until we acknowledge that, there can be no coherent discussion of education
My mom was a teacher and a great one but she always seemed to believe, in a flower child kind of way, that we could all be doctors or engineers if we wanted to. I think I mostly believed her until my husband and I adopted our children. Want some back up for the power of genetics? Ask an adoptive parent. Both of our kids were adopted as infants. One is social-butterfly artist that everyone likes but couldn’t make change to save her life. The other one scores in the top percentiles on everything academic and has the social skills of a lovable brick wall. I think our emphasis on education and our financial ability to give them opportunities has definitely enhanced their lives, but we have had zero to do with their skill sets.
Along the same lines, not sure if I’ve missed it but would love to read your thoughts on gender differences in education and the decreasing numbers of boys succeeding in high schools and choosing to attend college. Touring colleges with our daughter this has become really evident.
> why on earth would I pretend that an aerospace engineer’s talents are as easy to come by or acquire as that of a skilled barista?
Thank you for helping me to articulate why this viral tweet (21k likes) has been irritating the shit out of me:
"If you have a robust skincare routine you have demonstrated aptitude in many core skills of data science. I will not be taking criticism of this idea. Girls who have developed personalized skincare routines know more about multivariate causal inference than many engineers."
I want young girls to feel good about themselves. But we don't need to tell them that shopping at Sephora means they're data scientists.
One more thing. It's both interesting and frustrating that 100% of what you say here applies equally to sports and games, and pretty much everyone seems to be cool with that. I.e. 99% of people agree that OF COURSE some people are *much* better at basketball or tennis or chess, that you can spot that ability very early on, that no matter how hard you try you will never be as good as Serena or Roger, and - maybe a tad more controversially - that while every kid (and adult) should enjoy playing, of course it makes more sense to invest more in young Serena than in my daughter. This is all glaringly obvious. But intellectual ability? Yikes!
Failure to admit that there are stark differences in abilities, whether from intrinsic and extrinsic sources, leads to the corrosive belief that the poor are poor because of some moral failing and the wealthy are wealthy because of some moral superiority.
Yes. A very quick story. I have a nephew, now 30, who is VERY smart, a good student, now a software engineer at Google, etc. When he was 12 or so he started playing chess, and became serious about it: books, problems, and then a tutor, an old Russian master, that he would visit every week. After a few months of this, he came to the tutor's house one day, and there was a 7-year old girl there. "Play her," he said. My nephew felt a bit weird, but he sat down across from her, and in a few minutes she crushed him. Then she did it again. And again. That day he realized that even though he loved the game, and would continue to enjoy it, she *had* something that he did not have, and that was the end of his chess "career." So, yes, of course.
It's simple: it undercuts meritocracy, which much of the left has taken on-board, consciously or not. People don't like being told they're successful for reasons outside of their control/effort, and they really don't like being told they are excluded from success due to flukes of heritage. Just World cuts deep. The successful in society are highly invested in believing that their success is legitimate, and the unsuccessful are often conned into believing their failure is their own fault.
If you really want to have fun, dig into health privilege or beauty privilege. People really really really don't like that, say, an unattractive woman is more likely to be judged guilty by a jury than an attractive woman. In my experience they'll do everything possible to reject that such a thing is possible.
You only touched on it briefly, but the expectations surrounding coding are insane. I've been doing it professionally for 20 years, have a degree from a great university and have worked at very good companies. Only in the past few years have I started to feel like I'm actually good at it.
The fact that a smart grad student struggles with it should tell us that maybe not all kids are going to pick up on it. But nope, lets treat it like math and torture 90% of students with it...
This is the central contradiction: “ We are already asking the impossible of our education system, expecting it to reward excellence and create equality at the same time.” We can’t do both.
as usual on this topic you are on target and succinct and articulate. It isn't actually all that hard to understand of figure out, all of us have been in school. Some people are better at it than others. End of story. The issue is complex and inevitably involves capitalism as well as cultural social goals. As with most things that point out problems in capitalism the conversation is immediately hijacked, directed in a different direction.
