Be generous. Speak to the smartest.

When I was teaching, I generally geared my lectures towards the smartest students and beyond. Indeed, I was often accused of speaking over the heads of my students. This, alas, was thoroughly intentional and stems from my ethics of generosity: contribute the best possible discourse to the world. Speak to the smartest and most interested. Speak to the vitality of spirit and thought.

This may sound obvious but, needless to say, many in the pedagogic community believe just the opposite: aim for the lowest common denominator, for the stupid and least interested. This, alas, is what guides so many of the precious few dollars we have for public education. We don't use these dollars to spur the smartest and brightest; we use these dollars to hand hold the dumbest.

I'm not saying we should leave the stupid behind. Not exactly. I'm saying we should emphasize the smart, the critical, creative thinking, lively thinking — and make everyone follow.

I was in a client meeting today with a very large, very well known software company. We were presenting concepts and language. Much of the language was sophisticated, clever, challenging — not like Kant is challenging but challenging for this world. To which the client responded, "Well, I like these. But I have to think about all those people out there."

This, alas, is our prejudice, our assumption: the people out there are stupid and — and! — we should cater to them. Those are two disastrous assumptions that lead directly to the endless parade of dreck that passes for movies, television, and literature — not to mention politics and newspapers — in today's world.

People often say to me: "It's great, Coffeen, that you and maybe three other people get what you're talking about. But who else?" This drives me insane. Because I'm more generous than that. I speak to the smartest in people and, frankly, to the smartest people. If the dummies don't get it, fuck 'em. It's not the job of smart people to cater to dumb people. It's the job of dumb people either to shut the fuck up or try and be smarter.

And the fact is: I actually think people can be smarter than many assume (did I just say that?). Hear me out...this may seem odd.

I recently watched the first season of a television show called "Friday Night Lights." And I am impressed with the complexity and ambivalence it manages to maintain throughout the entire season. Unlike the television shows I remember, this one seems to have no real tonic note per se. It shifts perspectives and sympathies, often relishing the multiplicity of said perspectives and sympathies. There are no clear good guys, no clear bad guys. People in the show are complex human beings. There's some schmaltz, sure, but it's rarely egregious.

I have enjoyed television shows before but they've usually been on HBO — "The Wire," of course, and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And the fact that those shows were not only made, not only broadcast, but that people seemed to like them made me wonder if people, perhaps, are smarter than I gave them credit for. But then I assumed, well, it's HBO and maybe only a few thousand people have HBO.

But this other program — and I'm not comparing "Friday Night Lights" to "The Wire" — is on network TV (I think). So maybe there is an appetite out there for multivalence, for multiplicity, for things that are not just straightforwardly stupid. And maybe, just maybe, there is no such thing as the lowest common denominator, not when it comes to people.

But perhaps that's irrelevant. Because the fact is I will continue to speak to the smartest and the brightest — not necessarily the most learned, by any means, but the most intellectually creative and lively. And I do that out of an ethical obligation I feel to be generous to the world, to spur its collective intellect on.


Christian said...

Of course you want to encourage every student to be their best, but your message is lost when you transmit an unprocessable signal. Surely the potential for greatness is in every student but first you have to create the connection rather than speak to them as if they were already the end product.

I don't advocate holding the great students back for the sake of the slower ones. A career of public education held me back in math and reading because teachers refused to cultivate my ability and chose instead to maintain a level playing field. "Harrison Bergeron" nearly made me cry, with the realization that someone understood. Challenging students is great but being purposely obtuse benefits very few.

what the Tee Vee taught said...


I'm not sure you'd want to encourage anyone to be "their best"... sounds like an odd pressure, a weird goal — very hierarchical. I'm not sure the potential for greatness — whatever that might be — is in everyone... a nice thought, maybe. And "end product"? Yikes.

I like that story, but isn't it more a critique of how American's don't "get" communism/socialism/whatever? Not to make kids feel better about being "held back" by their teachers' refusal. If your teachers hold you back, and you're aware of it, could you not get around/through them?

