The smart and the dumb


I often wonder why smart people are frequently admonished for “failing to reach” less-smart people — as if society owes the less smart a dumbing down of the smart stuff. One particularly controversial example of the prevailing pressure to dumb down is evident in parts of the debate around the “national language”. Tagalugin mo na lang kasi e! (“Spare us the English and say it in Tagalog instead!”), as the all-too-familiar reproach goes. Never mind that much of humanity’s useful knowledge is articulated in English, German, French, Chinese, Japanese, and other languages spoken by societies with deep and extensive track records of achievement; Filipinos would rather sit around and whine about not seeing enough learning material articulated in Tagalog.

A similar kind of thinking is in the concept of making learning “fun”. Businesses are making a killing selling software and DVDs that present the maths and sciences in play or entertainment form. As the thinking there goes, kids can have fun even without realising that they are learning something. Sounds like a good concept at first glance. But reality has a way of hitting hard come crunch time. Many of us will find out later in life that learning the kinds of stuff that earn us the big bucks isn’t always fun. In fact, more often than not it isn’t. Learning the detail within a field of knowldege and specialising in a sought-after trade or expertise requires dedication, discipline, and concentration. And ability to concentrate is what sets apart the adult mind from the infantile mind. A person with an adult mind pulls herself together to concentrate on acquiring a useful skill. A person with an infantile mind, on the other hand, merely sits around waiting for information to come to her in a form that is readily digestible.

An environment fertile for growth in learning

So, here is what is real: The onus really is on the less smart to step up and take the initiative to gain access to the kinds of stuff smart and successful people occupy their minds with. Whether the means to that access be in the form of improved proficiency in the lingua franca used in the exchange and sharing of world-class knowledge, or in the application of a more critical mind when evaluating issues and options, the fact is those means are skills that can be learned.

I think there already is in place today a far greater number of initiatives involving smart people taking an effort to share their knowledge, than initiatives on the part of dumb people taking the effort to acquire knowledge for themselves. Worse, dumb people are constantly assured that they can be forgiven for their taste for Wowowee-type foods for thought.

Indeed, smart people already apply a monumental effort to push their views into the mainstream (though they may struggle a bit in the effort to dumb much of it down). Do we see a commensurate effort on the part of dumb people to pull the same information into their sphere of thinking? You can’t sow seeds on barren soil and expect a bumper crop. Thus calls for smart Filipinos to “come home” and apply their brains for the greater glory of country come across as merely quaint:

MANILA, Philippines—Senator Edgardo Angara is urging Filipino scholars abroad to return to the Philippines and share what they learned to help improve the country’s academic and industrial sectors.

At the same time, he called on the national government to help local agencies involved in education to provide “venues where they can put their expertise to good use” in the Philippines.

Angara, who heads the Congressional Committee on Science, Technology and Engineering (COMSTE), expressed concern that Filipino scholars abroad do not return to the country after completing overseas studies.

Bringing in more Filipino experts in research and development fields, including in information technology, will enhance the country’s scientific infrastructure.

If even ordinary folk who espouse simple values such as waiting for one’s turn in a queue or disposing of one’s trash properly are regarded like village idiots by the majority, it is highly doubtful that rocket scientists, nuclear physicists, computer engineers, and marine biologists will find fertile ground for their ideas in the landscape of Philippine society. This collective intellectual bankruptcy is a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed before we can even hope to attract and retain real world-class talent. For now we remain largely mired in a national “debate” that is “droll and unintelligent, focused on the trivial or the irrelevant“; one where “logic and common sense take the backseat to political arguments and the views of the poorly-educated”.

Perhaps it is this false populism ingrained by a perverse flavour of democracy and Catholicism that we have applied to ourselves that we need to learn to see past.

Celebrating the successful rather than coddling the “victims”

As a student at the Ateneo, I got bombarded with that ubiquitous tagline — “come down from the hill” (as it happens, also the title of the Alma Mater song of our school). I remember once mumbling to a friend of mine while we pumped our fists in the air (as tradition dictates) as we sang the Alma Mater song: “I think I like the view better from the top of the hill”.

