We are Raising a Generation of Ignoramuses

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Well read, but a dumbass?

Well read, but a dumbass?

I hate to admit it, but I wasn’t always a genius.

OK, I’m not NOW a genius. But I used to be much more stupid than I am now. Born with above-average intelligence and parents who loved to read, write and converse, there was no excuse for my penchant for light reading, skipping across the surface of issues without really understanding them, and refusing to dip my toes outside the comfort zone.

Maybe you can relate. You see, part of the problem was, I was not challenged as a reader or scholar when I went to high school, and certainly I was not pushed past my limits in elementary school. I used to read everything I could get my hands on, and it was all good. Then I ran into Mr. Payne.

Mr. Payne was my English and communications teacher at the community college I attended at 24. I had previous college, but not anything that would transfer, so I started over at square one at Crowder College. Today they call that academic bankruptcy. Today I call that stupidity on my part, for squandering my parents’ willingness to foot my education expenses and then dropping out of school at 18 to set out on the Yellow Brick Road. And now I was back living at home and paying my own way. But that was OK. I was moving along well. Back to Mr. Payne.

Mr. Payne was a teacher in love with teaching, who loved to read and stretched his mind constantly, pushing his limits. He brought that to us, his students, and made us struggle a bit. I was in advanced composition, as my reading and writing skills were above average. At this point, realize this was raw talent – not honed, not sharpened, not at all sophisticated. But Mr. Payne was OK with that. One of the texts we studied that semester was the Atlantic Magazine. The Atlantic is a huge step up from Cosmopolitan, my favorite read at the time. I especially loved the horoscopes and the annual horoscope issue. I was on the cutting edge.  In fact, the Atlantic is not what I would term light reading. Similar to Harper’s and Scientific American, the Atlantic required readers to have prerequisites, namely a cursory understanding of the world and the nation around them, a knowledge of the world beyond our own comfort zones, and a thirst for more understanding and knowledge.

I didn’t realize I didn’t have any of that, at least not at the time. My understanding and knowledge at the time were squarely polarized around myself. My interests, my concerns, my love life or lack of love life, and other things I’d rather not mention because I’m not certain of the statute of limitations on certain parts of them. I lacked curiosity and I was wholly devoid of an interest in the greater world.

I was very similar to everybody else in my peer group. Actually, I think I was probably worse than most in my peer group. So, back to Mr. Payne’s class. The magazine was paid for with our tuition money and book rentals, and we were supposed to read it and be able to talk about it in class. We were also supposed to get ideas from it to write as essays. I don’t remember what I read and what I wrote, but I do remember how I felt about it. I was bummed.

Yes, I was too busy to wrap my head around the Atlantic magazine. Years later I did atone for my sins. I got a master’s degree in English literature and became a writer and a teacher, and then studied public policy for five years at the University of Arkansas.

So this morning I’m reading the Springfield News-Leader, a Gannet publication, and I’m reading a column by Kathleen Parker in the editorial section. Parker writes about the Republican field of presidential candidates, that many of them have “demonized a swath of Americans based on their religious views.” For example, Ben Carson’s statement that a Muslim should not be president. Or Joe Biden’s statement about President Obama’s rise to political stardom, which he indicated was possible because “he was the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean, and a nice-looking guy.”

Bigoted comments, all. She also skewers Trump, but enough about him.

Parker infers that the racial and religious bigotry from candidates is deplorable. She calls them ignoramuses, which is a good word when used properly, so I will attempt that. I think we, many of us, are probably ignoramuses. We don’t push ourselves beyond the comfort level, and instead stay cocooned in our safe lives, reading and watching and surfing only those places that are easy for us to reach. We are raising another crop of ourselves, too, and that should worry us.

As a teacher, I feel compelled to help us on our quest. On a lark, I looked up what was in the Atlantic magazine the fall of 1974. And guess what? I found free online archives. This is a link to the 1974 issues, but feel free to move along to the ones here. I now wish I had paid more attention in Mr. Payne’s class, because the articles are really good. But I’m not going to belabor the point. After all, Mr. Payne was able to take us to the trough, but he couldn’t make us drink. Not then, anyway. But later I give him all the credit.


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