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Stupefying the Privileged

Stupefying the Privileged

A recent discussion with a friend of mine turned to COVID and its effects on her children, particularly in the ways the schools responded to the situation.

COVID, she explained, really escalated the use of screens in school. Before COVID, politicians and others could commonly be heard extolling the need for every child to have a tablet or some type of electronic device. After COVID and its use of virtual learning, however, assignments and other school work went to screens more than ever, a fact which she thought was not only hard on her children’s eyes, but also failed to really help them in reading or writing.

Unfortunately, such heavy use of screens and the internet may have another negative side effect, namely, in the retention of facts.

According to an article by Jill Barshay in The Hechinger Reportincreasing numbers of studies are showing that the internet, particularly the ease of having readily accessible information, is dumbing us down.

“Across five different experiments,” Barshay writes, “those who searched the internet not only scored lower in a quiz, but they were also just as confident that they had mastered the material. In some cases, the Google searchers were significantly more confident.”

Barshay leaves us with two takeaways from this information:

The first is that the stuff we’re Googling isn’t sticking in our memories and is quickly forgotten. … The second lesson is that we are also overestimating how much we’ve learned from Google searches. That overconfidence is bad for learning because if we think we already know something, we might study less.

Take those lessons and apply them to the students glued to screens more than ever after COVID. It seems many students will now consider themselves to be smart and knowledgeable … but will unfortunately be more ignorant than ever.

Such a scenario is what Christopher Lasch labeled “the atrophy of competence” in his 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism“Sweeping social changes, reflected in academic practice, thus underlie the deterioration of the school system and the consequent spread of stupidity,” Lasch wrote. “Mass education, which began as a promising attempt to democratize the higher culture of the privileged classes, has ended by stupefying the privileged themselves.”

He went on to say:

Modern society has achieved unprecedented rates of formal literacy, but at the same time it has produced new forms of illiteracy. People increasingly find themselves unable to use language with ease and precision, to recall the basic facts of their country’s history, to make logical deductions, to understand any but the most rudimentary written texts, or even to grasp their constitutional rights.

Perhaps that’s why only 29 percent of 8th grade public school students are proficient in reading, only 21 percent are proficient in civics, and only 26 percent are proficient in writing. That’s certainly not a pretty picture, and unfortunately, it bodes not well for the future for the reasons Lasch explains:

In view of all this evidence, it should not surprise us that Americans are becoming increasingly ignorant about their own rights as citizens. … If an educated electorate is the best defense against arbitrary government, the survival of political freedom appears uncertain at best. Large numbers of Americans now believe that the Constitution sanctions arbitrary executive power, and recent political history, with its steady growth of presidential power, can only have reinforced such an assumption. What has become of the early republican dream? Universal public education, instead of creating a community of self-governing citizens, has contributed to the spread of intellectual torpor and political passivity.

So what can we do to secure the political freedoms—both in action and thought—of the next generation? For one thing, we can advocate for more parental freedoms in where parents are allowed to send their kids to school. Sadly, my friend is limited in her ability to pull her children out of the public system, and thus she longs for school choice options like Education Savings Accounts which will enable to place her children in a better school—one that doesn’t rely on screens so heavily.

But because school choice options take time, we also have to act now and help our kids ourselves. So put the screens away at home (both for the kids AND the adults) and put books in their hands instead. Read with them. Have contests to see whether the kids or the parents can read more hard copy books. Let them listen to audio books, because those at least get them off screens for a while. Discuss the things everyone read at the dinner table, causing your children to think about what they read, while also giving them a chance to interact with the family.

And finally, get them outside. Let them lie around in the yard bored if you have to, for boredom will at least get their minds working, causing them to practice thinking for themselves once again.

And it is those who learn to think for themselves who will win the day, breaking us out of the stupefying privilege of mass education we’ve been subjected to for years.

This article is republished with permission from Annie’s Attic.

Image credit: Pexels


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  • Avatar
    Jon R, Parsons
    August 16, 2023, 7:19 pm

    Was it Einstein who said he never memorized anything he could look up?

  • Avatar
    James D Beaton
    August 17, 2023, 9:40 am

    The push needs to continue toward school choice and an emphasis on the 3 "R"s plus history, which is more important than ever in our current political climate.

  • Avatar
    Michael McCarthy
    August 18, 2023, 7:29 am

    Reminds me of the book Cultural Literacy from the 1970s. Also reminds me of Maria Montessori’s active learning methods. She said “The small child learns with her hands.”


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