Purposefully obtuse? That seems a little obtuse... where did the Umpher suggest he goes that way?

I know I'm beating up on your comment... but I think a lot of it is worth reconsidering.

-- Coming from someone who has enjoyed the pointed criticism of others as a catalyst to reconsidering their own thoughts... many, many times.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Eeesh: I hope I didn't suggest I am purposefully obtuse. Purposefully pushing the limits of what students can grasp? Shit, yeah. I always — always — pushed the ceiling for my students, always let them know there are ideas they have yet to grasp and consider.

Why? Because mastery is death. I want a world of thinkers that are always thinking, considering the new, pushing themselves. Fuck, I don't really understand Bergson or much of Deleuze and so I keep re-reading them, over and over. And will continue to do so, to push what I think and what I can think.

So, yes, of course: one must teach. I hoped that was obvious.

(Please note: I am not suggesting that my pedagogic approach is a good one. I am explaining from whence it comes.)

As for the "best in students": not sure that's what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the smartest in students. I don't mind leaving some behind — just as public education doesn't mind leaving smarties out of the mix.

As for public education in general: its function is not to teach material. Its function is to teach us how to negotiate morons with power.

li'l girl blue said...

"If the dummies don't get it, fuck 'em. It's not the job of smart people to cater to dumb people. It's the job of dumb people either to shut the fuck up or try and be smarter."

I actually caught myself punching the air and muttering "yessssssss!" upon reading these three sentences. This is the perfect articulation of what I would dearly love to shriek in moments of pedagogical peevishness.

What makes for really hard going though is the general fact that the more switched-on individuals negotiate an ever-shifting quagmire of unavoidable ignorance and self-doubt while the less adroit remain blissfully convinced of their statistically improbable above average-ness. Or something to that (Dunning Kruger) effect.

As some unsung wikipedia hero writes: their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to appreciate their own mistakes.

The concept of 'mastery as death' is such a key point. If there was one single idea that I'd like to see hammered home to students it'd be that a crushingly intimidating awareness that you might be completely wrong is absolutely ok! In fact it is often the source of real joy and freedom in thought. Terry Pratchet in his infinite wisdom sums it up thusly:

Ignorance is very important! It is an absolutely essential step in the learning process!

As for HBO I'd be pretty chuffed with the progress of the human animal if 'Deadwood' was representative of our televisual achievements.

Daniel Coffeen said...

li'l girl blue: You speak my language. Hallelujah!

And this is hilarious — the smarties are, indeed, always doubting themselves, second guessing themselves, while the morons hold forth bereft of shame, self-consciousness, or doubt.

I am startled, and confused, to discover the number of singles ads on dating sites in which women specify that they want a smart man. At first, I think: alright! that's me! I'm smart! And then it dawns on me: they don't really mean smart. They mean....well, I'm not quite sure. I think they mean someone conversant in the idiocy of newspapers. But, frankly, I can;t imagine what they mean — but I know it ain't me they're looking for, babe.

As for ignorance and confusion: they are the foundations of education. It seems sort of obvious, doesn't it? I mean: we learn what we don't know which means, at some point, we HAVE to be confused and ignorant.

And Deadwood makes me, quite literally, weak in the knees.

Thank you, thank you, for reading and posting your words.....

li'l girl blue said...

Yep, 'smart' is a moving target, that's for sure.

drwatson said...

It seems to me that if one is talking about the world, and that we assume that we basically live in the same world, then certainly the potential for smartness can be brought out in students, without worrying about things going over their heads. Now if the student doesn't want to work or think then they very well might remain stupid.

I think the great thing about the philosophers I've loved, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty particularly is they showed me something that I was already seeing, but that I wasn't aware of or articulate about. But if teaching is something like bringing one to seeing than it makes no sense to think students or people in general are too dumb to get something. That's the irony of philosophy: that basically you're pointing out things we already knew, but knew in very particular and obscure ways.