The problem, which is rarely articulated, is that mandatory schooling, when it was initiated, had one primary goal. That is, it was intended to integrate immigrants into the American culture, to give them a common language and to immerse them in our cultural mythology. (Mandatory schooling was a response to the major immigrant influx late nineteenth- early twentieth-centuries.) That is still one of its important functions but one which the system itself no longer seems to understand.
Later it became child care for the children of parents who were subsumed into the industrial/capitalist economic system. A function it still serves. The pandemic has a great many things, this is one of them. It is, in essence, forced child care to serve capitalism's goals.
While there had always been an intellectual elite in this country, after WWII the demand for producing more STEM-trained workers forced a broadening and lengthening of schooling. That is, children were forced to attend for years longer than they had when mandatory schooling began (this was accompanied with an extension of childhood to age 18). As well, the demand for mental training was broadened across the entire population rather than merely the intellectually inclined.
So, in order, schooling in this country is: absorption into the cultural myth, child care for the capitalist system's employees, and as a tacked on later function mental training in STEM fields to produce particular kinds of employees for the capitalist system. It is not and never has been about education (which is very different than schooling -- schooling is what you do to dogs and horses).
As an added point, STEM fields generally demand mental processing based around visual/didactic processing of data. If you happen to be kinesthetic/aural you are SOL when it comes to doing well. If you happen to dislike STEM because of a highly developed aesthetic sense then you are SOL in the current system. If you happen to be (and yes they exist) olfactory/gustatory, while you might make a great chef you will not do well in STEM. And finally, there are just people who find the whole sitting in a crappy schoolroom in a crappy desk chair all day excruciating. They are not going to do well either.
If these functions are not clearly recognized and dealt with directly . . . well, what you get is the mess we are already in. The question, clearly, is one that Freddie has clearly articulated, what do you do with the large mass of people who don't fit into STEM fields? Who don't care? Who would rather be out building houses or making pottery or repairing cars or writing poetry? They don't fit into the system, they are not going to be good on tests, they are throwaway. And finally, there are the people who simply don't have a lot of mental acuity (the bell curve actually exists, that is, if you want to look at living systems or people through that lens, which i don't particularly care to). What do you do with people who, when viewed from that perspective do not have much mental acuity?
Freddie is right on this point, as are many other people. The system needs to take into account human dignity, the right to needs being met, the right for our culture, our democracy, and its people to be based on something other than utility to unrestrained corporate capitalism. The "educational" system in this country is a scam. That is why i stepped outside it long ago. It doesn't really fit most people. More succinctly, despite my being gifted in theoretical mathematics (for example) when i discovered that I could not find compassion in mathematics. empathy in botany, ethics in physics (and so on), it was time to do something else before my immersion in those fields affected those human attributes inside me.
We can see the impact of the loss of respect for those (and many other) human attributes in how our culture is now oriented, in the damage to our world (which we can see in every clear cut landscape and open pit mine), in every homeless person, in every out of work father and mother in this country, in every hungry child, in every useless war overseas, in brutalist architecture, in the climate of mind in which our culture lives every day of our lives.
Education is about something other than schooling, being human is about something other than usefulness to the corporate machine, democracy is about something other than what we have now.
Freddie, first of all I love it when you write on education. Bought your book and have been meaning to write a review, but life has interfered so far.
The conceptual gap in mainstream education thinking is real, and you're right to harp on ability. But I think your model could use some work too. Falling through the cracks doesn't mean simply performing poorly, it means not doing as well as your ability allows. It's silly to assert that no child underperforms because of a poor educational experience. Scott Alexander and others have written paeans to how terrible their school experience was. What we have is far from the best of all worlds, and while acknowledging natural ability, we also need to acknowledge the failings of the current system. Just the fact that interest in a topic is an afterthought is huge!
Academic ability is certainly genetic to a large extent, but so is height. And yet you still have kids who grow up to be six inches taller than their parents because of better nutrition. There are smart kids in bad schools who could be six inches taller, and it would benefit them and society to see them reach their potential.
