Anti-Intellectuals in the Schools


I have worked as a school psychologist in the state of Illinois for nine years now, and am one of the few Americans who can really say that I love my job. I am very grateful for this state of affairs. Yet, at least 90% of my enjoyment comes from interactions with students as opposed to those with staff. My opportunity to observe education as a whole is rather unique, as I work alongside teachers during the day and then instruct them in a masters' level course at a university on Tuesday or Thursday nights. The 'big picture' formed by my interactions is not a cheerful one.

The ignorance of the students is something all school personnel must acknowledge and accept (indeed, that's why we have jobs), but the ignorance of the staff is something to which I have never easily adjusted. Given the state of our culture, I guess it really is not that surprising that many educators possess a lack of intellectual curiosity, but what is consistently shocking is their lack of shame about it.

My first exposure to their anti-intellectualism came nine years ago when I was an intern. My supervisor approached me at my desk in a highly agitated state one day. 'What's wrong?' I asked. He told me that he had just received a subpoena to attend a plenary hearing regarding a student on his caseload.

He slouched in the chair across from me for several minutes and nervously kept repeating 'I wish I knew what plenary meant. Then I'd feel better.' At first I thought he was joking, but after several more confused recitals I asked, 'Why don't you just look it up?' He stared at me vacantly. 'In a dictionary' I added. When he made no movement, I went and looked up the word in a Webster's I found down the hall. I read the definition out loud to him. He nodded and then viewed me with suspicion for the remainder of the year.

Prophetically, later that semester I made enemies with one of the other psychologists in the district after I asked her, over lunch, if she had read any good books lately. My tone was bland, as it always is when I'm at work, and my mood was sunny.

She responded with irritation saying, 'Why would you ask me that?'

I said in return, 'I don't know. I just finished one and plan on getting a new one this weekend at Borders.'

'Yeah, but why did you ask me that in particular?' I made no response, as I had no motive. She then became quite fidgety but said nothing. Eventually she said that she had read a book by Jimmy Buffet last summer. I said, 'Well, nothing wrong with Jimmy Buffet' and that was the high point of our communication until I left in June.

Full-time employment has already yielded far more anecdotes concerning the profound unawareness that percolates through the veins of our 'educational elite.' My old boss, and our school's former principal, was an outstanding example. I referred to her throughout her tenure by the nickname of 'El Jefe' or by the old Stalin standby of 'Vozd' because there were few, if any, situations she was capable of mastering. El Jefe was an interactive compendium of obtuseness. Perhaps no better example of her intellectual ambivalence exists than that she never once asked me what my nicknames for her meant.

Shortly after she assumed her position, she had me lead a family on a tour of the building with her, and one of the exchanges that afternoon has been chiseled into my memory ever since. She told a prospective parent that our school was all about practicality and didn't trouble with minutiae, like how many senators there were in the United States . El Jefe confided to the parent, in front of me, that she didn't know the answer herself, yet it never prevented her advancement. 'So why should kids be concerned?' While the parent was in the bathroom, I slid next to her shoulder and inquired, 'You were teasing about not knowing how many senators there are, right?' She ignored my question entirely and kept a moronic stewardess smile on her face. I did not pursue the matter further, as I value food and shelter, but I suspect she thinks the answer is 50.

On another occasion, the Vozd conducted a workshop for our staff, and during the introduction, she stressed the importance of our students obtaining a high school diploma as opposed to a GED. She stated that it would be practically inconceivable that our students could pass the GED test (she was right). Her reasoning, though, was due to the fact that, 'if she couldn't pass it, they couldn't pass it!' A hand, not mine, immediately went up asking her what she meant. Cheerfully, El Jefe explained that she had taken a practice exam last year and failed the math section of it, and if she, as a holder of two masters' degrees in education, could not pass it, then what chance would our students have. Well, I wondered, how long can such public disgraces be tolerated in American education? It turned out for a long time indeed, as she now has been promoted above and beyond the likes of me.

My personal favorite El Jefe story was when she began a meeting with the word 'recalcitrant' written on a blackboard behind her. She pointed to the board and said that a dean from one of our sending schools had forwarded paperwork that contained the phrase, 'Student is recalcitrant in his behaviors.' I had no idea what was coming next. El Jefe then explained that this dean couldn't possibly relate to his students if he was using words like recalcitrant with them in conversation. It seems that she, 'like everyone else,' had no idea what a word like that meant.

I gazed around the table and heard nothing. Being the reckless wretch that I am, I raised my hand and said that recalcitrant meant defiant. She, as she always did, had a pointless and goofy retort. 'Yeah, but I bet you don't use that word every day.' How that answer was responsive I'll never know. Then I realized that she, like my intern supervisor, hadn't even bothered to look up the word on her own.

I mention all of this to the reader because I know that cockroaches, even when they have two masters' degrees, are terrified by expansive rays of light. It is my pleasure to illustrate to those on the outside exactly what transpires on the inside. At least my documentation will benefit those of you who were previously unaware.

I realized the importance of sharing in particular after I recently had a meeting with El Jefe's successor. I sat in a chair, staring at my feet in self-induced exile, hoping that the ordeal of the staff meeting would last only 90 minutes as opposed to its usual two hours, when, in the midst of her chirping about why certain staff members have keys to rooms that they shouldn't, I heard someone ask the galley aloud what the word 'secular' meant. It seems it was on a handout we were supposed to be reading. Immediately, a teacher with a general English certificate offered that it meant 'being religious.' This was followed by a second of silence and then the jejune banter began again. I could not let the talking continue. 'No,' I asserted. 'Secular is the antonym of religious. It means 'of this world.''

'Don't you hate it when he does that?' my new boss asked.

A better question is, 'Don't you as taxpayers hate people like her lording over your children?'

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Bernard Chapin's picture
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Bernard Chapin is a writer from Chicago.