Wilful Stupidity

June 18, 2009

Students often pretend to be less bright than they are. Here are two accounts of this:

“Some time ago, in an article on race stereotypes, I read something that stuck in my mind but that only recently has seemed to have anything to do with children.

The author spent some time in a German concentration camp during the war. He and his fellow prisoners, trying to save both their lives and something of their human dignity, and to resist, despite their impotence, the demands of their jailers, evolved a kind of camp personality as a way of dealing with them. They adopted an air of amiable dullwittedness, of smiling foolishness, of cooperative and willing incompetence—like the good soldier Schweik. Told to do something, they listened attentively, nodded their heads eagerly, and asked questions that showed they had not understood a word of what had been said. When they could not safely do this any longer, they did as far as possible the opposite of what they had been told to do, or did it, but as badly as they dared. They realized that this did not much impede the German war effort, or even the administration of the camp; but it gave them a way of preserving a small part of their integrity in a hopeless situation…

Does not something very close to this happen often in school? Children are subject peoples. School for them is a kind of jail. Do they not, to some extent, escape and frustrate the relentless, insatiable pressure of their elders by withdrawing the most intelligent and creative parts of their minds from the scene? Is this not at least a partial explanation of the extraordinary stupidity that otherwise bright children so often show in school? The stubborn and dogged “I don’t get it” with which they meet the instructions and explanations of their teachers—may it not be a statement of resistance as well as one of panic and flight?

I think this is almost certainly so. Whether children do this consciously and deliberately depends on the age and character of the child. Under pressure that they want to resist but don’t dare to resist openly, some children may quite deliberately go stupid; I have seen it and felt it.”

Holt (1965)

“To one very distinguished individual, my own personal debt is infinite; I mean, the historian of the Indian Mutiny and of the campaigns of Caesar–Mr. T. Rice Holmes.  He managed, heaven knows how, to penetrate through my deep and desperately consolidated desire to appear stupid; and discover the horrible secret that I was, after all, endowed with the gift of reason above the brutes. He would suddenly ask me questions a thousand miles away from the subject at hand, and surprise me into admitting that I had heard of the Song of Roland, or even read a play or two of Shakespeare. Nobody who knows anything of the English schoolboy at that date will imagine that there was at the moment any pleasure in such prominence or distinction.  We were all hag-ridden with a horror of showing off, which was perhaps the only coherent moral principal we possessed. There was one boy, I remember, who was so insanely sensitive on this point of honour, that he could hardly bear to hear one of his friends answer an ordinary question right.  He felt that his comrade really ought to have invented some mistake, in the general interest of comradeship. When my information about the French epic was torn from me, in spite of my efforts, he actually put his head in his desk and dropped the lid on it, groaning in a generous and impersonal shame and faintly and hoarsely exclaiming, “Oh, shut it. … Oh, shut up!”  He was an extreme exponent of the principle; but it was a principle which I fully shared.  I can remember running to school in sheer excitement repeating militant lines of “Marmion” with passionate emphasis and exultation; and then going into class and repeating the same lines in the lifeless manner of a hurdy-gurdy, hoping that there was nothing whatever in my intonation to indicate that I distinguished between the sense of one word and another.

…I am not sorry to be an exception to the modern tendency to reproach the old Victorian schoolmaster with stupidity and neglect and to represent the rising generation as a shining band of Shelleys inspired by light and liberty to rise. The truth is that in this case it was I who exhibited the stupidity; though I really think it was largely an affected stupidity. And certainly it was I who rejoiced in the neglect, and who asked for nothing better than to be neglected.  It was, if anything, the authorities who dragged me, in my own despite, out of the comfortable and protected atmosphere of obscurity and failure. Personally, I was perfectly happy at the bottom of the class.”

Chesterton (1936)

It is incredible how the same behaviour can be interpreted in two utterly different ways. Holt, was a radical educationalist sometimes described as a de-schooler, who saw all the ordinary faults of children as being caused by the nature of school as an institution. Inevitably, for any “progressive” the possibility that the bad behaviour of children could result from bad motives was not to be considered. To such a man it would be far more reasonable to consider schools to be concentration camps than to consider students to be flawed, imperfect, human beings.

Chesterton has the advantage on this topic of not looking at children from the outside and explaining what he sees, but actually recalling what he thought as a child. Some people apparently cannot recall what it was like to be a child. I remember quite clearly from my own schooldays that laziness and a desire not to stand out from the crowd were all that it took to make me display unnecessary dullness. A search for dignity under the oppression of teachers was not necessary; like all children I was far more oppressed by the expectations of my peers than those of my teachers.

Teaching experience has taught me the same thing. Those students who already have high status among their peers are quite happy to also appear bright, while those who don’t have the status don’t want to stand out academically. All students are happy to appear to be clever when separated from other students; children who would never want their peers to know their achievements are quite happy to be told privately, or for their parents to be informed. In front of their peers it is important to appear unexceptional. Worse, for those students who genuinely are unexceptional, it is important to appear satisfied with, or even proud of, this.