The reality is we learn more from stories about successful people than from losers. Stories of the lives of successful people are more interesting and inspiring than stories about the lives of losers. If that weren’t the case, then biographies about inhabitants of trailer parks and squatter areas would be making the bestseller lists alongside biographies of Andy Grove, Steven Jobs, Bill Gates, and Donald Trump.

A fascination with the morbid and the tragic also seems to occupy the psyche of the Filipino. The political “debate” of the last two decades is pretty much hinged on a collective gratitude and hallowing of heroes. There is a constant reminder to be “vigilant” lest the “fragile” democracy supposedly made possible by the “sacrifices” of said heroes be undermined by the forces of darkness; never mind that much of the onus on making this “democracy” work now falls on the ability of the electorate to raise the standards they apply to evaluating their politicians.

Unfortunately the Philippines has become renowned for taking two generous steps backwards for every arm length it gains clawing forward. The top feudal clan at the moment — the Aquinos — has built an entire value proposition to the electorate on the basis of pedigree and melodrama — apparently the kinds of hooks that our utak tilapia culture continues to predispose many to bite onto. Blogger Rom makes a particularly spot-on observation on how the Aquino clan continues to milk a family tragedy for every drop of political equity it is worth:

There must be some sort of psychological parasitism going on here, where [the Aquino] women seem unable to speak of the death of their mother [former Philippine President Corazon Aquino] in terms of anything other than being orphaned and all the melodrama that entails; and where they cannot seem to relate to each other except as weepy members of a support group.

I echo Rom’s sentiment that for those of us who apply a bit more perspective around these things, such posturing merely highlights the real heroes in my book — those who’ve suffered similar tragedies, and grieved in private with grace and dignity.

Focus on simplifying ideas rather than simplifying messages

Having said all that, it must be pointed out that there, in all ironies, is a constant, virtually industrialised effort to dumb down information for mass consumption. It’s a highly specialised field in the sciences of persuasion called brand marketing. The brightest and most creative minds on the planet have elevated one part of it to a fine art — advertising — and the other part to an industrial science — brand management.

The recent history of brand marketing as a distinct field is a story of progressively increasing abstraction and simplification of the way messages are conveyed over modern channels of mass communication — to the point where substance is made irrelevant in favour of sensual appeal. Yet its principles trace their roots to antiquity. Organised religion, for one, derives its power from the coating of gloss and symbolism it paints over, say, Holy Scripture (as well as a range of disparate historical events and characters) and the complex of rituals and protocol it built upon it which it then exercises absolute governance over. Reduction of an entire belief framework into an abstraction — embodied in a symbol or icon — has the effect of intensely focusing its emotional appeal. The singular reverence humanity had exhibited for symbols — the crucifix, swastika, hammer-and-sickle, and, yes, the yellow ribbon — demonstrates how that focused emotion almost takes on a life distinct from the original substance of what these symbols had represented.

So in the same way that McDonalds had reduced eating to low-nutrition-value packaged deals, information critical to our future fortunes is now delivered to us in low-intellectual-value iconography propped up by vacuous catchphrases.

Simplifying a message is easy when there is no substance to condense to begin with.

Compare that to the monumental achievements of men who found the underlying order in complex phenomena such as gravity and motion. Newton, for one, related mass and rate of change of motion to explain natural “forces”, and Einstein extended this to include objects’ relative positions in time and space; in the process, coming up with a better (less mystical) explanation for gravity among other things. Whereas the tyrannies of religion and superstition simplified the explanation of such phenomena by coming up with dumbed down messages, men like Newton and Einstein made the explanation of such phenomena more transparent, coherent, and empowering for those who invested the time to understand these explanations.

Make work, not war

Turning the solution to an ill-understood issue or challenge into a “war” or a “fight” of some sort is a traditional favourite of the masters of dumbing down (recall The Crusades).

