This article previously appeared in educational Horizons 85, 1 (Fall 2006)

A MOST ESSENTIAL QUESTION: How Many Are Truly Educable?

©2006 Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 9/2/11

"Essential questions" are much in vogue in teaching. They are intended to guide instruction and help students discover the big ideas that constitute the core of a topic of study. But suppose we apply this methodology to education itself. What is the most essential question we can ask about it? How about this? How many are truly educable?

Reason and Understanding

What does it mean to say that someone is "educable?" Special education provides a very general frame of reference. Traditionally, mildly mentally handicapped people have been classified as "educable mentally retarded." More severely mentally impaired have been grouped as "trainable."

What's the difference between being "educable" and "trainable?" Let's stipulate that for a person to be "educable" they must be "capable of being improved in ways that depend on reason and understanding."[1] A trainable person, in contrast, is incapable of being improved in these ways.

Education as Panacea

It must be widely supposed that most people are educable, for Americans have long had a peculiar faith in the power of education. Indeed, it is frequently regarded as the answer for most human difficulties. That is why our schools are expected to resolve a daunting array of problems such as the cultural integration of immigrants, difficulties with national competitiveness, the elimination of racial injustice, the control of sexually transmitted diseases, and so forth.[2] Indeed, the list of problems thought to be susceptible to educational solution seems almost inexhaustible.

This year in Philadelphia, for instance, residents of the City of Brotherly Love are murdering one another with surprising gusto. In fact, the city is heading for a record 400 homicides and as many as 5000 shootings. Just the other day, four individuals were gunned down at a subway stop and an adolescent was shot to death for ridiculing another teen's sneakers.

Americans look at such murderous violence, wring their hands and ask, "What is to be done?" In the end, after much discussion, most conclude that the only way to stop the madness is, you guessed it, education.

Consider the afore-mentioned Philadelphia sneaker homicide,. No sooner had the blood been washed from the sidewalk than an earnest citizen sent an e-mail letter to the editor of a local newspaper suggesting that more conflict resolution classes were the solution. Teach them techniques for peacefully resolving conflicts and they will quit killing one another, was the message. That's the way of it in America. Education is the answer for nearly every difficulty humanity faces. But is it really?

Lack of Education or Educability?

Certainly a great deal of human misery could be prevented if people could be taught to think more deeply and effectively. But is the common failure to do so a consequence of a lack of education as many suppose? Perhaps, just perhaps, the real culprit is a widespread lack of capacity and/or inclination for education. After all, in order for education to be a cure, much less a cure-all, the majority of humans must be capable of sufficient reason and understanding to be improved by that means; plus they also must willing. Suppose this is not the case? Perhaps a great many humans, possibly even most humans, are not truly educable in any deep and abiding sense,?

Is such speculation too pessimistic? Perhaps it is; but consider the long-standing popularity of P.T. Barnum's observation that "There's a sucker born every minute." Ponder also the durability of H.L. Mencken's dictum that "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." Perhaps these and many similar observations remain current because they are deeply rooted in reality.

Too Dumb, Too Scared, Too Deceived, Or What?

This line of reasoning sounds heretical to those accustomed to the obligatory, sometimes pathological, optimism that engulphs schooling. Nevertheless, there is evidence to support such a view. Consider how many humans willingly trot off to slaughter every time someone in power decides to gives a war. If the species was widely capable of being improved in ways that depend on reason and understanding, perhaps that would not be the case. But instead of learning from repeated previous slaughters, we humans continue to enthusiastically divide ourselves into pseudo-species, carefully nurture distrust and hatred toward one another,r and then, sooner or later, join in still another horrific mutual slaughter that is utterly foreign to any "lesser species."

For instance, fully fifteen million people were killed and twenty two million wounded in World War I.[3] Yet just nineteen years later homo sapiens (man the thinker) got himself into a far worse slaughter — WW II, This ghastly tribute to human folly cost 60 million people their lives and loosed hellish suffering on many more.[4] Does any of this sound like the behavior of a species that is widely "capable of being improved in ways that depend on reason and understanding?"

On the other hand, how much power did the average person have to change the course of these events? Also, they only know what they were told. And, typically, they were told lies or half-truths. Perhaps it is true, as radicals have long maintained, that wars are creations of the rich and powerful and serve only their purposes while the rest are forced to "serve."

Still, home sapiens displays a peculiar reluctance, or inability, to employ reason and understanding even when the truth is readily apparent. The Harris Poll recently reported, for instance, that despite repeated official reports that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, the belief that Iraq possessed such weapons at the time of our invasion has substantially increased since last year.[5],

That's right, despite massive and widely publicized evidence to the contrary, the number of Americans who think that Iraq possessed such weapons prior to Operation "Enduring Freedom" has actually gone up. As a matter of fact, in February of 2005 only 36% thought Iraq was so armed; but in July of 2006 fully 50% believed they were. Does that sound like a conviction that grew out of widespread capacity for reason and understanding?

