Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Education assininity, and some odd questions

When I came back to the States, I'd been working as a teacher (among other things) for 13 years in four countries - not counting stints as a guest lecturer in a couple others.

I taught English at all levels: high school (fun but exhausting), college (better), adult education (best of all!) and a few times at the primary school level (my second favorite thing - right after rolling naked in broken glass.)

From time to time I'd heard about various lunacies in American primary and secondary schools, and more sinister stuff like totally unfounded accusations of sexual abuse, prosecuted by authorities with the help of "experts," who had to subject children to real abuse to get "evidence" of phony abuse.

Anyone remember that before Janet Reno incinerated 50-odd children in Waco, Texas, she warmed-up by sending a number of almost certainly innocent people to prison for terms up to and including life, on the most bogus charges you could imagine?

See here: http://www.opinionjournal.com/medialog/?id=105001974

and here, for example: http://blog.neo-libertarian.com/posts/1130795746.shtml

I wondered of course, if these cases were typical, even common, or just statistically rare extremes. But I nonetheless decided that I'd never under any circumstances get involved in primary or secondary education in America.

Now look here: http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=MTIwMWJmMjEzYzk5ZDYxNzEwNDViMmI0MjgzOWM1ZDQ=

at John Derbyshire's article, 'Short-changing the Gifted,' about the cancellation of more of the College Board's Advanced Placement exams.

Da Derb knows something about secondary education, if you follow another link provided, here: http://www.johnderbyshire.com/Opinions/Straggler/073.html

you'll see that some years back he taught at a special school for "Educationally Sub-Normal" boys in a Liverpool slum.

These were teen boys who, "Without their having any known physical, mental, or emotional abnormality, they had finished their primary schooling still unable to read or do basic arithmetic."

It's an interesting, and depressing article.

"It was depressing work, with little to show for months of effort. Perhaps the most depressing thing of all was that none of the boys was very capable at anything. To play soccer, for example, needs a modicum of thought as well as some minimal physical fitness. Our boys could not rise to it. The masters-boys soccer match was a rout of them, strapping 15- and 16-year-olds, by us, wheezy desk-wallahs with a median age around 40. Up to that point I had assumed that even seriously un-intellectual people must have some ability at something. That this is not necessarily the case, is one of the saddest true things I ever learned."

But to my mind what's really depressing is the quote from supposedly "normal," or even brighter-than average New York Times reporter Deborah Solomon, when interviewing Charles Murray, author of 'The Bell Curve' and 'Real Education.'

DS: "Europeans have historically defined themselves through inherited traits and titles, but isn't America a country where we are supposed to define ourselves through acts of will?"

CM: "I wonder if there is a single, solitary, real-live public-school teacher who agrees with the proposition that it's all a matter of will. To me, the fact that ability varies — and varies in ways that are impossible to change — is a fact that we learn in first grade."

DS: "I believe that given the opportunity, most people could do most anything."

CM: "You're out of touch with reality in that regard."

Note that comment in bold.

John Derbyshire's poor boys, for whatever reason, nature or nurture, could not help being what they were.

What's this woman's excuse? It takes a willful disregard of the evidence of everyday reality to come up with an assinine statement like that.

There's a word for people who do that habitually. The word is, "stupid." Dumb is forgivable, stupidity is not.

First of all, an observation. At a journalism seminar I attended a while back, the lecturer pointed out one of the principles of good journalism vis-a-vis interviews.

He said, "There is one star in the interview - and it isn't you."

An interview is a time to ask tough questions, not for a debate. There's a difference. Your own opinions might inform the questions, but it's the interview subject's opinions you're reporting on. Yours belong on the op-ed page.

Now for something totally different. A question that has bugged me for years, stemming from my background in anthropology.

Homo Erectus, thought to be our direct ancestor, appears from the skeletal remains to have been a small man from the neck down, and about half a man from the neck up.

Meaning, he had a cranial capacity about half the modern norm.

(Of course, Neanderthal man evidently had a cranial capacity about 300 CCs more than the modern norm, and everybody in the field really wonders what that means.)

Yet, he survived and thrived in environments as diverse as the African veldt to Java. And, he was less "strapping" than the Derb's students at that Liverpool school.

What is the difference, if any, between a modern retarded person and an archaic Homo Erectus, in terms of basic capability and ability to cope with life?

Next: I'm going to take on the other end of the spectrum, and reflect on the stupidity of the educated inteligentsia.


  • At 4:02 PM, Blogger Atomic said…

    What is the difference, if any, between a modern retarded person and an archaic Homo Erectus, in terms of basic capability and ability to cope with life?

