Controversial US course shows there's a fine line between stupidity and cleverness

September 24, 2009

It is not something a university would normally want to be associated with, but students in the US are queuing to sign up for a course on stupidity.

The class at Los Angeles' Occidental College - the liberal-arts institution Barack Obama attended for two years - has proved so popular it even has a waiting list.

It covers the work of philosophers such as Avital Ronell (author of Stupidity), novelists including John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces), social commentators such as the documentary-film-maker and writer Michael Moore (Stupid White Men), and popular culture movies (Idiocracy, Jackass and Dude, Where's My Car?).

According to the course description, stupidity is "the most powerful determinant of human destiny".

News of the class has caused a stir in the US media, with one blogger criticising the description for its "hyper-deconstructionist language" - essentially, for using too many big words.

The fuss has left many at the small university of about 1,900 students reluctant to talk to the press, and Glenn A. Elmer Griffin, the course leader, has refused to speak to the US media.

"We attempt a rigorous critique of what passes for political reason in the US. We try to understand the force of stupidity - elective non-comprehension - in shaping the terms of this discourse," he told Times Higher Education.

He added that while stupidity is "a topic as old as philosophy itself", it is also current, with about 40 books on the topic published in the past decade.

Examples of the serious consideration stupidity has received include Richard Hofstadter's classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), and Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason (2008).

Professor Griffin likened the rising awareness of stupidity to society's increasing consciousness of autism. It is not necessarily that there is more of it; it is just that there are more ways to discern it.

"With the application of critical and postmodernist theory - most notably in the extraordinary work of Avital Ronell - we are in a position to identify stupidity in its more varied, dynamic and pervasive forms," he said.

Of course, Americans are not the only ones who act stupidly, added Professor Griffin, who was raised on St Croix in the US Virgin Islands and went to school in Trinidad.

"No one who has been to England or felt its presence in a former colony can imagine that America has a corner on stupidity," he said.

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