Wednesday, June 8, 2011

In defence of anti-intellectual geeks

I was reading a thought-provoking piece called Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism? by Larry Sanger yesterday. I think there is something to it. A lot of geeks are anti-intellectual in that they don't just ignore history, literature and art, they actively disdain it.

You'll notice I've left music out of the list. This for the simple reason that it is my experience that intellectuals are not any more literate musically speaking than any randomly selected subset of the population.

But it is unfortunate that geeks hold history, literature and art in relatively low regard. But my question is this: Whose responsibility is it to fix the problem?

For about fifteen years I had a gig where I would meet and interview and then write articles about some of the best teachers in the business. Some of the most interesting things they said were told to me off the record. For example, most of them hate their unions and most of them wish it were much easier for boards to fire incompetent teachers.

And one math teacher raised a really interesting problem.

He had conducted an interesting experiment. he had taken two groups. One was a bunch of recent immigrants who spoke English as a second language. The other group were star English students whose mother tongue was English. And he gave them a VCR and the manual and asked them to program the VCR (this was quite a while ago) using the manual. The ESL students succeeded and the English students failed. All the English students complained that the manual was badly written but it was not, he insisted, badly written. A badly written manual would really baffle someone who also struggled with the language.

The problem, he said, lowering his voice so know one else in the room full of teachers would hear, "is that English teachers are a bunch of lazy clowns. They don't have the time or energy to teach kids how to read and write and they evaluate them on anything but actual language proficiency."

Anyone who can really read, will also be able to read directions and figure out how to follow them. If you can't read the manual that comes with a piece of electronic equipment, you can't read. And there is not a geek in the world who needs this explained to them. They see people who have taken degrees in more intellectual subjects and see that these people are absolutely useless at reading comprehension and that they are equally useless when it is time explain something clearly.

They have a point.

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