Can we revive the words "dumb" and "stupid"? After years of abuse, after years when they were used instead of more accurate terms -- disabled, deprived -- we're at the point where they are not used at all. But "dumb" happens to be the word that came to mind when the College Board announced this year's average scores. These kids are dumb.
And these kids are heading for college. At least they think they are, or they would not have taken the test. In math, out of possible 800, they averaged a miserable 476 (relax, Japan). But in the verbal section they did even worse: 424. As usual, males scored better than females, and whites did better than nonwhites, although minority groups have improved their scores over the years. If the latter trend continues, blacks, Hispanics and Asians will soon be as dumb as whites.
There -- I've used that word again. I've done so because the verbal scores are the lowest in a decade and the math scores are no better than they were last year -- or, for that matter, the year before that. I've done so because the ready explanation for why the verbal scores are so low is that these kids spend too much time watching television or playing video games and almost no time reading. That makes them dumb.
But no one ever tells them that. Instead, we get the usual quote from the usual education official warning us all that down the proverbial road, we are all going to pay for these lousy scores. This is the old competitive bogeyman, just about the only way frantic educators know how to get our attention. Unless Johnny can read, unless he can do some math too, the Japanese are going to wind up owning the Grand Canyon.
Oddly, the experts are usually silent about learning itself -- about its value, its purpose, its rewards. Uncoupled from competition with Japan, you would think that reading and writing have no utility, that they're disconnected from critical thinking or, even, from some nearly sensuous pleasures -- or do I overpraise the joys of a good book? The notion of a hierarchy of values is never uttered -- that reading and writing are superior to watching or playing and they are harder, too. In other words, compared to reading a book, playing a video game is dumb.
So I am for humiliating, embarrassing, mocking -- you name it -- the dummies who have scored so low on these tests. I am for telling them straight out that watching television instead of reading is just plain dumb, that the people who do that are dumb, that they wind up leading dumb lives, subscribe to ridiculous diet plans and die from watching lethal doses of daytime television. I am for telling these kids that they are not -- that's NOT -- as good as other kids, as worthy, as terrific. I am for telling them that they're dumb.
I am braced for a carload of letters admonishing me for my insensitivity. I will be reminded that many of these kids are poor, that in some cases English is their second language, that they lack a father, mother or parakeet in the home and that the nearest role model is 312 miles away. In that spirit, one education official reacted to the latest scores by noting that federal school aid has been reduced in recent years. Yes, that's true and lamentable. But is it all that relevant?
I'm sick of explanations that take everything into account but the values and mentality of students and their parents. After all, if a particular kid is sitting before the television set in a state of moronic satisfaction and a parent says nothing by way of rebuke, is that a consequence of federal policy? I don't think so. I think instead that two dumb people -- the parent and the child -- have made a dumb decision, and they ought to be told as much.
What jolted me about the scores is the dismal fact that they are averages. It's bracing to bear in mind that many of the kids scored higher than 476 or 424, but it's stupefying to realize that many scored lower -- down into the semiliterate 300s. In an age where everyone is told they are as wonderful as everyone else, it seems no one has bothered to inform these kids that they are not really college material. For many of them, their College Board scores represent a first accounting.
For the nation as a whole, the SAT scores represent something of a disaster. But on a personal level, they are a tragedy. This is a generation led astray, suckered by grade inflation, told that personal worth or fulfillment (whatever that means) is paramount, that uniform standards are somehow undemocratic and that kids have an inalienable right to fun -- anytime they choose to assert it.
Much of that, propounded by an earlier generation, is just plain dumb. No doubt about it, these are our kids.