Oct 01

Interview with Dr. Edwina Pendarvis (I): Anti-Intellectualism in US Schools

Written by berlinf on Thursday, October 1st, 2009 at 2:26 am
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Recently there has been much discussion in both China and the US about the advantages or disadvantages of education in both countries. For instance, Mr. Robert Compton made a movie called 2 Million Minutes, which advocates learning from China and India in its K12 education. Views by Mr. Compton was largely rejected by scholars such as Dr. Zhao from Michigan State University who suggests the US system is doing fine while the Chinese one needs reform. In the meantime, someone in China seems to have forged an article by Benno C. Schmidt, Jr., former President of Yale, attacking Chinese higher education as basically a joke. If that article showed anything, it indicates extreme dissatisfaction with the Chinese educational system.

During such discussions on the differences between Chinese and American education, we interviewed Dr. Edwina Pendarvis for her input on what went wrong with the US education. Dr. Pendarvis is Professor Emeritus of Gifted Education at Marshall University and an Internationally recognized scholar of high-achieving students.

In the following interview, she shares her thoughts on the anti-intellectual tendency in US schools, roles teachers and parents could play and her experiences with Chinese and American students. From an expert’s angle, and her experience working with parents and teachers, she sheds new light on the US-China education debate.

Question: Would you mind telling us about your background?

Dr. Pendarvis: I started teaching as soon as I completed college, at 21 years old, and have been in the field of education ever since. At first I taught high school English, then after completing a master’s degree in gifted education, taught in a gifted resource room that included (at different times) students in kindergarten through middle school. I got a doctorate in special education (includes education of gifted children as well as children with learning, emotional, or physical problems). I worked as a state-level administrator in special education for several years, and then began teaching at the university level. At the university, I taught education courses and worked with parents of gifted children, as well as with schools, to design programs that would meet the learning needs of high ability students. At the university, for a year, I directed the honors program for high-achieving students at Marshall University. I’m a parent of two children, now grown. Most of my experience, both practical and in regard to research focuses on exceptionally bright students. It also focuses on rural and suburban schools. I have no experience with schools in large cities. Often the problems, and perhaps the strengths, of rural and suburban schools are different from those in urban areas.

Part I:  Are US Students “Out of Their Minds”?

Question: You co-authored Out of Our Minds: Anti-Intellectualism and Talent Development in American Schooling. Would you mind elaborating on the “anti-intellectualism” tendency that happens in the US schools? Is this something that happens in higher education as well?

Dr. Pendarvis: Anti-intellectualism is a strong element in the culture of the United States. It permeates citizens’ lives in school and out. It has been written about often and has been attributed to many sources. Some see it as coming out of the origins of protestant religion, the religion that is most tied to capitalism, of course. This religion is highly egalitarian (it came about partly in reaction to the hierarchy of the Catholic church that grew so strong in the European middle ages) and regards one person (man, anyway) as completely equal to another. It is distrustful of any hierarchy, including that of seeing one person as smarter than another. It also distrusts logic and considers faith and feeling more important. When an argument is complex, it is often seen as sophistical, or deceptive. However, the roots of this anti-intellectualism go back to many sources. (Some universal, I think, and so I’m not saying that Americans are completely different, but only different in degree according to their different history.) Part of this anti-intellectualism also comes from the fact that so many early settlers in this country were poor and were escaping oppression, mostly not religious oppression, but class oppression. They were escaping, in general, people who were better educated and who used the law and its documents to take away what little poor people had. So, the settlers often had an ambivalent attitude toward writing and reading. In the beginning, many trusted only the Bible and thought reading was important only for reading that book. As they got more land and more settled, they valued reading and writing for practical reasons of owning property and keeping up with news on events. Few, however, found value in reading for understanding life or for the beauty of language and thoughts until the early 20th century.

Question: If the “protestant religion” is one of the possible causes to anti-intellectualism. Why did the best universities start with religious roots? Has the protestant religion played a positive role in the shaping of American education?)

Dr. Pendarvis: I’m not an expert on this, but I’ll say that my understanding is that the scholarly tradition of the middle ages was associated with Catholicism. Some of this tradition was carried on through the universities, which prepared clergy, both protestant and catholic. Though Protestantism rebelled against many aspects of Catholicism, it also grew out of it. However, Protestantism, especially as practiced in America and as it changed during the nineteenth century, became less and less interested in metaphysical and ethical argument and more committed to authenticity of feeling as a way of knowing. I’m especially attuned to this because of living in the Appalachian region, which was one of the major areas dominated by revivalism and fundamentalism. Preachers on the frontier here sometimes couldn’t read. Their education was less important than their oratory. This popular religious attitude has influenced public schools more than universities because it is also partly a class phenomenon. The people to subscribe to this common form of Protestantism were rural and small town mostly and often were poor and working-class. They didn’t usually attend universities. (Now more people subscribe to this form of religion, and also more people of the protestant religion attend universities because a university degree is becoming as necessary for a job as a high school degree used to be.) Anyway, yes, universities, were developed partly in response to religious denominations’ needs, including Protestant denominations, (and so have contributed positively to the US education system) but here, the intellectual elements of at least the Protestant religion have been pretty much overwhelmed, in my opinion by a seeking for consolation, affirmation, and community rather than for truth). I’m not saying this religion is the sole source of anti-intellectualism here in the US. All I’m saying is that it plays an important role in this trend to devalue and disparate intellect.