So let's go for a Hegelian synthesis here. Rather than simply railing against the dumb mainstream thinking on education, let's talk about what an ideal educational system might look like and how we get closer to it, taking into account natural ability and family setting but also how school works.
"I don’t understand why we would pretend that academic or intellectual ability doesn’t exist, and act as though that attitude is a prerequisite to be a progressive person who desires equality of rights, dignity, and human value."
Because if we pretend that everybody has equal intellectual potential, we can then blame either the individual, as the right has done, for their "failure" to achieve the arbitrary academic standards set forth in whatever the evaluation du jour is, or as the left has done, blame larger social circumstances like poverty and racism. Both in a way deny the inherent dignity and value of each person and what they can contribute to their families and communities.
If you buy into the idea that somebody who dropped out of high school is somehow to blame for their lack of education and that they COULD have done well if they just had more grit, then it is OK to pay them shit wages, jerk them around with just-in-time random shift schedules--after all, if they want a better job, they COULD just go get more education!
We have the educational system that we do because it serves the interests of capital. Convince labor that it's their own darn fault if they aren't software engineers or pundits so that they don't demand to be compensated decently for their labor.
I came to this substack after reading _The Cult of Smart_ (which-I think I heard you & Joe Rogan discuss) so I have that background. Your book really helps people to understand that range of abilities and different abilities are ok. I know intelligence is a minefield. Librarians spent a lot of time on books for adult new readers trying to engage non-readers. Some will never do like to read and are more visual or oral. But getting away from intelligence...why is it ok for some people to be sports super stars and others not? Or musical and others not?
I appreciate that you mention coding at the end, which can be one of the most defeating intellectual activities. It has a special way of blackholing all the energy you put into it.
I write code for my day job, but I was never a great math / science student growing up. In my opinion, most people who code professionally are relatively mediocre at it (myself included). You can get better at it if you have tons and tons of time (and maybe a good teacher). An infinite fund of Captain Ahab-style rage against the stupid machines also helps. But the people who are truly good at it are very very rare, and even professional coders look askance at them.
And anyway this all fits with your point of view about intellectual ability. I thought this piece was a memorable synthesis of your ideas on this topic.
Programming isn't a perfect example, because it's not just about raw intelligence. I know some extremely sharp people (yourself apparently included) who couldn't get into the coder headspace to save their lives. Some of them can, when necessary, code, but it's not their careers, and they'll never "grok", intuitively understand, the art. Don't get me wrong, you have to have intelligence, but it's a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition. It's not a coincidence so many of us, myself included, are 'spergy-ass weirdos -- oh, sorry, "on the spectrum".
"But why on earth would I pretend that an aerospace engineer’s talents are as easy to come by or acquire as that of a skilled barista? I want to fight for equality in full view of reality, please. I suspect that most everyone knows that some jobs are realistic occupations for a small number of people and thus more remunerative, but feels it’s impolite to say so. Adams’s real sin was saying out loud what polite liberal society has decided should be understood but not said."
Not only does this stuff matter for practical and policy reasons, but it matters because when the online left does this kind of performative lying they're eroding their general credibility. When you're claiming that a barista job is a deeply complex thing that the majority of Americans couldn't train for in a few days - everyone knows that isn't true! Your future claims about taxes and welfare will be regarded by outsiders with increased skepticism.
I totally agree with this post.
I do think that wealth/power has the ability to create the *impression* of intelligence, and that at least some attacks on the concept of intelligence are actually attempting to attack the upper-middle-class-smart-person-complex. There are certain cash-grab graduate programs available to anyone with money to convert into an Ivy League degree. There are white-collar jobs that really do consist of dicking around on a spreadsheet all day. I don't think that an aerospace engineer's talents are as easy to come by as a barista's, but I do think there are a lot of people who think they're Smarter than a barista because they had the grades and extracurriculars to go to a Good School or they have an emails job instead of a service job or they bought a terminal degree in a relatively non-rigorous field. I totally get the impulse to attack those people and the idea that certain signifiers are equivalent to intelligence. That said, the correct response is not that there's no such thing as intelligence or that all skill sets are created equal.