Teaching against Idiocy

Article excerpt

Contemplating the root of the word "idiocy" leads Mr. Parker to explore the challenge that democratic societies face of developing public-minded citizens. The schools, he argues, are the most likely institutions to succeed in that task.

IDIOCY IS the scourge of our time and place. Idiocy was a problem for the ancient Greeks, too, for they coined the term. "Idiocy" in its original sense is not what it means to us today -- stupid or mentally deficient. The recent meaning is deservedly and entirely out of usage by educators, but the original meaning needs to be revived as a conceptual tool for clarifying a pivotal social problem and for understanding the central goal of education.

Idiocy shares with idiom and idiosyncratic the root idios, which means private, separate, self-centered -- selfish. "Idiotic" was in the Greek context a term of reproach. When a person's behavior became idiotic -- concerned myopically with private things and unmindful of common things -- then the person was believed to be like a rudderless ship, without consequence save for the danger it posed to others. This meaning of idiocy achieves its force when contrasted with polit[macron]es (citizen) or public. Here we have a powerful opposition: the private individual versus the public citizen.

Schools in societies that are trying in various ways to be democracies, such as the United States, Mexico, and Canada, are obliged to develop public citizens. I argue here that schools are well positioned for the task, and I suggest how they can improve their efforts and achieve greater success.

Dodging Puberty

An idiot is one whose self-centeredness undermines his or her citizen identity, causing it to wither or never to take root in the first place. Private gain is the goal, and the community had better not get in the way. An idiot is suicidal in a certain way, definitely self-defeating, for the idiot does not know that privacy and individual autonomy are entirely dependent on the community. As Aristotle wrote, "Individuals are so many parts all equally depending on the whole which alone can bring self-sufficiency."1 Idiots do not take part in public life; they do not have a public life. In this sense, idiots are immature in the most fundamental way. Their lives are out of balance, disoriented, untethered, and unrealized. Tragically, idiots have not yet met the challenge of "puberty," which is the transition to public life.

The former mayor of Missoula, Montana, Daniel Kemmis, writes of the idiocy/citizenship opposition, though he uses a different term, in his delightful meditation on democratic politics, The Good City and the Good Life:

People who customarily refer to themselves as taxpayers are not even remotely related to democratic citizens. Yet this is precisely the word that now regularly holds the place which in a true democracy would be occupied by "citizens." Taxpayers bear a dual relationship to government, neither half of which has anything at all to do with democracy. Taxpayers pay tribute to the government, and they receive services from it. So does every subject of a totalitarian regime. What taxpayers do not do, and what people who call themselves taxpayers have long since stopped even imagining themselves doing, is governing. In a democracy, by the very meaning of the word, the people govern.2

Alexis de Tocqueville, writing 150 years before Mayor Kemmis, also described idiocy. All democratic peoples face a "dangerous passage" in their history, he wrote, when they "are carried away and lose all self- restraint at the sight of the new possessions they are about to obtain."3 De Tocqueville's principal concern was that getting "carried away" causes citizens to lose the very freedom they are wanting so much to enjoy. "These people think they are following the principle of self- interest," he continues, "but the idea they entertain of that principle is a very crude one; and the more they look after what they call their own business, they neglect their chief business, which is to remain their own masters. …