Our struggles to build a country are so recent and so physical that we’re not over it yet. With compulsory schooling, once it was widespread, came some efforts to develop individuals’ appreciation of wisdom and beauty. That was a luxury that could be afforded by then because people were more prosperous, in general than they’d been. Textbooks included poetry and stories that students enjoyed and, with poetry, often memorized. One school subject was considered about as important as another because the main point was getting a basic education that would prepare you for life, not for a particular job. It’s an over implication, but that was pretty much true until Sputnik in 1957! Then, of course, math and science became important because the US was afraid that the USSR would control the world if it controlled space. We developed excellent math and science programs at that time and during the 1960s. However, these programs were so demanding that teachers hated them. They blamed the students and said the programs were too hard for students. A lot of the problem, though, was that the math and science programs were more difficult to teach and were, in fact, more than the teachers felt capable of handling. Parents also didn’t understand the reasoning behind these difficult programs. They saw them as impractical and taking too long to teach. Perhaps, at this time, these programs should have been kept and provided only to the most talented and interested students. Instead, they were simply rejected. Schools went “back to the basics.” Also at this time, many students with learning and behavior problems were beginning to stay in school, more than in the past. Teaching them was harder than teaching more compliant and interested children. Textbooks were watered down and made much simpler. If you compare, for example, a fourth-grade textbook from the 1960s with one in the 1990s, you’ll see a big difference. The older one is much harder, but also more interesting in ideas.

This change affected average students, not just gifted ones. Average students didn’t have any trouble with those textbooks in the 1960s. But the “average” became lower over the years. I don’t want to give the impression that I think these students with disabilities were at fault. It’s the lack of attention to anything beyond the basics that is still the main problem. But what is basic has gotten much less challenging over the past half-century. Since the 1960s, college here has become more and more specialized and geared toward jobs. That’s understandable in view of global competition. I think one reason our universities are good is just the wealth of the country. We can afford excellent laboratories and libraries. There is a big difference between universities and the rest of public education. It is, in effect, education for keeping the country wealthy and powerful. K-12 education can no longer do this. Though many more students go to college here than in lots of other countries, it is still a small enough proportion and well funded enough that it can provide a comparatively more challenging education. It can’t completely overcome the deficits produced by the unchallenging nature of the K-12 schools, however. Many college students want to learn the bare minimum needed to make a decent grade and get a decent job. They’ve grown up distrusting complicated ideas and they often don’t want to hear them in college either, unless there’s a financial pay-off. Many students think their ideas are as good as those of their professors, though their professors may know a few more facts. Because professors aren’t wealthy, students don’t respect them much. The only worthwhile intelligence is intelligence that makes money, for the individual. Improving society isn’t regarded as a very important goal here. It goes back, in part, to the idea of the individual as the important unit, not family and certainly not society, even though we are taught to give lip service to the importance of benefiting society.

Our short-sightedness in focusing on the immediately practical and despising the intellectual results in impatience with difficult ideas. That, to me, is the reason for our relatively low achievement in higher mathematics and science. We may value them, but we undermine students’ ability to learn them well.

Question: In earlier correspondence, you mentioned that students in the US are not sufficiently challenged. Do you refer to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects that Compton was talking about? Are you referring mainly to gifted students, or any average students? Whose problem is it? Are there any solutions?

I’m referring not just to STEM subjects, but to all subjects and to students at all levels. As you can probably tell from my earlier answers, I see this as a problem that has cultural and economic roots. One of the things that worries me particularly right now is the fact that so many poor and rural children have so little access to computers. These children will grow up doomed to a separate life from the mainstream. Right now many poor rural children are living in “micro” economies that depend on barter, hunting, gardens, and/or crime to survive. This will become even more true if things continue as they are. The new basics should include the basics of computer use. Schools here usually talk about these as 21st century skills. Solving that problem won’t solve the problem of challenging average and high-achievers. I just mention it because it’s becoming so glaring a problem here.