It comes down to culture. A lot of schools, even good schools, have a culture of wilful stupidity. It does not pay to appear too bright or too keen. Usually, you can see the loser culture take hold at some point during year 7, becoming stronger and stronger until late in year 10 or in year 11 when the imminent prospect of an encounter with the real world suddenly makes mediocrity less attractive. As ever, British schools see themselves as the passive (almost pacifist) recipients of such a culture. The loser culture is either accepted, or if it is challenged, it must never be confronted by anything more than the use of half-hearted incentives. The possibility of all-out war on low academic aspirations would never be considered. Too many of the things that would be necessary to create a culture of high intellectual aspirations are ideologically unacceptable. To challenge the loser culture you would need:

  • Open academic competition between students;
  • Setting;
  • Firm rules against discouraging other students from trying;
  • Harsh punishments for poor effort;
  • Exclusion or isolation of non-learners and those who prevent others from learning.

As things stand students often know that:

  • They will never be publicly compared with each other on academic grounds;
  • Mediocrity will be concealed in the wide ability range within a class;
  • All opinions, even those which incite failure, are welcome;
  • The worst sanction available for a half-hearted effort is a poor grade;
  • Learning is an aim that can be sacrificed in order to “include” everybody.

As students know these things, they have very little motive to appear clever and every motive to be exactly as dull and lazy as the next child. By the time they learn that what is perceived as merely mediocre in a bad school is going to be perceived as gross stupidity out in the real world it is too late. Wilful stupidity in school will translate into personal failure outside of school. Unfortunately, wilful stupidity is something those who run schools seem more than satisfied with.


Chesterton, G.K., Autobiography, 1936

Holt, John, How Children Fail, Pitman Publishing, 1965


  1. Yes, yes and yes. Really interesting excerpts.

    I can remember what it was like when I was at secondary school in the mid-70s – early-80s. Being a girl, it wasn’t quite so bad to be labelled the school swot, and actually, apart from a bit of bullying when I was 11, it was mostly good-natured teasing, and I was always sought after in class games and quizzes! And I know for a fact that I spurred on some of the boys to compete with me, so there was at least (back then) some urge to do well, even in what I describe as a bog-standard comp in London.

    Now though, being clever is uncool. Kids get marks and rewards for just turning up – things they should do anyway and real achievement is thus devalued.

    And of course, to an 11 year old, leaving school is SO far off that they don’t have to worry about lernin nuffin, cos there’s plenny o’time. There are times when I wish I had a TARDIS just so I could show them just what will happen to them when they leave school unable to string a sentence together or add up.

    (If the TARDIS came complete with David Tennant, of course, the kids could just bugger off!)

  2. “Holt, was a radical educationalist sometimes described as a de-schooler, who saw all the ordinary faults of children as being caused by the nature of school as an institution.”

    Well, I put it down to the nature of children wanting to do just as they wish, just as I do, but without the constraints adulthood and maturity brings.

    When I was at school (started 1959 in a Primary that was only slightly better socialwise than the white working-class area it was situated in; and moved on to a Secondary in which I was socially almost bottom of the pile), there wasn’t much credit being clever and willing brought you. If you were in with the cool crowd, you could get away with a “Hey!!!!” burst of genius, but if you weren’t, you had nothing to lose. I worked at subjects I was interested in because I wished not to appear to be a moron to my teachers.

  3. As a non-brit, it would be interesting to know how old year 7’s are.

    • 11-12 years old.

  4. […] at Scenes from the Battleground, old andrew writes about Wilful Stupidity. We’ve all seen it in action.  We see it daily.  […]

  5. […] Andrew at Scenes from the Battleground gives us his thoughts on those who are stupid on purpose in Wilful Stupidity. This trailer for the upcoming movie “Rubber Room,” on Pissed Off Teacher’s […]

  6. […] ever I read a cogent argument for NOT jumbling all the kids together in one classroom, this is it.  Tracking gets a bad press – it's elitist, it's racist, it's undemocratic.BUT, tracking, at […]

  7. Does Britain use the same “cool to be a fool” expression that we use in Oz?

    It hadn’t previously occurred to me to put it together with the setting argument, but I think you’re right. If you put similar ability students together, then being the class fool will still ensure a student is achieving more than they may have done in a mixed ability group. A rising tide lifts all boats?

  8. I ran, somewhere, across the observation that schools that don’t encourage or recognise academic success have no difficulty in encouraging and recognising sporting success, and from that the author developed the theory that the reason was that sporting success reflected well on the school.

    So this author hypothesied that a way to encourage schools, both pupils and administration, to value academic success is to introduce inter-school academic competitions, so success reflects glory on the school.

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