    Do you mean retarded, which I tend to associate with some kind of developmental or genetic disorder, or just plain stupid, like Derb's boys?

    When Jared Diamond published his "Guns, Germs, and Steel", he drew a lot of flak for opining that the reason for the differences in civilization-level success for the New Guineans he'd gotten to know through his fieldwork and the Europeans that came to dominate the world was not racial IQ differences- and that, in his opinion, the average New Guinea kid was probably smarter in terms of overall IQ than the average first-world Western kid.

    The howls about Diamond's unforgivable PC-ness in saying such a thing rather drowned out what he said about WHY he thought this. (And, judging from some reviews, apparently the entire rest of the book, for some critics.) He opined that the childhood the New Guinea hunter-gatherers he knew went through- which was a constant interactive learning experience involving free-form play, learning to all the myriad number of things to do to function as a hunter-gatherer, and beginning the process of memorizing all the flora and fauna of the area, and their dangers and uses- produced an overall more intelligent and flexible individual. (Personally, I think the fact that their "school" always involved the possibility of real danger, instead of being the nerf world we seem to be aiming for for our kids, likely helped too.)

    It's pretty easy to see a version of this with the domestic animals we have, too; while it is possible to find a horse or dog with brilliant potential from the meanest and most behaviorally starved background (I'd probably chalk that up to inborn high intelligence), the odds are that a dog or horse that grew up as a mill animal with little or no experiences beyond its cage or pen will be dull and mentally and behaviorally stunted.

    What I'd want to know is what Derb's boys' backgrounds were- not necessarily abusive, but had they any experiences that were more varied and stimulating than the prefab, TV-fed childhood that first-world civilizations so excel at producing, at least before they were teenagers? How much happened to them that they didn't rapidly learn to expect?

    What I'm thinking is that early quality of learning and experiences of learning are what make that difference between two individuals of low to average native intelligence. A Homo erectus whose entire experience REQUIRED surviving in that diverse and challenging environment might, by virtue of those experiences, therefore have been functionally smarter.


  • At 12:03 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Which makes an excellent segue into my foray into the other end of the developmental spectrum...

    Some time ago, I heard someone claim that some Kung! San bushmen of the Kalahari desert, given supposedly "culture neutral" intelligence tests (meaning tests designed for non-literate people, shape association-type stuff) - went right off the scale.

    I've never found any written reference to this though. Anyone?

    Remember the story of Maria Montessori's first class?

    She asked for a chance to try out her theory of early childhood education - and was invited to try with a class of sub-normal children.

    In a year they were performing about up to the expected average for normal children.

    Everyone said, "How wonderful!"

    She said, how tragic! Your normal children are doing only as well as my poor fools.

  • At 4:59 PM, Blogger Ted said…

    Maybe those Liverpool kids were "autistic"...That's the new catch-all for everything the indoctrination establishment encounters it doesn't want to deal with: Dope 'em up, shove them in some "special ed" detention room with a "teacher" dumber than they are, and collect phat jack from Uncle Sam for your "assistance".
    There's genuine autism, then there are parents who like the nightclubs or society events more than being parents. Modern "education" enables their sloth quite well.
    After Jimmy Cahtah took the paddles away from the teachers and discipline from the government schools to accomodate the "civil" rights whiners, there was no bottom to which it could not sink.

  • At 5:45 PM, Blogger Atomic said…

    Unfortunately, no- and when I tried a bit of Google-fu on it I got buried in an avalanche of people trying to prove that Africa is screwed up because black people are genetically stupid. (This makes me horselaugh- there's more human genetic diversity on the African continent than the rest of the world combined.)

    I had actually never heard that story about Montessori, but after reading up a bit on her mehods, it makes sense. Neither human children nor other mammals do well when treated as passive vessels and automata.

    That's what really worries me the most deeply about the current slow crumble of our educational system; it's not the frequent political indoctrination and not the neutering of Western culture, science, math, and civics, it's the decline of literacy. Not basic functional literacy- can read a McDonald's menu and get through a TPS report- but deep literacy, so that reading a book of any level is as natural and fluid an experience as listening to someone talk.

    In a modern Western culture, books are the first, best, and most flexible way for a growing mind to take discovery into their own hands. Want to get a sense of a truly different time, place, and culture? Pick up a book written then and by a member of that culture. Want to explore ideas about how different and how the same our world could be if certain rules and assumptions were changed? That's what fantasy and science fiction are for. Want to know how it works, why it is, how to do? Welcome to nonfiction.

    In a lot of ways, widespread literacy was the springboard for a broad and imaginative intelligence outside of a setting where it wasn't necessary to be competent in a dozen or more things to survive. TV can educate, but it almost completely lacks the self-direction and depth...




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