Teaching Against Idiocy

Walter Parker argues in a recent Phi Delta Kappan article that the original meaning of the word "idiocy" needs to be revived as a conceptual tool for clarifying a pivotal social problem and for understanding the central goal of education.

Parker says:
According to the ancient Greeks, "idiotic" was a term of reproach. When a person's behavior became idiotic -- concerned myopically with private things and unmindful of common things -- then the person was believed to be like a rudderless ship, without consequence save for the danger it posed to others. This meaning of idiocy achieves its force when contrasted with polit¯es (citizen) or public. Here is a powerful opposition: the private individual versus the public citizen. Schools in societies that are trying in various ways to be democracies are obliged to develop public citizens.
An idiot is one whose self-centeredness undermines his or her citizen identity, causing it to wither or never to take root in the first place. Private gain is the goal, and the community had better not get in the way. An idiot is suicidal in a certain way, definitely self-defeating, for the idiot does not know that privacy and individual autonomy are entirely dependent on the community. Idiots do not take part in public life; they do not have a public life. In this sense, idiots are immature in the most fundamental way. Their lives are out of balance, disoriented, untethered, and unrealized. Tragically, idiots have not yet met the challenge of "puberty," which is the transition to public life.
One assumption required if schools are to educate for citizenship is that there can be no democracy without democrats. Democratic ways of living together, with the people's differences intact and recognized, are not given by nature; they are created. And much of the creative work must be undertaken by engaged citizens who share some understanding of what it is they are trying to build together.
Also, engaged citizens do not materialize out of thin air. They do not naturally grasp such knotty principles as tolerance, impartial justice, the separation of church and state, the need for limits on majority power, or the difference between liberty and license. They are not born already capable of deliberating about public policy issues with other citizens whose beliefs and cultures they may abhor. Rather, they are social, moral, and intellectual achievements, and they are hard won.
But how actually to accomplish this? Three actions are key. First, increase the variety and frequency of interaction among students who are culturally, linguistically, and racially different from one another. Second, orchestrate these contacts so as to foster competent public talk -- deliberation about common problems, both academic and social. Third, clarify the distinction between deliberation and blather and between open (i.e., inclusive) and closed (i.e., exclusive) deliberation. In other words, expect, teach, and model competent, inclusive deliberation.
I would like to see a national campaign against idiocy, and I believe schools are ideal sites for it. Put differently, schools are fitting places to lead young people through puberty and into citizenship. Schools are the sites of choice because they have, to some extent, the two most important resources for this work: diversity and problems. A proper curriculum for democracy requires both the study and the practice of democracy.

This is a summary of Walter's comments. I encourage you to link to the full article for more of the specifics of his ideas.


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