Dumb Is the New Smart

The central claim in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses — that nearly half the students on 29 college campuses learned nothing during their first two years — has drawn lots of attention. No doubt, the reaction will be, “Let’s fix it,” and everyone will supply their pet nostrum. Not so fast. Obviously, lack of knowledge is hardly praiseworthy, but let me offer an admittedly speculative and somewhat upbeat explanation of student ignorance.

Begin by recognizing that nearly all these students, or at least the U.S.-educated ones, have encountered a parade of nonsensical, dishonest, and downright wacky ideas prior to college. From kindergarten on, they have learned the joys of multiculturalism (“we are all different but the same”) and the obligation to appreciate the odious (“tolerance”), and they have been relentlessly told that no one racial/ethnic group is smarter or more violent than another (“rejecting stereotypes”). History lessons have often consisted of America-bashing and politically correct pandering (e.g., celebrating the Iroquois contribution to the U.S. Constitution).

It is not that they have been exposed to lies exclusively; at least some youngsters have, happily, learned a truth or two. However, K–12 is such a tangled mishmash of lies and truths that sorting costs are prohibitive. Students suspect that some “knowledge” is bogus, but is it 20 percent? 40 percent? Impossible to calculate. Which is correct? Columbus committed genocide, or the U.S. Army purposely infected Native Americans with smallpox? (Both are false.)

How, then, is a perceptive student to survive a school environment laced with dubious assertions? Fortunately, a Darwinian solution exists: Believe nothing. This is precisely how those living under Communism kept their sanity when confronting official economic statistics — just assume lies, though there might be morsels of truth here and there. In short, disbelief is adaptive behavior.

So, when Joe Freshperson arrives for Sociology 101 and is told that gender roles are socially constructed, he reacts the same way he would if he’d been told that sex roles are partially biological — just remember it long enough to regurgitate it on the exam and then, to preserve sanity, immediately forget it. Why spend countless hours trying to disentangle truth from falsehood, let alone commit it to memory, in an environment where outward acquiescence suffices? Let somebody else separate truth from falsehood.

Ironically, for fans of truth, this immunity from absorbing knowledge may be a blessing — maintaining a blank slate is far better than swallowing politically correct indoctrination.

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