Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part II)

with 3 comments

(This is the second part of longer discussion. See also part I.)

To continue with the topic of excellence:

My main concern is that excellence is very often not recognized, considered important, given opportunity to develop, …. Consider e.g.:

  1. Overlapping with part I, we have the obvious problem that too little specialization prevents excellence from being reached. A sad fact is that many go through their entire lives without being more than moderately good at anything—or have a sole area of excellence that is of little practical value*, e.g. because it arises out of a hobby.

    *This type of excellence is of course still personally satisfying and can help with personal development, but if we compare say an excellent physician who dabbles in Skyrim with a second-rate physician who excels at said game, who is more beneficial to society? Who is likely to better provide for his family? Who can make a better life for himself?

    An obvious observation is that people who specialize earlier can reach excellence earlier—and when it comes to reaching the very highest top, to be one of just several of the best in world at something, early specialization is often a necessity. The type of “Jack of all trades” schooling that I discuss in part I could turn out to be severely detrimental when it comes to producing e.g. Nobel-Prize winning physicists. Indeed, if school was the only source of education/training, it would be a massive obstacle; those who excel usually do so through own efforts on top of school—or, at least in earlier times, instead of school. What if Mozart had had the one or two hours of music class a week that I had—and then decided to be a professional composer or concert pianist after graduating high school?

  2. The way schools, including colleges, too often have an “everyone gets a trophy” approach, where dumbing down and grade inflation hides* many differences, while feedback that could cause students to realize weaknesses and move forward is suppressed. Similarly, one of the greatest benefits of higher education was the filter effect present: Having received a certain degree was a far stronger sign of accomplishment and ability than it is today.**

    *When even merely decent students can get A’s, how do we tell who is decent, good, very good, …? (Aside from problems not directly relevant to this post, like how to compare grades from different generations.)

    **Which also implies that the higher rate of college graduates, unlike what naive politicians like to believe, does not increase the overall excellence to a very high degree (in a worst case, the effect could actually be negative): In order for every larger numbers of students, with a lower and lower “least common denominator”, to actually graduate, the requirements have to be lowered correspondingly. This not only contributes further to the weakening of the filter effect, but it also implies that the better students learn less and less compared to what they once would have learned.

  3. How members of too many professional groups are seen as fungible, e.g. (in my area) the grossly incorrect belief that any software developer can be a drop-in replacement for any other. Such misconceptions are common among e.g. politicians, managers, and those within the respective profession whose own low competence hamper their judgment (cf. Dunning–Kruger).

    This is particularly dangerous in areas like social reform, where just increasing the number of graduates in a field, members of a profession, whatnot, is seen as sufficient to solve problems. (See also the preceding footnote.)

    It is also an at least partial explanation of e.g. the constant German employer complaint about “Fachkräftemangel”*, while media and politicians point to the many unemployed who would love to have this-or-that position. The point is not that too few are interested, nor even necessarily that they lacked the right qualifications on paper. The (partial**) true explanation is found in the lack of candidates who actually have the skills needed. This is particularly interesting in the case of the German apprentice system: College skeptics in e.g. the U.S. point towards Germany and suggest that something similar be implemented in lieu of sending everyone to horrendously expensive colleges—while the German system is starting to fail, because not enough quality apprentices can be found. Why can they not be found? Because the potentially attractive candidates go to college*** instead…

    *Effectively, that employers cannot find sufficiently many qualified people to hire. I have been unable to find a truly satisfactory translation, but “skill shortage” and “higher skill shortage” have a great overlap, while Wikipedia suggests “labour shortage”. A combined “skilled labour shortage” comes close to being a literal translation.

    **Another partial explanation is the lack of people who both have the skills and are cheap. This is on-topic when we look at highly proficient people being underpaid (because employers misprioritize); it is off-topic when we look at employees who simply do not bring enough value to offset their price tag.

    ***In all fairness, college is much, much cheaper in Germany, implying that the cost–benefit analysis looks different compared to the U.S.

  4. The increase of “commoditization” as fields once relatively small and relatively filled with highly competent people grow and are increasingly filled with less competent people, lose in status, see individual experts be replaced by companies providing “experts” (or hiring real experts for a lower salary while pocketing the gains originally available to the expert); or where typical tasks are increasingly moved to a less prestigious role.* The IT world provides good examples, where e.g. the growth of software (and in particular web) development has caused employers to cast quite wide nets to fill positions, including hiring many people who are outright unsuitable for the job; how the type of contracting I do is getting a bad reputation because of the many people entering the field with more wish for money** than ability; or how the field is saturated with “talent agents”, often forming chains, just interested in getting a commission for having (in analogy) brought talent and show in connection, and see no down-side when the cooperation does not work out—anyone is as good as the next, as long as the money flows…

    *Which is not to deny that this can have positive effects too. Commoditization, which is a quite common phenomenon as time goes by, is usually bad for (the provider of) the commodity but often good or good to a certain degree for the customer. It becomes bad for the customer too, when e.g. he cannot differentiate between who or what is worth the money resp. when spending more money gives a sufficient return on investment and when it is a waste, or when what he gets for the money is largely a matter of luck.