To be fair, those who changed their mind about those weapons of mass destruction might have done so out of an unconscious desire to rationalize their own original enthusiasm for the war and/or to justify the tremendous costs it has generated. In short, what seems to be evidence of public credulity might just be people being human, all to human. But that still leaves us wondering why the species is so very eager to cling to the mindless tribalism, hatred and the organized murder we call warfare? Is that evidence of Homo sapiens' einducability? And what about our destruction of the very environment that keeps us alive? With happy oblivion we are rapidly destroying the basis of our species very existence. In this case, it might turn out that homo sapiens, "man the thinker," will prove too dumb to live.

On a less global scale one can also profitably consider the success of political campaign strategies that are based on the principle that people are easy to fool. In Pennsylvania, for example Senator Rick Santorum cut down challenger Bob Casey's very substantial lead by means of a $3.5 million TV ad blitz that repeatedly referred to Casey as "Bobby" in order to make him seem juvenile and inconsequential. Casey countered with an equally unsophisticated attack ad. But the plain truth of the matter is that ads like this work and work well. Does that fact suggest there is a great deal of deep thought going on out there?

On the other hand, political propagandists know how to play on emotions such as fear of the unknown, the alien and the complex. Moreover, the simplicity they offer is beguilingly attractive to a public that has to reach conclusions based on imperfect information and deliberate disinformation. Maybe that, rather than widespread intellectual ineffectiveness, is why the general public remains so exploitable and so oblivious to many urgently important issues. Let's hope so.

The Media

Evidence of a widespread ineducability is not confined to the repetitive insanity of war, assaults on the environment, or crass political chicanery. Consider, the quality of the media for example. More specifically, let's consider infomercials or "paid programming."

Multiplied millions of dollars are spent buying TV time to peddle bogus nostrums, physical or spiritual, and many, many more millions are realized in consequence. Psychic hotlines generate fortunes for their bogus operators even though they have absolutely nothing but hot air to sell. Omega 3 fish oil is successfully huckstered as a cure for an impossible range of maladies and tens of thousands have been convinced that purging their bowels will have the same beneficial effects on their body that emptying a full sweeper bag can effect for s clogged up Electrolux.

Also consider how dozens of televangelist,s of dubious background and motive, repeatedly and very successfully con the public by means of such obvious scams as packets of "miracle spring water," or dollar green "prosperity prayer cloths", that allegedly convey magical pecuniary powers. "Pastor, right after I got that prayer cloth a thousand dollars mysteriously appeared in my bank account. Praise God!"

The fact is there is a small army of prosperity "pastors" on TV convincing tens of thousands of financially desperate people that giving generously — to the pastor, of course— will not only eliminate these benighted folk's financial troubles but prompt a ten-fold return on their "offering." One oily, but particularly persuasive, televangelists lives in a multi-million dollar California beach front mansion and flies to world-renown resorts in his private jet. Just today I saw him wheedling still more money out of the faithful so he can buy an even bigger jet —the price tag is nine million dollars? Let's pump this sacerdotal bunko artist full of truth serum and then ask him about the educability of the average American. Can you guess what he would say?

Ponder also the generally appalling quality of media programming in general. TV, for instance, is still the same cultural wilderness it was in 1961 when FCC Chairman Newton Minnow invited us to:

"...sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you--and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience-participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials--many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom."

Newton was right on target until he got to that very last sentence. Since TV bored him, he concluded that the broad masses must also be bored. But Minnow failed to consider that shows remain on the air by virtue of their ratings. TV content was and is a function of the public tuning in or tuning out. Hence the generally mindless quality of TV programming must be regarded as an indirect index of widespread public preference for drivel. Network executives long ago learned that they pan the most gold by designing a preponderance of their shows for people of limited capacity and less sophistication — i.e. the general public.

Radio programming is similarly selected via public popularity. So what do the masses tune to? Well here in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, home to almost 6 million people, it is unlikely to be classical music because the one commercial station that played it switched to soft rock. Philadelphians can listen to hip-hop, dance, country, soft rock, hard rock, pop/rock, stupidly one-sided right wing "talk" shows and endless gassing about sports, but the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn are out so far as commercial radio is concerned. Why? The broad masses weren't tuning in. Evidently they prefer Rap to the Ode to Joy.

Keep in mind that greater desolation exists in the hinterlands where semi-literate pastors read God's mind for the masses while country music grinds on endlessly in cacophonous concert. That is nearly all there is in the heartland.

To be fair, no one knows for sure how many people are deeply disgusted with this media garbage. And many people might have far better discernment if they had more knowledge to work with. American schooling helps little here. It is woefully inadequate when it comes to the arts and the discernment they can develop and it utterly shies away from anything that might help kids see through bogus divines. By the time budget cuts slash "frills" from the curriculum, high stakes testing takes its share and the self-appointed censors finish off anything that might trigger thought, the curriculum is a cultural wasteland par excellence. Perhaps, then, we should beware of blaming the victim for the wasteland's results.