Take our regard for “addressing” the issue of poverty in our society. I observe much initiative to create an “awareness” of it. However, if seeing eight-year-old children knocking at your car window while stopped at the light on an intersection ain’t enough “awareness” already, what’s the point in creating even more “awareness” when even such an in-your-face sight that greets us in our daily commute fails to inspire?

There is a lot of the What but none of the How. Reducing poverty is not a “fight”. It is about worksmart work. Dumb work yields temporary solutions, while smart work yields sustainable solutions.

Fights have been proven by history to be dumb. Whenever we use the word “fight”, “laban”, or whatever else other forms of platitudes romanticists like to dish out, it elicits off-the-hip reactions. Bunot sa pitaka, buying a fundraising shirt, waving a fist, and the favourite of geniuses: rallying. Those “laban” and “fight” calls whether in the context of patalsikin-na-now-na politics, “wars” against “corruption”, or “fight poverty” campaigns simply beg a simple question:

How exactly?

“How exactly?” is a HARD question, because answering that question requires thinking — not just Filipino standards of thinking but WORLD-CLASS standards of thinking. An effort to reduce poverty often takes decades and even generations and as such requires a long-term outlook. “Fights” and “labans” are not underpinned by long-term outlook or thinking because they are primarily appeals to emotion.

Indeed, I once asserted that ‘Awareness’ of poverty is just a fashion statement for many of us…

It is interesting the way messages that aim to make one “aware” about the “plight” of the poor proliferate. In many countries, such awareness does not come at much of an effort as it is an in-your-face reality of daily life. But with affluence comes the insidious effects of our Christianic upbringing on a diet of doctrine and dogma that demonises the wealthy. Contrary to popularly-held notions and stereotypes, it seems it is the wealthy who have a bigger problem with poverty than those who are poor. Pity the rich as they are saddled with a pre-occupation with being “aware” of poverty and have a bigger need to be seen to be “giving back their share”.

Giving back their share. But of course. That’s the fashionable position to espouse.

…just like the current pedigree campaign of the Aquino family has become a fashion statement for people too lazy to think. Making a spectacle to demonstrate some form of productive action is easy. But true productivity is often the result of quiet achievement, thus…

When one leads a life of quiet achievement grounded on doing things properly, one is entitled to be free from the scrutiny and admonitions to be a bit more “aware” of the “less fortunate” coming from those who fancy themselves as some sort of “hero” of the poor and oppressed. There is absolute merit in calling for a change in our self-righteous penchant for calling one another to heroic and extraordinary deeds and instead find value in the collective effect of each individual doing their ordinary jobs properly and quietly.

Popular “heroes” fought disaster. The real unrecognised heroes, on the other hand, are those who worked smart to prevent them. Are there real heroes in Philippine society? The eminent blogger Abe Margallo apparently begs to differ, instead espousing form over substance:

Like GMA, Noynoy may have been pushed into the vicissitudes of power ahead of his time. But his youth informed by the martyrdom of his father which tormented the entire nation and his political career forged by an enduring devotion to democratic values bequeathed to him by his mother, and in the face of his relatively unblemished political career, it would be unwarranted for anyone to claim that, his radical reformative-bent notwithstanding, the commitment of Noynoy to democracy, liberty and social justice is only formal rather than substantive.

If we manage to cut through the verbose pomposity, we find that Margallo basically attempts to discredit those who make a critical evaluation of Aquino’s ability to govern and encourage a deference to his family’s pedigree. To give credit to Margallo, he is consistent with his go-with-your-gut proposition:

Are we better off if we simply hearken to our innermost gut instead of being framed by professional charlatans out there? After all, it’s not always the case that our choice of leaders would in the end be the perfect embodiment of all the causes dearest to our heart.

Indeed, your gut tells you to “fight” but then when your brain takes over to implement the order, it finds that it’s got nothing to work with.

