I had a passing conversation with a colleague, which left me obsessed with the meaning of stupid. I made a snarky declaration: “He didn’t say it outright, but I am not stupid!” My colleague sweetly concurred. Feeling abashed, I added, “I have many other character flaws.” My colleague corrected me, “Stupidity isn’t a character flaw,” he commented, “it’s just genetics.” We moved on to other topics, but I continue to dwell on whether or not he is correct.
I consider stupidity willful ignorance. By this definition, stupidity IS a character flaw. In a quick survey of online dictionaries, however, my colleague seems to be in the majority. The definitions proffered cite slowness to process information or grasp concepts. Such cognitive limitations, one could argue, stem from synaptic connections over which we have minimal control. If this is the case, we should no more use the “s” word than the “r” word, which we have expunged from our vocabularies and replaced with terms like “cognitive disabilities.”
Indeed, I remember forbidding my sons to call one another stupid. I treated it like its four-letter equivalent, dumb. I hold by my prohibition, as such name calling never helped sibling - or any other - relationships. At the time, I told them they could say someone did something stupid, but they could not call the person in question stupid.
If I applied my current definition, I allowed them to accuse an annoying sibling of an act of willful ignorance, but not of an ongoing state of willful ignorance. I distinctly recall my mantra, “no one in this family is stupid!” In retrospect, I meant that they had good brains and could apply them to good use: a different definition.
Having caught my own inconsistency, I wonder what is a stake in the definition. Willful ignorance puts a particular emphasis on education. If you have access to information and the capacity to process it, but choose to ignore it, you are stupid. If you lack access to information and therefore the capacity to process it, you may be ignorant; but you are not stupid.
As someone deeply committed to educational access, I think we should identify those who meet my definition of stupidity - willful ignorance. Those who have access to education at the highest levels, but choose to ignore the knowledge available to them, sap resources from those who desperately crave information and the opportunity to increase their cognitive function (no-matter their starting point) through practice and creative adaptation.
Rather than expending all our effort discerning who is “smart enough” to merit our educational investment, let’s see who wants to learn. To shape our syllabi and educational systems for those who never sought to broaden, deepen, and sharpen their minds, but simply to ratify their innate ability with a piece of paper and a highly paid job would demonstrate the academy’s willful ignorance.
My mother used to say, “stupid is as stupid does.” The scandal at the University of Oklahoma’s SAE chapter hit the press as if to prove my point and hers. Any young man who attends university but chooses to sing such a song has demonstrated willful ignorance complicit with irredeemable racism. They are stupid NOT due to an absence of mental facility, but as a result of the abject refusal to employ the skills they possess. The young men of SAE who wasted their opportunities as OU “Sooners” ought be compelled to fund African-Americans otherwise unable to attend college, whether due to financial or educational deficits. No matter how much pricey pedagogical remediation a low-income, inner-city child might require to succeed in college, anyone would be a better investment than a well-heeled, inveterate racist with a 36 on his ACT.
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading