Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘college

A potential revamping of college tuition

leave a comment »

With regards to college/university there is a subset of problems that could be partially resolved in a simple manner:

  1. In order to ensure a high degree of equality of opportunity and social mobility, it must be possible even for people with low income and little wealth (be it own or when looking at the parents) to gain degrees. (Assuming that they are intelligent and hard-working enough to succeed with the academic side of the equation—few misconceptions are more dangerous than the belief that college creates diamonds out of charcoal.)
  2. Colleges cost money to run, and it is not optimal to finance them through public funds. Not only is the use of “someone else’s” money a bad idea in general, but here those that do not go to college are disadvantaged in an unfair manner.

    Note that this affects the U.S. too, because of the considerable “financial aid” given. Notably, the financial aid is also a driving force behind tuition increases—when the economically weaker buyers of a uniform product are given more money, the sellers have strong incentives to raise prices. The price raise then hits everyone, while only the weaker where given aid, which increases the group that would benefit from aid. To boot, the original aid receivers do not benefit as much as intended, creating a wish for more aid per person. Here there is a risk of a vicious circle.

  3. Academically poor students tend to cost a lot more money than the better students, e.g. in that they require more support outside of lectures and that they are the main reason why the highly inefficient lecture system is still “needed”.
  4. There is a severe over-inflow of students not suitable for college, who force further dumbing down, weaken graduation criteria, etc.
  5. In tuition-heavy countries, colleges have an artificial incentive to let students graduate, pass, get good grades, or even be admitted, irrespective of whether they have actually earned it.
  6. Excessive income, as e.g. with some U.S. colleges, leads to waste, including an every growing administration.

    (As an overlapping special case, it could be argued that the U.S. campus system is an evil per se, and that the students would be better off paying directly for own and independent housing, as they do in e.g. Sweden and Germany, rather than to pay the colleges to provide housing. Certainly, my impression of the living environment, from U.S. fiction and general reputation, points to it being positively harmful to someone who actually wants to study, which would make it a doubly poor use of money.)

  7. If only partially relevant: Popular programs* often have to reject even qualified students.

    *I use “program” to mean something at least somewhat structured, with an at least somewhat separate admission, and similar. Due to the wide variety of systems in use, this word need not be suitable everywhere. Note that the word “major” would implicitly exclude e.g. master programs and med school, which makes it highly unsuitable, even other potential concerns aside.

Consider the following solution sketch*:

*It is highly unlikely that this sketch would be viable without modifications and there are details to clarify. Complications include what exact numbers to use, whether borders should be sharp or fuzzy, what criteria should determine who belongs where, whether percentages or absolute numbers are better, how many categories are reasonable, what conditions are best suited for what category, …

Colleges are by law forced to let the top 10 percent of students study for free, with costs covered by the colleges’ funds.* Students from 10 (exclusive) to 30 (inclusive) percent are charged approximately at cost**. Students from 30 (exclusive) to 60 (inclusive) percent are charged at cost + some reasonable*** markup. The remaining students can be charged whatever the college wants. There is no additional financial aid.

*It is of fundamental importance that the colleges’ money be used. If, e.g., government money was given to the colleges to cover the costs, the system would fail.

**Based on a reasonable estimate of how much each student costs with regard to what directly relates to the education, e.g. salaries to professors for the courses taken, but not e.g. the cost of running the administration or various sports programs.

***Possibly, 500 or 1000 EUR/semester (resp. the purchasing-power adjusted equivalent in local currency), or some percentage of the costs (on top of the costs themselves).

In such a set-up, worthy students will rarely have financial problems; colleges can still earn plenty of money (but with less issues of insane surpluses); a very wide admittance would be possible, but the academically less* fit would tend to disappear when they discover that they fail to score well enough to study cheaply, which increases the quality of the graduates; etc. Note especially that while colleges might still have incentives for over-admission and “over-passing”, the students so favored would still need to pay their fees, and these incentives will then be largely countered by incentives for said students to drop out**. To boot, the colleges only have incentives to keep the students on—not to give them better grades than they deserve or to let them graduate before they have reached a certain standard.

*Note that these need not be unfit when it comes to a competitive program. In such cases, the effect is not so much a removal of the unworthy as it is a filtering based on result, where today a filtering based on expectation of result takes place. For instance, instead of admitting those with a GPA of 4.0 and leaving the 3.9s lying, a program could admit the latter too, and then let the students filter themselves out based on actual performance over the first few semesters. (But there might still be some programs where this type of increase is not plausible.)

**From the given program at the given college. It is quite possible that studies are continued with more success in a different program and/or at a different college.

