Manufacturing Stupidity

April 17th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Work  |  6 Comments

I don’t usually write about education. I don’t have any special expertise or knowledge about it, and anyway, fellow Jacobin writers Andrew Hartman and Megan Erickson are on the case. But this story (via Slashdot) touches on some of my more typical themes.

The linked post is written by Rob Krampf, a science educator in Florida who found some serious problems when he was trying to develop practice materials for fifth grade students preparing for the state’s mandatory science test, the FCAT. This is one of those so-called “high stakes tests” which are the idol of the education reform movement and the bane of left-wing education critics, because they are used to dole out financial incentives or penalties to schools. But the trouble with these tests goes beyond the standard criticism of testing-focused education. In the test questions Krampf received from the state, many of the “wrong” answers turned out to be just as correct as the supposedly “right” ones. This led to an exchange with state authorities that should be read in its entirety, for the dark comedy if nothing else. Here, however, is a representative sample from the FCAT:

This sample question offers the following observations, and asks which is scientifically testable.

  1. The petals of red roses are softer than the petals of yellow roses.
  2. The song of a mockingbird is prettier than the song of a cardinal.
  3. Orange blossoms give off a sweeter smell than gardenia flowers.
  4. Sunflowers with larger petals attract more bees than sunflowers with smaller petals.

The document indicates that 4 is the correct answer, but answers 1 and 3 are also scientifically testable.

For answer 1, the Sunshine State Standards list texture as a scientifically testable property in the third grade (SC.3.P.8.3), fourth grade (SC.4.P.8.1), and fifth grade (SC.5.P.8.1), so even the State Standards say it is a scientifically correct answer.

For answer 3, smell is a matter of chemistry. Give a decent chemist the chemical makeup of the scent of two different flowers, and she will be able to tell you which smells sweeter without ever smelling them.

While this question has three correct answers, any student that answered 1 or 3 would be graded as getting the question wrong. Why use scientifically correct “wrong” answers instead of using responses that were actually incorrect? Surely someone on the Content Advisory Committee knew enough science to spot this problem.

I’d just add that you could probably find scientists who’d call 2 a right answer as well (survey a random sample of listeners about the prettiness of birdsongs, and voila…) This would be embarrassing enough if it were merely a sloppy oversight. But when he asked for an explanation of this bad question, Krampf received the following justification:

Christopher Harvey, the Mathematics and Science Coordinator at the Test Development Center told me:

“we need to keep in mind what level of understanding 5th graders are expected to know according to the benchmarks. We cannot assume they would receive instruction beyond what the benchmark states. Regarding #1 – While I don’t disagree with your science, the benchmarks do not address the hardness or softness of rose petals. We cannot assume that a student who receives instruction on hardness of minerals would make the connection to other materials. The Content Advisory committee felt that students would know what flowers were and would view this statement as subjective. Similarly with option 3, students are not going to know what a gas chromatograph is or how it works. How a gas chromatograph works is far beyond a 5th grade understanding and is not covered by the benchmarks. As you stated most Science Supervisors felt that student would not know this property was scientifically testable. The Content Advisory Committee also felt that 5th graders would view this statement as subjective. We cannot assume that student saw a TV show or read an article.”

Here we have the ideology of testing reduced to its fatuous essence. The ritual memorization and regurgitation of a decreed list of “facts” is the paramount value, superseding all other goals of education. We simply “cannot assume” that a student might “receive instruction beyond what the benchmark states”, that they could “make the connection to other materials”, or that they “saw a TV show or read an article.” Not only does the FCAT not assume these things, it actively penalizes them. The test is not merely indifferent but actually hostile to any understanding or learning that happens outside the parameters of the testing regime.

Krampf’s commenters continue to pile on; a reading teacher reports tests full of “bad grammar, incorrect spellings, and questions that simply made no sense”. You might ask what sort of system could produce the kind of pathological rationalization for these errors that I quoted above. Another commenter refers to “a culture of bureaucratic ass-coverage”, which lends credence to David Graeber’s claim, which I discussed the other day, that much of the apparatus of late capitalism has degenerated into a sclerotic order dominated by “political, administrative, and marketing imperatives”.

A slightly different question, though, is what sort of society can tolerate this kind of dysfunctional education system? I’m not a rigorous structural functionalist—that is, I don’t think every social phenomenon can be explained in terms of the role it plays in optimally reproducing the social order. But I’m enough of one to think that as a rule, the behaviors that are encouraged by a society are those that are useful to it, or at least not actively hostile to it. Capitalism is unusually hospitable to sociopathy, for example, because the sociopath approaches the ideal-typical personification of capital itself. Conversely, capitalism is an unfriendly place for those of us who tend to prefer time over money, because this is in tension with capital’s need for ceaseless expansion.

One might think that capitalism requires workers who know how to do and make things, and that therefore our elites would not complacently accept the emergence of Florida’s regime of enforced stupidity through testing. There is a narrative of cultural decline to this effect, still available in both liberal and conservative packaging. According to this lament, America neglects the proper education of its populace at its peril, as we allow ourselves to be eclipsed and out-competed by better-educated, more ambitious hordes from abroad. This is a reassuring argument, in a way, because it presumes broad agreement about the purpose of education: to produce a society full of practically skilled workers, capable of at least enough critical thought to do their jobs.

