When I recently taught elementary school for three days (cut short due to funding issues), I used the following sentence in class:

If you make a mistake when doing science, does this mean you’re stupid?  Of course not!

The meaning being, of course, that there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes when doing science, and that scientists should never be discouraged by lack of success in their experiments.

When I said the word “stupid”, there was a weird energy that went through the class.  I asked what the trouble was and they told me that “stupid is a bad word.”  When conferring with other teachers afterward, I learned that this was, indeed, the case.

I’m not sure how to feel about this.

I can understand why students would be discouraged to use the word “stupid” when speaking of themselves or others.  After all, if the word reaches taboo status, then it will be harder for people to think of each other as being inherently stupid or smart.  Saying that somebody is stupid has the same impact as using the n-word to describe somebody black.

It seems to me that this doesn’t really address the problem.  The n-word is inherently different than the word “stupid”, and not only in the intensity of the emotional impact that it carries.  Here’s what I mean:

  • Words like the n-word describe two things:  The negative stereotypes associated with a group of people as well as a descriptor of this group.  The n-word carries hundreds of years of bigotry and racism with it, but also describes a group of people based on an easily-determined characteristic (i.e. skin color).  The reason that the n-word and other slurs have such power is that it can be used against everybody who has this characteristic.
  • Words like “stupid” describe only one thing:  A single stereotype that can be applied to any group of people.  Black and white people can both be referred to as stupid.  When I call somebody “stupid”, I’m making a comment about a particular person as opposed to a larger demographic group.

Put another way, the word “stupid” isn’t a slur in the same sense as derogatory terms for specific groups.  Instead, it’s the idea of stupidity that educators are bothered by – it’s wrong to label somebody as being stupid because it aims negative stereotypes to them.

I’m OK with this, but disagree with how it’s applied in the case I referred to earlier. My comment didn’t describe something that makes people stupid – it instead reassures people that mistakes don’t equal stupidity.  Instead of reinforcing the concept of stupidity, it lets students know that they behavior they may have thought of as stupid is not stupid.  This particular use of the word doesn’t reinforce the idea – it breaks it down.

So, will I use the word “stupid” when talking to elementary school crowds in the future?  No.  Whether I agree with the nature of how this word is used, the fact remains that students don’t agree with me, and as a teacher it’s my goal to reach the students where they are.  I suppose this is how language changes, with each generation of dinosaurs giving way to younger generations that use better and less charged words.  Which is why my grandfather used to refer to “darkies” and just thinking the word makes me cringe.

And why my grandchildren will one day cringe when I make a casual reference to somebody being stupid.


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