Don’t let people get away with idiocy

My car was filled to capacity with speakers, lights and crates of wires as I drove to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres on a hot day last month. I was to be the disc jockey at a wedding reception, which began in little under an hour.
Assuming a large restaurant and playhouse would have a dolly or a cart, I asked around. Nobody knew who to ask. I went to the front desk and told the receptionist I needed a cart to unload all my heavy equipment.
She called the manager, who told her all the carts were in use. Sorry. Frowning, she added it was a busy time of day, as they were preparing for dinner. She thought I would go quietly and struggle through what would be a difficult, hot task.
Instead, I told her I would sit in the lobby and wait for a cart to become available. Because the reception started soon, she realized this could make the clients angry. Calling the manager back, she told him I was waiting in the lobby.
Next thing I knew, she stormed out of her office and said, “I’ll go look for a cart.” She walked across the hall, through a door and brought out a cart within a minute. Rather than apologize to me, she just said, “Well, now I know where it is,” and walked away.
This blend of blatant incompetence and a lethargic attitude is common and growing, assisted by schools and managers, who build blinders onto the eyes of many people, training them not to think outside the lines.
In school, many students are quite concerned about good grades, but the nature of the tests rewards good memory and simple repetition, rather than a more robust test of understanding.
Classes can often be passed without applying the information taught. The textbook defines the terms and the student remembers them. When the test asks for the answers, the students dutifully fill them in. But many students are unable to use the information to make new inferences. Their fragile knowledge can be used only in a very limited context.
Many teachers now realize the importance of teaching students to apply knowledge, rather than simply repeating it or memorizing facts. These teachers tell their classes not to worry about remembering certain dates or terms, but instead to concentrate on the big picture and the order of events. Their tests force students to demonstrate elasticity in their trains of thought.
Eventually, school gives way to the workplace, where the mediocrity continues. Many managers treat their employees as automatons who are not permitted to make intelligent decisions. Witness the fast food employee who asks every customer if he would like to try Border Fryz with his order, even though the huge sign makes their availability clear.
These robot workers repeat the same phrase all day long, without variation. Mustn’t that affect the brain after a period of time? I believe it does. Lacking any medical evidence, I nonetheless speculate that the mind shrivels up like a dried sponge. Once the brain becomes petrified and frozen into place, we get what writer Steve Allen has termed “Dumbth.”
“We already have words like length and strength and breadth and width and so forth,” he said. “So the root of (the word) is obviously dumb. And it addresses the problem that the American people are getting measurably, demonstratively dumber.”
Dumbth can be deadly. Virginia 22-year-old Eric Barcia collected a number of bungee tie-down cords, tied them with electrical tape, and jumped off a railroad bridge last year. After he hit the ground at full speed and died, his grandmother said only, “He was very smart in school.”
Barcia was probably told of the elasticity of rubber and the acceleration of falling bodies, but for some reason it never coalesced into a picture of the danger of what he did. He was “book smart,” but not street smart. And there are many such people with education but not wisdom, just as there are many who lack a formal education, but are wise beyond their years.
The lack of adaptability is obvious with people who get flustered if everything is not presented a certain way. Just as computers must have everything in a certain order, these people cannot adjust rapidly to a new presentation of information.
Another frustration becoming more common every day is the inability of employees to circumnavigate a stubborn computer. Shopping at a store yesterday, I tried to buy two sets of guitar strings, a heavier and lighter set. The computer wouldn’t recognize one set. Instead of simply ringing it under the other one’s number, the salesman asked me to buy two of the other, and put the strings back on the shelf.
To remedy our desperate state, Allen suggests 100 ways to think better, offering tips on good things to read up on, and warning about common errors in thought and logic. To his list I add another: Don’t accept incompetence without a fight.
Don’t let the waitress force you out of the drink you wanted because she refuses to adapt. Don’t carry all your equipment in by hand because the lady is too lazy to get off her duff and find a cart. Don’t let the computer force you to buy a product you didn’t want because the employee is scared to bypass it.
Rather, insist that people take responsibility and use their brains for something other than filling up their heads. Become righteously indignant with abrasive, lazy fools. Expect and demand that your fellow humans live up to their potential. If they refuse, avoid interacting with them. Maybe then they’ll learn.
Brian Close’s column appears on alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments to [email protected]