I can’t recommend any far-reaching solutions because I think they will come about only through far-reaching cultural and economic changes. As far as small solutions that I have seen, I know that parents of high-achieving students acting together can change school curricula and programs to make them more challenging. Parents of gifted students in states that require IEPs (individual education plans) for gifted students (as all do for students with disabilitie) can also get more challenging programs for their children if they’re willing to make administrators and sometimes teachers angry with them. I’ve worked with many parents of gifted children who have done that. It is time-consuming for these parents and can sometimes be emotionally painful for them because of the attitudes of educators who often think the parents are too demanding.

In the next two installments, Dr. Pendarvis will be discussing possible strengths or weaknesses when US education is compared with the Chinese counterparts, as well as parent and student responsibilities in education. Stay tuned!

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11 Responses to “Interview with Dr. Edwina Pendarvis (I): Anti-Intellectualism in US Schools”

  1. B.Smith Says:

    As an American, Christian, and someone who has worked with educating poor children in rural America, I have to disagree with Dr. Pendarvis on a number of levels. First, Christianity – whether Protestant or Catholic – is most certainly not “anti-intellectual”, not in its true sense. Yes, it sees all people as equal to each other in worth, but not in ability. The New Testament talks about people having different gifts and abilities, and the Protestant tradition has no problem with that. Many early scientists were Christian, and it was their belief in a rational God that made their belief in a rational universe, with rules to discovered and logic to be found, possible. The Bible has no problem with science (i.e. with gaining knowledge through the senses).

    Dr. Pendarvis’ statement about early Americans (“…few, however, found value in reading for understanding life or for the beauty of language and thoughts until the early 20th century”) comes across as very arrogant, betraying a belief that it is only those of us in the present who are enlightened. As the 20th century saw more people butchered and killed in wars and genocide than any other century, I would be careful about writing off earlier peoples as dogmatic and ignorant. Of course it is difficult to attend art gallery openings and discuss the latest works of a fashionable author when trying to keep crops alive so you can live through the winter – but that doesn’t mean those people were “anti-intellectual”.

    I personally worked closely with some very poor kids during my last year in college. They lived in the rural countryside, in a dirty trailer home which housed their mother and 4 other siblings, along with large numbers of stray cats, mice, and cockroaches. These kids had significant learning problems. They also had two computers, a TV, DVD player, Playstation, and more toys than I ever had growing up. They didn’t depend on hunting or gardens to survive. The problems they had were due to inadequate parenting, the absence of a father figure to help their stressed-out mother, and a total lack of discipline. Some of the other kids in that home excelled in school, but only because they possessed a determination to do really well no matter what. “Lack of computers” was not the problem.

    I’m not trying to be too critical of Dr. Pendarvis, obviously she is highly educated and I respect her opinion (despite the fact that I am an “anti-intellectual protestant” 😉 ). I just disagree with some of her premises.

  2. Chops Says:

    Is China, with its own approach to education, chipping away at America’s lead in science and technology?


    If you were an alien visitor, you would learn one important thing about American culture: American earthlings come in two subgroups. There are beautiful people who appear to be hotly desired by everyone else for something called “sex” and there are ugly people who are not desired at all for the thing called “sex.” And then there are intelligent people, who seem to know an awful lot, and stupid people, who seem to be, well, really stupid. And here’s the really interesting part, if you’re the alien visitor: All the really intelligent people are ugly, and all the beautiful people are dumber than a box of rocks.

    But my point is not about those aliens. It is about the little terrestrial aliens already in our midst: our children. Children are just like those aliens; even the cultures they are born into are alien to them. They need to make sense of the adult world, the world of their own culture, and they approach this world with alien eyes.

    And if our children come to believe that their only two options are to be sexy and attractive or intelligent and ugly, there is little doubt which option they will pick – especially as their hormones kick in during their tweenage and teenage years. This does not bode well for academic achievement or respect of elders. Even worse are the social consequences of anti-intellectualism and underachievement.

  3. justkeeper Says:

    @B.Smith: It’s a myth, or at least a misconception that the 20th century saw more people butchered and killed in wars and genocide than any other century, an intellectual arguing here.

  4. pug_ster Says:

    I think the Anti-Intellectualism in US Schools is such a problem because of ‘everybody wins’ analogy whereas in many Asian countries the competition for the good schools is so great so students have study harder to go up in the totem pole. I agree with B. Smith somewhat is that parents often blame on the schools if their kids don’t pass thus forcing the the schools to lower the bar for everybody else. The smart kids don’t have an incentive to do well.

    I think if the US schools wants to change the game they can start by raising the bar, let the smart kids who are doing well to skip a grade while the dumb kids fall behind a grade.

  5. Berlin Says:

    @B. Smith, Dr. Pendarvis is one of the most intelligent yet sincere and humble persons I know, so I wouldn’t use the word “arrogant” for her myself. But I am also thinking of education/religion issue myself (and I am a protestant Christian) and I personally find that religious beliefs can also play a positive role in scientific discoveries. That’s why I asked about the religious roots of educational institutions.