Space does not permit extending these considerations. Suffice it to say that there is abundant evidence of widespread vulnerability, gullibility, wishful thinking and tastelessness among the broad masses. What shall we make of this? Is it evidence of a deeper, fundamental immunity to improvements that depend on reason and understanding? Alternatively, is it the invevitable consequence of a society where avarice trumps all and schooling is generally so narrow and unimaginative that it is unworthy of the name?

Stupidity Is Not The Only Impediment to Reason

Even if educability is a scarce commodity, we need not conclude that the broad masses are too stupid to be educated — though outside of Lake Woebegone a fair number of people obviously fit that description. Stupidity is not the only thing, perhaps not even the main thing, that prevents intelligent reflection. Many individuals with considerable native intelligence cannot, or will not, engage in careful thought because they are too emotionally needy. In other words, they are not too dumb to think straight; they are too unloved, angry, scared, insecure, guilty, depressed, and so forth.

Additionally, many intelligent, but emotionally needy people willfully shut off their intelligence in order to gain psychological reassurance from one or another true belief. The folks who joined Jim Jones, the Branch Dravidians or the Heaven's Gate cult, for example, were not necessarily stupid. Their emotional needs may simply have gotten the better of them, causing them to willingly put intellectual blinders on. Similarly, our prisons are overflowing with natively intelligent people who, for a variety of reasons, including childhood neglect and abuse, simply will not or cannot think deeply about the costs and benefits of their own behavior.

Culture itself can be another barrier to reason. Some cultures facilitate intelligence by providing rich resources for reflection., others stifle it. After all, many cultures never experienced an age of enlightenment; and fine native intelligence can be smothered in the cradle by pre-enlightenment social surroundings.

Then there are sub-cultures within generally enlightened cultures that willfully reject the fruits of learning in order to preserve key beliefs The Amish are a clear-cut example. Reason and understanding are effectively ruled out of key aspects of member's lives in return for community and religious certitude.

Plus there is geography to consider. Remote rural locations or the most desolate reaches of inner cities do not provide fruitful environments for enlightenment.

Finally, let us not forget good old-fashioned laziness. Some folks avoid thinking simply because it takes effort. It isn't that they can't think; they just don't want to think. They are, in affect, bone idle when it comes to exercising their mind.

Schooling, Conformity and Technical Skills

We also should not assume, as many do, that increased schooling necessarily equals improved reasoning and understanding. Too often schooling is less about that than it is about conformity and the mere mastery of technical skills. Consider the abundance of "scientists" who eagerly apply their technical competence to the creation of unimaginably vicious weapons of mass destruction. Is the man or woman who applies their knowledge of biology to perfect a vaccine-resistant plague virus, for instance, really reasoning the thing through as well as they should?

On a more mundane level, what evidence is there that the average MBA or Ph.D. degree holder, is significantly more reasonable or thoughtful than those who are less well schooled? Sure, those with an educational imprimatur have hopefully mastered a range of techniques, but can they think more deeply and well? That is another matter.

Consider Lyndon Banes Johnson's top staffers. They were supposed to be "the best and brightest" minds of that era. There was Secretary of Defense Robert Strange MacNamara, B.A. U.C. Berkely, M.B.A., Harvard; Special Assistant to the President McGeorge Bundy, Groton, Yale and Harvard; and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Rhodes Scholar, Oxford and U.C. Berkeley.

And what did these highly educated can-do guys accomplish? They bogged us down in a loosing ten thousand day war in Vietnam. Forty eight thousand Americans died; another three hundred and four thousand were wounded and many more were psychologically maimed. In fact in the five years following the war there were an additional nine thousand suicides that directly resulted from wartime trauma. On top of all this there were an appalling 5.1 million Vietnamese casualties.[6] plus one hundred and eleven billion dollars was wasted and America was torn apart domestically. Does that sound like the work of men with superior reasoning and understanding?

Then there is George W. Bush. He has a B.A. in history from Yale University and a Harvard M.B.A. What evidence is there that his reasoning and understanding are superior to the average guy in consequence of this experience?

In sum, schooling is not necessarily the friend of deep and effective thinking, even when that schooling is accomplished in the most hoity-toity environs

What Do You Think?

Let's return to our essential question. How many people are truly educable? Is the widespread American belief in education misbegotten or realistic? What percent of the general populace has the intelligence and the emotional capacity to be educated in the sense we've used it here? You decide.

[1] John Hyman, "Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?" Think, Spring, 2002.

[2] See Henry J. Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, 1995, Fourth Edition, New York, McGraw Hill

[3] World War Casualties, Wikipedia,

[4] Keith Dickson, World War II for Dummies, For Dummies, New York, 2001.

[5] The Harris Poll #57, July 21, 2006.

[6] "How many people died in the Vietnam War?"