Thursday, January 18, 2007

Intelligence is not egalitarian

Here are two recent takes on the burning question: What in the hell is the matter with American universities?

According to University President John Simpson, the problem is that the "pipeline of education" is broken. What he means by that is some students, the raw sewage of education I suppose, don't leave high school with the skills they need to do well in University. This assumes, I think, that all high school students, ideally, can do college-level work, but, high school is failing them in some way. Possibly.

The ever-controversial Charles Murray, meanwhile, says the problem is that American society is too dependent on the university degree. After all, some people just can't do college work. In fact, if the average I.Q. is around 100, then at least 50% of the population really has no business being in a university. So, why in the world should a position as manager of Budget Rent-a-car require a college diploma? In other words, screw the pipeline- there are some students who are simply too dense to fit through it.

In a sense, I think they're both right, but Murray is more right. High schools really do need to get their shit together- if none of their students can read or write, then they're doing something wrong. But, maybe what they're doing wrong is refusing to let some students get left behind. And maybe that's what's devaluing the high school diploma, as well as the college diploma.

We live in a liberal, enlightened, egalitarian, and democratic society. So, this is hard to accept:

Intelligence is not egalitarian.

Neither is beauty, actually. But, plastic surgery and cheap makeovers have essentially democratized beauty. Beautiful people are a dime a dozen. But, one thing that's struck me every time I've taught is that some of my students just aren't ever going to understand history. Not because it's profound or brilliant stuff, but because they simply can't concptualize the information and organize it in time and space. They just can't do it. And I'm guessing it's the same in all of their courses.

And I think we know this. We basically tell them what to parrot on the exams. We give them review sheets, we repeat things again and again, and we ask fill-in-the-blank type questions. If they can remember "N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestle's makes the very best!" they have the skills to pass our history class. If that doesn't work, we "bump the grades up". At least the professors do. But, often I think to myself that we're just lying. If I was told to pass only those freshmen who I thought were ready to do second-year, or even first-year university-level work... It wouldn't be more than 40% of them. No chance.

Maybe the problem with the pipeline is that it needs to be narrower.


Rufus said...

like i said, it's basic bell-curve mathematics. sad, somewhat harsh, but also somewhat unavoidable.

sometimes i wonder if it's just that these kids are entering school at ages that are wayyyyy too young. i wasn't ready until i was 19 maturity-wise, and even then, it's questionable. i've always heartily endorsed the taking-a-year-off-before-school to get some life experience, some time to blow off steam, and some time to really think about what you want without being in the cesspool of highschool. that said, if you don't have the brains, no amount of cramming will get you through combinatorics & optimization if you've decided to be an accountant.

love you, good luck on your exam.


clairev said...

wait...that was me...not rufus. damn.

The Pagan Temple said...

I think one problem is students are pushed into work they are not qualified for. One student may not be qualified to be a doctor or a lawyer, he might be more qualified to an artist or writer, or dance instructor. But when their parents are paying the bills, and the main breadwinning parent happens to be a layer or doctor, guess what Junior is going to be trying to achieve a degree in?

Rufus said...

Yeah, I knew a girl who absolutely loved literature, but her parents insisted that the become a dentist! Same deal- Dad was a dentist.

Claire might be on to something- we shouldn't allow them in before they're 21. It would also solve the problem of underage drinking.

Hiromi said...

I have to agree with Claire, too. Several years of actual life experience would first of all weed out people who realize they'd honestly rather to something else besides university, and make others appreciate the learning experience more. It seems like university is merely a socializing experience for many.

Neither is beauty, actually. But, plastic surgery and cheap makeovers have essentially democratized beauty. Beautiful people are a dime a dozen.

I take issue with this statement, though. Plastic surgery serves only to homogenize the population rather than creating true beauty. There've been studies that have shown that the faces that most people consider beautiful fit specific proportions, but so what. Don't we value things because they're rare?

sorry about the rambling, it's still early for me.

Rufus said...

Well, there's a sort of ethereal beauty that is still rare. I mean, Claire and I have talked for hours about Kate Moss. But, that sort of beauty has always been as rare as albinos. Those people are a little structurally abnormal, and since that look just can't be achieved through surgery, it will probably stay that rare. But, we're talking like .002% of the population. When you encounter people who are ethereally beautiful, you remember it for years. They're almost scary.

But, your standard variety garden "Beautiful Woman" or "Handsome Man" used to be a lot rarer too. If you look at photos of NY clubs in the 70s, you'll notice that very, very few of those people were Beautiful or Handsome. Now, if you walk around a mall, you'll see that they're everywhere! And none of them seem to have gotten the message that they're not special anymore! It's pretty easy to get your face to the right Attractive proportions through surgery, and it might well sell in Peoria. But, it sure 'aint memorable anymore.

So, I would say that ethereal, abnormal Beauty will always be rare. But Beauty as such is pretty quotidian. Maybe defects are going to start to be valued, since everyone has them corrected now! I should take pride in my weak jawline!

Jaesoreal said...

I agree to a point. Schools are failing. I don't think it is fair to give kids poor elementary, middle and high school educations and then say they are unfit for college. That is a huge problem where I am from. Some people don't need college. Some jobs shouldn't need degrees either. As far as the beauty thing goes, I have to say a lot of that is cultural in my opinion. To most african-americans (at least the ones I know), the people that white people consider beautiful are not THAT beautiful. I am sure, and have witnessed, whites feel the same about my picks of who are beautiful. The scale is biased by whoever created it and bent towards their disposition.

Rufus said...

I'm not saying that standards of beauty aren't cultural, although I wouldn't say they're totally cultural. I'm just saying that it's very easy to be beautiful now, even if you weren't born beautiful. Just a nip here and a tuck there and most people can be attractive, if not beautiful. I don't think it's a bad thing, although honestly, beautiful people can be extremely boring to talk to. So I wish that there were more funny looking people who were forced to cultivate an interesting personality!

I do agree that high schools are failing, since I see incoming freshmen who can't write a sentence. But, one way that they're letting the students down is that they're passing them through, even if they don't have the skills for the next level. I don't think that the students who can't write a sentence should be kicked out of school, but it's not leaving them behind to flunk them or make them repeat a grade.

I think, if we reformed the high schools, we could get a huge percentage of those students ready for university. But, we also have to admit that there have always been some people who just aren't cut out for university, and it shouldn't mean that they have to work at McDonald's.

Thanks for the comments!