the “appeal to expertise” logical fallacy, that just because someone carries an expert card in his wallet he’s right about everything and everyone who disagrees loses. We should all be well aware of how experts can disagree, how expert certainty one day morphs into totally wrong the next. How experts are manufactured out of thin air, whether on the internet or doctoral program of Social Justice University.
One of the jokes for lawyers who are engaged by random people on the internet informing them of “the law” is that they got their formal education at Twitter Law School. So every Trump supporter who can’t distinguish between “your” and “you’re” is now a constitutional scholar. And every Trump adversary instructs that hate speech isn’t free speech. Ironically, some of the adversaries are putative “constitutional scholars.” You can’t fix stupid.