The better way

Having shed light into the dumbness that continues to prevail in the Philippine National “Debate” I make some better propositions (hopefully ones that will eventually erase the immense damage done to our national psyche by “experts” such as Abe Margallo and his gang).

Proposition 1:

If we find that we struggle to come up with a plan better than one that involves a “fight” then let’s take up the matter with our politicians who supposedly possesss the intelligence and expertise to apply executive skills to the problem.

Proposition 2:

Let’s not get too caught up with gut reactions and too beholden to slogans, glossy posters, t-shirts, and websites that promise everything but offer nothing.

Proposition 3:

And let’s not lap up all this horsemanure about “giving up something” for the poor. Why give up something that you studied and worked hard to acquire. Instead, let’s take a more mature philosophy towards finding sustainable approaches to reducing (NOT “fighting”) poverty:

Instead of “giving up” something, let’s use what we already have more productively.

Giving up stuff is EASY. Finding better ways to use stuff is HARD and takes BRAINS. And it is always our approach of taking the easy way that keeps us chronically mired in that “poverty” everybody seems to be calling “fights” against.

Hopefully that irony does not yet again fly over everybody’s heads.

* * *

Terms of use and disclaimers relevant to this blog post

The reader shall note the following terms-of-use and disclaimers applicable to the consumption of this blog post.

1.0. Definition of terms

Smart people — people who exhibit a willingness or potential to apply sound thought processes in the evaluation of issues/options and in responding to challenges they face.

Dumb people — people who lack initiative or will to apply sound thought processes in the evaluation of issues/options and in responding to challenges they face.

Successful people — people who have fulfilled their aspirations according to their personal definitions of success.

Losers — people who have failed to fulfill their aspirations according to their personal definitions of success.

[Additional Reference: What is Your Personal Definition of Success? by Robert Wheeler]

2.0. Disclaimer

Given the above definition of terms to be applied in the use of certain words within the scope of this article, any adverse emotional response on the part of the reader elicited by said use will not be regarded by the author as relevant to actual points that comprise the message the author wishes to purposely convey in this blog post.

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25 Responses to The smart and the dumb

  1. HusengBatute says:

    I’m not particularly keen on entrusting the whole nation and its future on the shoulders of the bereaved simply in order to appease them, especially when this means compromising our nation’s well-being & going against my better judgment. My sympathy towards the rest of the Aquino family & my respect towards both parents are so great that I wish shameless political promoters and opportunists stop manipulating the public, by furthering a myth, in order to “push” Noynoy into the presidency.

    Democracy in an intelligent society results in an intelligent choice. Democracy run by a largely dumb electorate is like electing the class idiot to replace the school principal in running the school on the basis of popularity.

    I’m not sure why it should be assumed that the other candidates are necessarily dishonest by making it sound as if honesty is a quality peculiar to Noynoy.

    • Filo says:

      I’m not sure why it should be assumed that the other candidates are necessarily dishonest by making it sound as if honesty is a quality peculiar to Noynoy.

      The honesty pitch is actually Noynoy supporters’ attempt at repositioning their opponents. (Abuse of) Brand Marketing tactics at work.

      • BongV says:

        Noynoy’s honesty pitch is negated when presented with a candidate who is not only honest but who has been recognized and awarded by for his exemplary achievements.

  2. GabbyD says:

    “Losers — people who have failed to fulfill their aspirations according to their personal definitions of success.”

    this is an interesting definition. people are free to have personal definitions of success? then why cant we be all successful, by simply redefining our goals?

    • ErikB says:

      The definition seems purely subjective. It lacks an objective anchor. That definition seems to suggest that, as your question makes clear, one can attain success merely by pure self-definition. In this mystical world of self-definition, everyone’s a winner. Unfortunately, there is this problem of OBJECTIVE reality. Whether we like it or not, the outside world has its own definitions as well… Maybe a more a realistic definition of success would incorporate some objective measurements? Similar to what every law student learns in Criminal Law courses in law school (at least in the US)–the elements of a crime involves two key elements: INTENT and ACTION. Intent (whether specific or general-implied) forms the subjective component of the crime. Action is the objective component. Both must be present. The same dual components are in play in most early Protestant formulations of salvation (subjective Grace plus objective manifestations).