Critique from the left tends to spend its time condemning models of education that are narrowly focused on the instrumental task of creating a new generation of obedient and productive workers. Megan Erickson’s essay, for instance, worries that under the influence of self-styled reformers, “social studies and music classes are commonly replaced by . . . glorified vocational training”. But a farce like the Florida science exams fails even at this narrow task. A population raised to take the FCAT will be ill-prepared to be either engaged citizens or productive workers. Can the ruling class really be so inept, so incapable of producing the proletariat it requires?

An alternative explanation is the one I’ve explored in my writings on the disappearance of human labor from production—most notably, in “Four Futures”. My analysis of the political economy (recently summarized and seconded by Matt Yglesias) is that we are experiencing a slow transition from a capitalist order in which accumulation is based on the exploitation of labor, into a “rentist” order based on rents accruing to land or intellectual property. Such a society is not, in my view, functionally compatible with the ideals of broadly-distributed critical thinking or practical work skills.

In a rentist order, an increasing percentage of the population becomes superfluous as labor—but they are still necessary as consumers. For reasons of ideological legitimacy and political control, the fiction that everyone must “work” is maintained, but work itself must increasingly be pointless make-work. What kind of populace is suited to this habit of passive consumption and workday drudgery? One that accepts nonsensical and arbitrary rules—whether they are the rules of endless work or endless consumption. Students who learn to answer the questions the testing bureaucracy wants answered, irrespective of their relationship to scientific knowledge or logic, will be well trained to live in this world.

Krampf’s description of the Florida science testing dystopia is a grim vindication of something I wrote in an old post about the Mike Judge movie Idiocracy. I think of that post as kind of a lost chapter in my “rentism” series—I wrote it just after “Anti-Star Trek” and intended it as a follow-up, but it’s been read by orders of magnitude fewer people. I hope you’ll go read that post, but my general critique was that Judge portrayed stupidity as being inherent and genetic, even though the logic of his own movie suggested that stupidity is socially produced.

And mindless, bureaucratized testing is exactly the sort of system fit to produce the citizens of our future idiocracy. The mentality required to correctly answer the questions on the FCAT is a mentality suited to a world of pervasive marketing and advertising, in which reality is reduced to a postmodern nominalism of disconnected slogans. The students who unthinkingly repeat the assertion that smell and texture are not scientifically testable will grow up to confidently inform you that they water their crops with Brawndo—it’s got electrolytes, after all, they’re what plants crave!


  1. Jeremy Waterfall says:

    April 17th, 2012 at 9:33 pm (#)

    I’m sure you’ll find this entirely unsurprising (from ): “Private school students do not participate in the statewide assessment program because it exists to meet federal and state assessment accountability requirements for Florida public schools; however, public school students attending private school through the use of a school choice scholarship, such as the McKay Scholarship, may take the FCAT 2.0.”

    I’m sitting here wondering how it might look to analyze these attempts to quantify the human process of learning along the same lines as Graeber discusses how the quantification of debt fundamentally changes the nature of the human interactions involved. It could be an interesting angle to approach “education reform” from, if it hasn’t been done yet.

  2. raydancer says:

    April 20th, 2012 at 9:21 pm (#)

    I have no reason to defend or attack the FCAT, but I’m interested in the particular example you mention. When I see those four options, #4 is the only one that doesn’t require some kind of consensus of sense information brought into the picture. It requires mere observation.

  3. Sunday Reading « zunguzungu says:

    April 22nd, 2012 at 11:05 am (#)

    [...] Manufacturing Stupidity [...]

  4. Inverness says:

    April 22nd, 2012 at 1:47 pm (#)

    As a teacher, and I find this to be quite astute. Multiple choice questions are the norm in Humanities instruction, which essentially trivializes complex subjects, which seems to be the goal. Suddenly, the American economy is a. Free-market b. Command or c. Traditional. There are many problems with this kind of question — our economy clearly shows a mixture of command and free-market tendencies. But, if I want my students to perform well on tests (and therefore secure my job), I must drill in their heads that we have capitalism, government intervention on behalf of General Motors and Bank of America be damned.

  5. Harry Lieber says:

    April 23rd, 2012 at 2:14 pm (#)

    I suspect the responses to questions 1, 2, and 3 pertain to subjective perception, not to scientifically verifiable truths. One can measure hardness of a substance, but I am sceptical about the measurement of softness in the sense cited in Q.1. State standards are not necessarily based on scientific observation. Most likely the softness rating is based on what flower growers and distributors think. Frese’s assertion that Florida’s rating system is scientific is a misreading of how these rating systems work. A group of raters gets together, and the assessments of the majority or plurality become the standards by means of which softness is rated. These ratings are not derived from scientific laboratories.

    Q. 2 is a no brainer, so we will leave it alone.

    Q. 4. Frase says a decent chemist could solve the problem. Well, you tell him that, other than identical twins, no two people perceive smell or taste the same way. Because of my sinuses, I have had my olfactory tested senses tested several times, and I can ASSURE you, there ain’t anything scientific about it. The test is very subjective, and I never was sure whether my assessments were consistent.

    What Frase confuses the ability of chemists to ANALYZE the chemical composition of volatile substances, not what people smell. So he is making a fundamental error.

  6. Burberry Sac says:

    June 1st, 2012 at 1:46 am (#)

    Nice site! I enjoy several from the articles that have been written, and particularly the comments posted! I am going to definitely be visiting again

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