Goody Jones’ Law, or, More on Unteachability

Goody Jones’ Law, or, More on Unteachability May 29, 2014

 Goody Jones is your archetypal Ozark grandmother. She’s observed a great deal about humanity in her lifetime, and, although life did not afford her the luxury of college, let alone a doctoral degree, she has always believed that “God gave us brains to use” and has never let hers be idle. Early in life she learned to skeptical about beliefs that seemed not to be backed up by facts, and the modern technology of interlibrary loans enabled her, by making careful choices, to become well-informed in several areas she considered important. These days, of course, the Internet has enabled her to become even better informed.

One day recently, she commented to me, and I quote:

 The propensity to believe and propagate malicious gossip is inversely proportional to the intelligence quotient.

 Then she said, “That’s to make it sound real academic. What I mean, of course, is that it’s stupid people who badmouth other people, just repeating whatever they’ve heard, not bothering to find out the facts or even check with the person they’re talking about.”

“Why do you suppose some people behave that way” I asked her.

She stared off at the trees for a moment, then said, “I think it amounts to envy. The pattern is usually to badmouth a person who’s done something even a little out of the ordinary, and the more extraordinary the accomplishment, the meaner the criticism is going to be. Like, there’s not an awful lot of people around here I talk with about what I’ve read. Most people think you’re showing off if you mention you’ve read a book.”

“It’s worse if you’ve written one,” I said. “Andrew Greeley says in his autobiography that when you have a successful book, expect to be attacked. I know about that.”

“I think it comes from the attitude you see among people who don’t dare believe anything but what everyone around them believes. If a child starts to have original ideas or show any creativity, that sort of parent will say, ‘Who do you think you are?’ or ‘Do you think you’re better than everyone else?’ It’s rotten parenting to tear down a child’s self-esteem like that—but that’s why the world’s full of alcoholics and other addicts.”

“But why do you suppose some people are afraid to think for themselves and question the status quo?”

“Because of low self-esteem. They’ve been so torn down they can’t believe they have the right to find out the truth for themselves, to go wherever the facts lead them. They’re afraid to believe that everyone they know could be flat-out wrong about everything important.”

“So they repeat the cycle . . . “

“Yes, it’s really just another sort of child abuse. It’s not human nature. It could be changed, no matter how difficult that looks.”

“If people knew they could change, or could even want to change . . .”

“Yes!” she said. “They have to become teachable, in order to want to change. But that’s not going to happen as long as they belong to churches that tell them they can’t question any of what the pastor preaches, or believe they have to leave government to the expertise of the politicians, or their health to the expertise of doctors.”

“What do you think could be done to help start changing all that?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I don’t have any answers, just questions. But I know they don’t have any answers either.”

 Goody set me off thinking again about the problem of unteachability—and it occurred to me that music provides an example of that problem.

Once in a while, when I go into the kitchen, where my sister-in-law, who lives with us, has the radio set to a “Golden Oldies” station, but I’m having a more curmudgeonly day than usual, I want to tune to a classical station. One bit of dialogue has been:

“I really would rather listen to adult music right now.”

“Adults listen to a lot more than classical music,” she objects.

“Yes, adults can easily listen to children’s music,” I agree, “but the reverse is not true”—not true primarily because of laziness, which Scott Peck characterized as how entropy manifests in human behavior, and as the fundamental flaw in our makeup.

“Classical” music was quite popular in its time. Music was scarce enough that it was all treasured and appreciated. With the phonograph and radio, music proliferated, but it also became specialized and cheapened. Even in the 1950s, the “Hit Parade” always included many varieties of songs that are now never played together on the same station or channel.

The pattern I have observed is that very many people imprint on the music that is current while they endure and sometimes survive the crucible of middle school and high school, and then they listen to that music, and only that music, for the rest of their lives. They never make an effort to understand the idiom of any music that is not instantly obvious to their ears, especially not “classical” music. The musicians they are addicted to often continue to play that same music. I think it sad to see men in their 60s still playing only the songs they wrote forty years ago. I am sad they have done nothing more with their lives, at least, nothing visible, although I greatly respect the ones who, like Bono, are real grownups and have used their wealth to benefit society.