      Perhaps something similar can be applied to this post’s definition of “success”.

  3. ErikB says:

    In regards to NoyNoy, which candidate is Benign0 supporting for 2010? He’s already (repeatedly) attempted to show us why NoyNoy is a problematic candidate but can someone show me who he’s supporting and why?

    • Chino F says:

      At least it’s established by Benign0 that knowing what you want starts with knowing what you don’t want.

    • BongV says:


      It’s not so much as who he’s supporting, but the process by which he comes to support a candidate. Also, at this point in time, we don’t know enough of the candidates’ platforms thus, making a choice at this point is premature.

  4. ilda says:

    People who are unintelligent don’t really know that they are such. That’s why another term for the word stupid is dense. This is where the problem lies. How can someone who is dense or someone who is not aware that he is dumb have the desire or the initiative to take the effort to acquire knowledge for himself?

    A lot of commentators on Filipino Voices for example are too slow to realise that they don’t really understand the whole issue. One tries to explain to the other patiently the point but it gets lost and the argument just goes around in circles. The thing is, those who are on the dim-witted side are also a proud lot. They find no cause for concern with their lack of skill or wit. The issue of intelligence is really a big dilemma because it is hard to educate those who are not willing to learn.

    • uncle pinoy says:

      100% agree.

    • BongV says:

      A lot of the FV commentators and authors exhibit the arrogance of ignorance.

      Quoting from a 1984 article by W. V. Mayer entitled “The Arrogance of Ignorance” (emphasis added):

      Arrogance comes in a variety of forms. The arrogance of great wealth, the arrogance of great power, the arrogance of great beauty, and the arrogance of a great master are bearable because they rest on an acknowledged and measurable base. The arrogance of ignorance, however, is unbearable because it is rooted in smug satisfaction with being isolated from the facts of the case.

      To paraphrase the Canadian Cynic, – It’s not that the DE groups and their panderers are so horribly ignorant in their criticism; no, that’s not it. It’s that the ignorance is worn publicly and great pride. No fancy book larnin’ for those folks, no sir. They don’t know the first thing about governance but, rather than admit it humbly, they bellow it from the rooftops — their sheer, unadulterated ignorance is the very basis of their arrogance, and they wear their total lack of knowledge almost as a badge of honour.

  5. FreeSince09 says:

    Here lies a subversive thought, assuming that what you wish to create is a meritocracy what happens to the people who benefit from the status quo? If we somehow abandon this “pagan” mindset, what happens to the Oligarchs, the Churches and majordomos?

    • uncle pinoy says:

      They will have to compete to survive. Some will survive and some won’t. The pedigreed politician, for example, will have to ante up more than just his “brand name”.

  6. Chino F says:

    Unfortunately, it’s a world phenomenon. Dumb is in! The popularity of movies like Dumb and Dumber and Forrest Gump demonstrate this.

    By the way, Filipinos are not just waiting to see things taught in Tagalog. They want them taught in Bisaya, Bicolano, Hiligaynon, Waray and other Philippines languages you can think of (yes, I believe that they are languages, not dialects). It sparks a good question some of you already asked: why are all these tribes force-packed into one country?

    Another problem is our culture. There’s an established anti-intellectualism that is self-protecting itself. It’s like the superstitions in Africa saying that the doctors from other countries who are trying to treat AIDS are actually the ones bringing bad magic and even making the diseases. There’s even the corrupt idea that you’re not “really intelligent” unless you make loads of money! Even my sister had that idea. A long way to go here, I guess, before this country turns its intellectual footing around. But it needs opposing the traditions and beliefs the people here hold dear. You’re right, Freesince09… it’s a subversive thought. But I love subversive thoughts. >:)

    • GabbyD says:

      ” Dumb is in! The popularity of movies like Dumb and Dumber and Forrest Gump demonstrate this.”

      is this is a joke? 🙂

      • Chino F says:

        Haha, up to you to to decide whether it’s a joke or not, but what I see in the movies (and local TV especially!) often plays down intellectualism.