    I recently heard of Karen Armstrong’s A History of God in which she describes an interesting phenomenon: many Muslims dislike western politics, but they hardly have issues with western science, and math and technology, because they see the world as revelations of the divine truth. From the Christian/protestant worldview, what I see is a similar tendency to find out about the truths from a world that is believed to be created, a world that is governed by laws that are not simply random combination of elements.

    In the book Diffusion of Innovations, I also read that the Amish are hardly against technologies that do not seem to contradict their beliefs. As a matter of fact, they could be earlier adopters. I work for a Christian university, where every student is given a laptop and an iPod Touch or iPhone so that they can use such technological tools. It is in these areas such as stem cell research where there seems to be conflict between faith and science. I do not know enough of the controversy to discuss much about it, though.

    But what you said about “As the 20th century saw more people butchered and killed in wars and genocide than any other century” made me think. Are all scientific and technological advances helping us live a better life? I am just back from a “student technology use” committee meeting where we discuss what to do with students bringing technologies into the classrooms to “multitask” 🙂 when in fact, they were just instant messaging to their various buddies online.

  6. B.Smith Says:

    @pug_ster: I agree. I think American teachers often have the right motives with an “everybody wins” approach, but I don’t think this kind of approach produces stellar students.
    @Berlin: I didn’t mean to imply to that Dr. Pendarvis was arrogant, only that her statement came across that way. I should have clarified that more. My apologies to her 🙂

  7. dewang Says:

    Hi Berlin,

    Excellent article and thx for bringing Dr. Pendarvis’ thoughts to us.

    Curious what your thoughts are the impact from Hollywood and U.S. media? Chops touched upon it above. I have mixed feelings about how engineers and scientists are usually portrayed in American movies and television.

    Can engineers and scientists be sexually desirable?

    On the other hand, many smart people gravitate towards subjects outside of STEM, because their parents want to groom them for the management route. I guess my assumption is that you don’t need to be great in STEM subjects to be great managers. (I know many will not agree with this assumption.)

    Comparing a manager who has a basic BA degree and a very good PhD engineer, I’d bet that manager makes more money (on the average). Obviously many PhD in engineering becomes managers and leaders in corporate or academia, and they are some of the most successful people on this planet. I guess I am trying to say the average.

    So, why not avoid STEM and go for management?

  8. Berlin Says:

    Who says Hollywood doesn’t like mathematicians and engineers. Think of the Beautiful Mind 🙂

    The argument for more STEM engineers is probably based on the need of the society. It’s so much easier to train a manager. In Scott Adam’s words, a half-witted monkey who drank 8 bottles of beer can perform most managerial tasks as well as any manager. But if you have a lousy engineer, rockets explode, ships sink, trains detail, bridges fall…

  9. TonyP4 Says:

    Most believe a better education brings better jobs and hence money. Most of our parents want us to be in high-paying jobs like doctors, lawyers…or accountants, computer programmers for the less ambitious. Same targets for our children.

    From this view point, it is not cost effective to study for PhD. and/or study for tough subjects like maths. and science. Instead, we should study how to be a manager or get a MBA in doing so. We can hire educated engineers, programmers from foreign countries. However, it will back fire when we’ve too many MBAs and too many managers.

    A good manager should implement good QA and ensure the bridges or some other products will not be defective. There are too many bad projects in both USA and China due to poor management and/or corruption.

    In Boston, we have tunnels used for over 30 years with no problem. Our new Big Dig project has its share of problems. With the old technology, our old tunnels never have water leaks, but now we do. Our new tunnel has slabs fell down and one killed a person. It is not technology but poor management. It is our penny smart and dollar stupid philosophy at work.

    Films on engineers and mathematicians could be quite boring and that’s why there are so few of them.

  10. hzzz Says:

    Interesting stuff. I have always thought most of the anti-intellectualism in the US came from conservatives who tend to liken the liberals with the intellectual elite lording over the common folks. I also find some anti-intellectualism coming from minorities who believe that being educated means selling out to “the man” and giving up one’s own culture, a sentiment which is shared by some minorities in China as well.

  11. youknows Says:

    anti-intellectualism is a problem for American society. somehow, sub-culture regarded set in the bottom hierarchy of school, nerds, geeks, and even dorks always get bullying actions because someone holding the myth of anti-intellectualism think that they more practical than those groups. these students holding the myth anti-intellctualism is much more bigger (majority) than the group (minority). in brief, it can be said these students reflecting american society. the effects of the dis-likeness of the intellectual people cause many problems such as bullying continuing by many negative effects both the perpetrators and the victims.

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