Crapthink 101

The late Nelson Mandela used to employ an idiom common among black South Africans to describe muddle-headed people: they “cannot think properly.” The notice of muddle-headedness is not always so gentle. Before I became a teacher, my previous line of work took me at one point to a large construction project run by a highly intelligent and ferocious Project Manager whose staff meetings caused white knuckles even among veteran construction managers. I was sometimes invited to these staff meetings, though I usually and fortunately stayed below his radar. If a manager made a claim that the project manager found suspect, the PM would turn his big guns on it till it and the manager making it were a grease-stain on the carpet. He would end such search-and-destroy missions with the question, “Why don’t you think, goddammit?”[1]

The common thread is the sense that “thinking properly” is a requirement of adult life, and that people who can’t do it are held to account, sometimes painfully. How to get people to learn to do so or to work through the consequences of failure is therefore a vital issue. It is also an urgent issue if, as claimed by two American researchers, students emerging from many US universities cannot think well enough to establish themselves in adulthood. I intend to examine this research in a future posting.

For now I want to examine the possibility that many Americans do not think properly when they think about teaching and learning. I am calling this species of intellect “crapthink,” and from time to time I intend to discuss some signs of its presence in the discourse of education.

Exhibit A takes us to the commencement ceremony of a high school I used to teach at. Graduates with honors were entitled to wear an “honors stole” with their other academic regalia. At one point after the ceremony, a parent borrowed the honors stole of an honors graduate, draped it over his daughter’s shoulders, and had her pose for pictures in it. The principal asked her to remove the stole because she had not graduated with honors. The parent said, in his most Augustan manner, “That is so chickenshit!” and directed his daughter to continue posing with the stole.

This is crapthink in action, and it is pernicious. What lesson is Daddy’s Precious learning from her father’s imposture? How is it different in kind from making an untrue claim on a résumé? How is it different in effect from allowing her to pose with an A in a university course for which she did a couple of hours of indifferent study a week? How is it going to prepare her for success in a world that has standards and deadlines and is populated by intelligent and exigent people?

[1] One time he did train his guns on me, but I survived. His “compliment” was to say, “I don’t pay you enough to think, goddammit.” Sometimes we take our attaboys where we can find them.

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