      • Filo says:

        In a debate at one of FV’s recent articles, someone did admit to me that the (unearned, IMO) trust many people give a certain “honest” candidate is largely due to their distrust in the other candidates. It seemed logical, until you realize that their distrust seems proportional to how smart the candidate is to be able to try and dupe the electorate. This here is the politics of distrust and division, and unwitting Filipinos who are played into it are participating at the expense of their own intellectual capacity by taking emotional shortcuts and consuming political pandering at face value.

        Anyway, a funny implications arises: If a candidate that is very smart (used in the context of tuso) is disfavored by voters especially masa voters who are the majority, does that mean that when they pick and even push Noynoy onto other people they think he (being supposedly the most popular candidate in recent surveys from SWS and IBON) is a half wit?

        If the answer there is yes, then congratulations to these people; they will get the president they deserve and they shouldn’t complain later on because they knew what they were getting into. If their answer is no, then the same people couldn’t distinguish between assumption and reality. Between the two, guess where the lazy thinker’s comfort zone lies.

      • GabbyD says:


        why is smart = tuso?

        surely, no one concedes that.

      • Filo says:

        @Gabs: You missed the word context. They’re not equal, but within that context, it’s also used as an excuse to refuse smart candidate(s), like rego did here and Bert did here.

      • GabbyD says:


        they are rejecting tuso — whether or nor the candidate is smart, at least thats what bert is saying, i dont know what rego wants to say 🙂

  7. benign0 says:

    @ ErikB/GabbyD,

    Yes, I purposely left the standard of success as a personal variable or “self-definition” (as you put it ErikB). After all, how much one needs to be happy is a personal choice.

    Having said that, there is still the matter of the difference between the sort of standards set by high-achievers for themselves and the sort of standards set by low- or non-achievers for themselves.

    If we as a people could hold hand to heart and tell ourselves honestly that we are happy with, and even proud of what we as a people have achieved, then so be it. We can crown ourselves a success story.

    With that in mind, perhaps these guiding questions will make these ideas a bit more relevant to today’s political “debate”:

    (1) How would we define a successful six year presidential term?

    (2) How would we measure what we define?

    (3) Given the above definition one may come up with, how would you go about choosing your presidential candidate?

    As Mr. Huseng Batute mentioned earlier:

    Democracy in an intelligent society results in an intelligent choice.

    A democracy is not only a government of and for the people. It is also one by the people.

  8. dodie barot says:

    Why vote? Why trust politicians?

    I came across this “iron rule of the oligarchy” principle. Its very interesting. It says that democracies eventually turn into oligarchies.

    As for government, some guy also said that it was a “gang of thieves writ large.”

    Maybe we should have lesser government. Every dynasty here already had its day.

  9. Zadkiel says:

    My teachers once said “There are no dumb student, they are just plain lazy”.

    People who lazy enough to depend on themselves simply depend on others, e.g. to alleviate them from their own plight. Sadly, they are really lazy to alleviate themselves from themselves.

  10. guilbautedsookie says:

    My parents used to scare me with stories of my grandfather being antisocial kasi he was intelligent. Now I am not afraid. If magiging katulad lang ako ng mga nagrereklamo na wala namang ginagawa, sana hindi na lang ako pinag-aral.

    I am not ashamed to say na I am intelligent, and I don’t tolerate stupidity. Lalo na this coming elections. The feeble-mindedness surrounding Noynoy’s purported victory run makes me cringe, kasi my parents did not send me to school to see this horror. I constantly question them WHY, pero the best they can come up with is that “values are inherited”.

    I refuse to say anything pa. I am already at risk of being disowned for not supporting Noynoy

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