Stupid Teachers – Our Synonym Problem

Douglas R. Burgess Jr. authored an op-ed in the New York Times , which stated that piracy is by definition terrorism. Reading it, I wanted to SCREAM! It reflected one of the critical problems with fighting terrorism, the inability that most people and government officials have in defining it; consequently, everything is terrorism and nothing is terrorism.

In this error, Burgess made the oft-repeated mistake of diminishing the scope of terrorism to a criminal justice issue that fit nicely within his narrow point. But that has to be a rant for a different day, as this post deals with a different insidious evil that threatens to destroy our republic, the incompetence of public school teachers.

In general, why is it that we can not effectively define terrorism? It is linked to the broader problem that we have trouble objectively defining anything.

This epistemological handicap is not an accident, but by design. Further, this invasive weed has a common source that should be pulled root and branch.

The common element is how we learned to define words back in school. Think back to learning your vocabulary lists. How did you do it? Encouraged by your teacher and the evaluation tools, what was the short cut that you chose to use to make the task easier? Close your eyes for a moment and really think back.

I expect that you attempted to learn each definition using the briefest terms, and most frequently as a single word synonym. Consequently, many words tend to all mean the same thing without distinction; like seeing piracy as terrorism. Almost like Orwellian Newspeak, some words lose their utility as they become indistinct; “Freedom is Slavery.”

However, definitions have two components, the genus and differentia. Through an emphasis on synonyms in learning vocabulary, the genus is being retained; however, the differentia is being lost. Thus, teaching vocabulary by this shortcut is gross negligence and incompetence by educators.

Consider this problem in the context of terrorism and the oft-repeated phrase ‘one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter.’ Our common definitions have been so corrupted by this epistemological error that we cannot distinguish a terrorist from a freedom fighter in public debate. It is more than this one issue in our corrupted public dialogue; from just recent news:

  • reducing the increase in spending is synonymous with cutting spending,
  • cutting taxes is synonymous with spending,
  • transfer payments to those that do not pay taxes is synonymous with a tax rebate, and
  • market dysfunction caused by government regulation is synonymous with a consequence of excess freedom.

Are public school teachers just evil? Probably not, they are just incompetent. In general, the worst students who advance to and graduate from college, become teachers. With generation after generation of incompetent teachers, the problem becomes progressively worse.

Where did this problem start? In philosophy, of course.

Several years, I was explaining this idea about synonym education and its consequence while chatting before a lecture by a visiting professor. In her lecture about the tie between a particular philosophical perspective and current politics, the professor discussed how this philosophy’s methodology included an effort to erase and deny the importance of differences. That philosophy is Pragmatism, which established progressive education in our public schools and guides the methodology of our current political leadership, both Republican and Democrat.

What can a selfish citizen do?

  1. If you have not recently done so, I recommend that you read Dr. Tara Smith’s article “The Menace of Pragmatism,” which was the basis for the previously mentioned lecture which included the subtitle, “How Aversion to Principle is Destroying America.”
  2. Whenever you hear an idea or person described as pragmatic, lookout, stop, and think; what important differentiating characteristics are they attempting to erase?
  3. Give thoughtful consideration over whether public school teachers merit the deference and respect that they receive.
  4. Don’t forget the differentia in your definitions.

Extra Point: Below is the old 2009 video from which the text for this post was revised.

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