It’s the stupidity, stupid

A course on ‘the most powerful determinant of human destiny’ strikes a nerve with the American media. Jon Marcus reports

September 19, 2009

The smartest course to take at Los Angeles’ Occidental College this semester may be Critical Theory and Social Justice 180. The subject? Stupidity.

In an age of anti-intellectualism, embodied by everything from George W. Bush’s presidency to Beavis and Butt-Head, the class at the university that Barack Obama attended for two years quickly reached its maximum enrolment of 35, and has a waiting list, too.

In its consideration of stupidity, the course 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 (the movies Idiocracy, Jackass and Dude, Where’s My Car?). It describes stupidity as “the most powerful determinant of human destiny”.

The course leader, Glenn A. Elmer Griffin, called it “unpolitical” in the paradoxical sense that Massimo Cacciari, the Italian philosopher and politician, uses the term.

“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,” Professor Griffin said.

But he added that while stupidity is “a topic as old as philosophy itself”, it is also “current, in the sense that there have been something like 40 books written on this topic in the past decade, and a fair number of them have been concerned with anti-intellectualism in America”. Examples of the serious consideration the topic has received include Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1960s text Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and, more recently, Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason.

It is not necessarily the case that people are becoming more stupid, Professor Griffin said, notwithstanding, he added, the incompetence evidenced in the national response to Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq war, the wilful ignorance that led to the global economic crisis, celebrity magazines and reality TV.

Instead, Professor Griffin likens the rising awareness of stupidity to the increasing consciousness of autism. It is not 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.

The reception to the course seems to prove Professor Griffin’s point. A blogger criticised the course description for its “hyper-deconstructionist language” – essentially, for using too many big words – and the post was rebroadcast by countless other blogs and picked up by comedians on radio and television.

The criticism has left many at the small liberal-arts university of about 1,900 students reluctant to talk to the press. Jonathan Veitch, Occidental’s president, has defended the course publicly, but Donna Maeda, chair of the critical theory and social justice department that runs it, declined to discuss the situation (although Professor Griffin said she had been supportive).

Professor Griffin, a member of the Occidental faculty for 20 years and three-time winner of its distinguished teaching award, has also refused to be interviewed by the American media.

However, at least one of the students in the class has defended it, albeit anonymously, online.

The course, the student said, “changed the way I think completely. It opened my mind to new perspectives and challenged my thought process. It is the best class I have ever taken, even as it challenged me to the point of frustration.”

And while others who commented suggested that a course in stupidity was an implicit liberal attack by Democrats on Republicans, the student said that politics “can never be removed from a class, whether it is biology or history. But this professor refused to reveal his political bias, and I found it hard to determine the way he leaned. This class addresses politics, but it is not meant to be any sort of political brainwashing.”

Of course, Americans are not the only ones who act stupidly, said 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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