GENERAL KNOWLEDGE: Information to furnish the mind

Not Smart to be Smart

Ray Romano thinking about Sisyphus.

Actor Ray Romano was interviewed in a PBS documentary about the evolution of American television programming. In speaking about the short-lived comedy series Men of a Certain Age (2009-2011), Romano mentions the myth of Sisyphus.

In the first episode of the Men series, a character says he couldn’t be a salesman because it’s “too sisyphean.” Evidently embarrassed by his display of knowledge, Romano quickly apologizes: “I’m not trying to sound like I’m smart because that’s the first time I heard of it, was when Mike wrote it in the script.”

If Romano had attended school when I did, he would have heard of Sisyphus in seventh or eighth grade.

Since the 1960s, the US public school curriculum has been stripped of much content that used to provide children with material for thinking about universal moral issues.

Unaware of the backstory, Romano interprets the task of Sisyphus this way:

[rolling the rock] may seem horrible, but ultimately, he’s happy, Sisyphus, because he has a job, he has something to focus on, something to put his energy into, something to, you know, accomplish.

Not only doesn’t Romano understand the significance of Sisyphus’ labor, he has also misunderstood the use of the adjective sisyphean as used in the TV episode. In the complete quotation, the character says that being a salesman is “too sisyphean” because “the slate gets wiped clean at the end of every month.” A “sisyphean task” is one that must be performed again and again. It lacks a reward of any kind.

Romano’s remarks illustrate three features of early 21st century US culture:

  1. decline in general knowledge
  2. reliance on guessing rather than thinking or knowing
  3. elevated social status of ignorance

Because of the almost pathological emphasis on quantifiable test scores since 2002, the habits of mind fostered by the classroom study of  literature have declined.

The result is a generation of adults who are afraid to “look like they’re smart.”

We live in a strange culture in which everyone claims to be “for” education, but few people seem to want to learn anything that might make them “look like they’re smart.”

A pervasive television trope is the scene in which “regular” characters react scornfully in bewilderment when a “smart” character uses a big word or makes a Shakespearean reference.

The new CCSS (Common Core State Standards) do mention Greek myth. That doesn’t mean the stories will be restored to their former important place in the curriculum. The Standards also mention Shakespeare, but make it clear that exposure to one play is enough.

From what I can tell, many school administrators are interpreting the CCSS emphasis on “informational texts” as a mandate to cut down on literature. And even though the “informational text” requirements are not supposed to apply to English classes, I’ve already read about a local English teacher who replaced her unit on King Arthur with one on pop psychology.

Best advice to parents who want educated children: Supplement the time they spend in public school with time in the public library.

More about Sisyphus

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