    **At the same time putting a downward pressure on hourly and daily rates, through a mixture of over-saturation and the customers’ common inability to see differences in ability (but ability to do see differences in price).

  5. Related to commoditization is the problem of using criteria for e.g. raises and promotions that are not based on performance and ability (for instance age or years of employment), as can happen in e.g. the civil service or in areas where wages are set more-or-less in a blanket manner based on employer–union negotiations. A major problem for Swedish companies who want to down-size is that they often have to let people go by the last-in–first-out principle, which can imply letting the newly hired star-to-be go and keeping someone who has spent the last twenty years barely avoiding being fired for incompetence and negligence.
  6. Variations of the “tall poppy” syndrome, where those who excel are disliked, looked down upon, or even sabotaged—starting in school with “teacher’s pets”, “geeks”, and “nerds”.* This to a point that I have heard claims that some boys, especially from macho cultures, deliberately abstain from study to not lose street cred and coolness points. In adult life, the problem likely grows smaller, both due to greater maturity and less competition/more collaboration; however, it definitely still exists, especially when weaker employees feel themselves threatened by stronger new comers.

    *Which is not automatically to say that everyone classified as such actually excels, only that those who do excel academically are often given such names.

  7. Likely strongly overlapping, extreme “social justice” positions.

    “Harrison Bergeron” depicts the phenomenon taken to its absurd conclusion, but real-life examples include e.g. such simple things as a teacher telling parents to not allow a child to read more advanced books at home than the school provides—because this would be a “social injustice” towards the other children and an “unfair” advantage for their own… (Sadly, I have read about a quite a few such cases over the years, be it from the U.S., Germany, or Sweden. The latter was long permeated by an attitude that it was better for everyone to have the same, even if it meant making things worse for one party without improving them for another…)

As an aside, it can pay to keep in mind that society, communities, organizations, …, are often better of with specialists than with generalists. Would you rather have two “physician/lawyer”s or one specialized physician and one specialized lawyer in your town? Would your employer be better off with two “accountant/janitor”s or one of each specialization? (Which is by no means to say that it is bad to know something of other fields—quite the contrary. The point, cf. part I, is rather that depth should precede breadth—not the other way around, as is currently the case.)

As a further aside, the above issue with grades and degrees that lose the power to differentiate is likely part of a wider problem. I note e.g. that the U.S. SATs and other tests with a similar purpose (including the Swedish “Högskoleprovet”) often have problems with a gradual dumbing down and/or attempts to skew the results. For instance, every now and then Högskoleprovet is changed to “correct” the “problem” that men tend to score higher than women—without stopping to consider the possibility that this is not an effect of the test but of natural differences*. Unsurprisingly, such attempts tend to fail, unless they are willing to drop the ability to differentiate between those of greater and lesser suitability for studies (which is the actual purpose of the test). A possibly related issue is that the “verbal” part of the SATs are allegedly a better proxy for I.Q. than the “math” part—flying in the face of both common sense and practical experience. If true, the explanation is likely that this is an artifact caused by 1. the higher average and larger standard deviation of the math part, 2. the greater dumbing down of the same. For instance, it is far easier to get a perfect 800 on the math part, not to mention being among those who miss it only through sloppiness, and once there the test can no longer differentiate. However, the latest change (that I am aware of) might go in the other direction—through removing “too hard”** words, the difficulty of the verbal (!) part could drop, weakening the SATs ability to serve as an I.Q. proxy further, as well as reducing its discriminatory powers in general.

*This is the more absurd, because it is not necessary to consider men, in some sense, better for this to hold true. For instance, it could be that the better school grades of female high-school students simply implies that less of those who want to go to college have to take the test, thereby skewing the samples of test takers… As an example of where a naive approach to differences can lead: In a somewhat recent change, the math part was increased to favour women (!)—and it ended up favoring men. (A male advantage in math ability is very well established; however, the test makers reasoned that because women had better math grades in high school, women would have an advantage.)

**The rational appears to be to just test words that could reasonably be needed to understand college literature. While superficially reasonable sounding, this removes (above a certain cut-off) the implicit earlier check of how well-read and knowledgeable the students are. At the same time, it increases the risk of further dumbing-down of college literature and SAT in a vicious circle.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 19, 2017 at 12:43 am

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] (This is the third part of longer discussion. See also part I and part II.) […]

  2. […] ***Secondary education which is longer and decidedly tougher than U.S. high school—but still well short of a U.S. bachelor. (The former is more comparable to the “mittlere Reife” than to the Abitur.) Also see [2]. Note that Germany, to some degree, already performs the type of filtering that I wish, but is increasingly falling into the “everyone must have the Abitur” trap and, thereby, moving in the wrong direction, towards less excellence. […]

  3. […] I have a follow-up text in planning with some ideas of how to go about this. Also see e.g. [1], […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s