Thus music symbolizes the greater problem, the plague of unteachability that paralyzes people, that makes improvements in society close to impossible, that leads to the tearing down of children’s self-esteem and repetition of the cycle. The plague is that some people simply stop learning anything new, sometimes right after high school, sometimes later. They do not want the world to change in any way; all change is viewed as negative. They resent and attack anyone who confronts them with information that does not fit into their fixed worldview; they “shoot the messenger” and, as Scott Peck emphasized, thus cause much of the evil in the world. That fixity makes them feel safe, but it also makes them vulnerable to the lies of politicians. Perhaps that is why people vote against their own interests, by voting for Republicans, who promise to prevent any change at all, even while brazenly accepting bribes and corrupting our socioeconomic system to benefit the greedy and selfish even more.

I cannot propose a general solution. I think the problem is ameliorated as one person at a time becomes more enlightened. Some have the blessing of being alcoholics, who then have the choice between becoming teachable or dying. As I’ve heard said around the tables, “There’s nothing like the threat of death to make a man reasonable.”



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  • KateGladstone

    This has a direct relevance to some of the work that I am doing in understanding — and changing — common attitudes towards a currently “hot-button” educational subject: handwriting, of all things.
    Over and over (during the years that I’ve been involved in following this), I’ve seen legislators and lobbyists (yes, there IS a cursive handwriting lobby!) misquoting research to the media, on blogs, and in testimony under oath: giving a citation to research, but flat-out LYING about what the cited research says, in the serene (and, too often, justified!) certainty that their constituents and fellow legislators will not locate & read the study themselves (though that can be done in about 5 minutes now: anywhere in the world). I won’t obey you with the details, unless you want to ask privately … but studies that weren’t even about handwriting get quoted as “proof” that writing in cursive makes you smarter, teaches you spelling and grammar, helps you make friends and be a good citizen, or anything else that the study-misquoter would like to get away with. (The same is done to studies that are about handwriting but that do not include cursive — e.g., an Indiana University study of print-writing versus keyboarding in kindergarteners is perennially cited as being a study of print-writing versus cursive, with the word “cursive” changed to the word “keyboarding,” and the mention of kindergarten dropped. Similar tactics are used when the study does indeed include cursive, because cursive does poorly in studies that compare it with any of the other forms of handwriting.)
    This would be rather amusing, in some grim way, if not for what usually happens when the misquoters and those who repeat the misquotations (legislators, bloggers, news-media spinners, and others) are confronted — publicly or otherwise — with the discrepancy, and are asked to explain why they misquoted. The usual answers (from the misquoters and their audiences) fall into several categories, which can be summed up as follows:

    /1/ “Oh, you went and looked up the original research! That’s not fair, because real people don’t feel a need to do that. This is real life, not school or some academic debate.” (This is a direct quote. The speaker was a teacher.)

    /2/ “I changed the content of my source material because my readers/blog-followers/constituents/students’ parents will ‘relate’ better to something that supports the general belief.” (This is a paraphrase/summary of explanations given me by people in several fields: magazine journalists, bloggers, state legislators, and schoolteachers/administrators.)

    /3/ “When the research findings call into question a traditional cultural belief, the researchers should have recognized that it is their responsibility to change their findings. We all must sacrifice something we hold dear in this life, and sometimes a thing like science and objectivity needs to be one of the things to be sacrificed by those involved, because the culture has a right to continue its traditional beliefs. In our culture, a traditional and important educational and cultural belief is in the importance and superiority of cursive. When the research failed to find that cursive was faster or equally legible, compared with other forms of handwriting, the researchers should have been concerned to shoulder the responsibility of helping the cultural belief in cursive remain viable. Since the reported findings neglected this responsibility, as a concerned citizen I am the one who needs to do it for them. Questions of what is true or false are beside the point here, because who is to say that there is really such a thing as true or false? It’s all in what you culturally perceive, and culturally as Americans we perceive that our cultural beliefs include a belief that the research would support cursive. Research that throws doubt on a culturally accepted belief may be ‘true’ in some objective, factual sense, but it would not be subjectively and culturally true. There is no truth outside people and cultures and what people’s cultural groups acknowledge and believe. Our cultural group belief, as Americans, has a right to be believed in.” (This is from a parent, explaining with some pride why she had knowingly and detectably misquoted research when addressing a class for which she was a school volunteer.)