In countries where various forms of public funding pay for significant portions of the cost and tuition is kept very low, this scheme would allow the introduction of higher fees (without negative effects on worthy students) and a corresponding reduction of the cost to the public: Instead of effectively shelling out money to everyone who wants to study, the money is limited to the worthy—or even to no-one, because the worthy are already covered by the fees paid by the unworthy.

Also note that the restriction on costs includable in the two mid-categories give incentives to keep administration and other overhead down. For instance, if a professor is given a raise, ninety percent of students can be charged extra—but for an administrator, it is only the bottom forty. Ditto if the number of professors respectively administrators per student is increased.

Excursion on actual costs:
Keep in mind that the actual cost of a student is much, much lower than what some U.S. fees could make one believe—this especially when we look at a “marginal”* student or a student bright enough to learn from books (instead of lectures) and to solve problems through own thinking (instead of being led by the hand by TAs). As I have observed, it would sometimes be cheaper for a handful of students to pool their money to hire a dedicated, full-time professor than to go to a U.S. college.

*I.e. an additional student added to an existing class, who will typically add far less to the overall cost than could be assumed by calculating the average cost per student.

To exactly quantify costs is hard to impossible, when looking at e.g. differences in class sizes, salaries of professors, the type of equipment needed or not needed in different courses, what type of work* the students have to present, etc. However, for a good student taking non-wasteful courses, the marginal cost might be a few hundred Euro per semester, and a few thousand should be plenty in almost any setting and even on average.

*Compare e.g. a math course with one or two tests to a writing course with a handful of essays, all of which should be given insightful feedback. (Whether they are given such feedback, I leave unstated.)

Excursion on percentages:
When percentages are used, we can have situations like someone dropping out of the top 10 percent because others dropped out entirely.* Originally, I saw this as negative; however, on further thought, in might work out quite well, seeing that the limit will grow tougher in the more advanced years, stimulating competitiveness and keeping the level of those who graduate even higher. However, some type of fail-safe might be beneficial, e.g. that the percentages are converted to absolute numbers at the beginning of each semester. (If there were a hundred students to begin with, the ten best students are guaranteed top-level status, even if the class has shrunk to ninety at the end of the semester.)

*E.g. because he was the tenth best student in a class of one hundred, and is now the tenth best in a class of ninety.

Excursion on choice of college, program, whatnot:
A potentially positive side-effect is that strong students have new incentives to consider less popular colleges and programs. For instance, someone who could be accepted to Harvard, but with a considerable risk of having to pay, might prefer a college where he is almost guaranteed to be a top-10-percenter. Such decisions might in turn have effects like creating a downward pressure on tuition fees of expensive colleges, spreading talent more uniformly, reducing the “networking effect”* of top colleges, etc.

*According to some, the main benefit of going to e.g. Harvard is not the level of the education, but rather the career-boosting contacts made there. Also note that networking is often just a form of corruption—something that damages an employer and/or society for the benefit of the networker. Such damage can e.g. occur when someone is hired because of “whom he knows” rather than “what he knows”.

Excursion on the freedom of the colleges:
One negative effect is that it limits the freedom of colleges regarding pricing, which could have negative market implications and/or be ethically dubious. This complication should be seriously considered before an implementation is attempted.

A reconciliation might be to only put some categories of colleges under the suggested system, including all that are state owned/run, all that have received non-trivial public support within some number of years prior to the “now”, and all that have directly or indirectly benefited from financial aid to their students in the same time frame.

However, if push truly comes to shove, this is one area where even such a strong regulation would be acceptable to me—in light of the catastrophic decline of higher education over the last few decades and the great threat that an even further decline poses.

Excursion on living costs:
In a non-campus system, topics like rent might need additional attention. It might e.g. be necessary to allow some amount of financial aid, preferably in the form of loans, to cover such costs. However, importantly, this would be something between the government and the student—with the college having nothing to gain. Further, it is not a given that such aid would be necessary on a larger scale, especially as societies grow more affluent: For very many, living with the parents, monetary help from the parents, working summers, private loans based on expected future income, or similar, can provide a solution that does not use tax-payer’s money and does not have a major impact on success in college.

Remark concerning “Thoughts around social class”*:
This text is not strictly a part of that text series, but there is some overlap and the implied division of students into more and less worthy categories is highly compatible with an intended future installment.

*See e.g. the last installment published at the time of writing.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 26, 2018 at 7:29 am

Bad at math/Follow-up: College material

with one comment

A topic with some overlap with my recent text on “college material” is math ability and its interpretation: The world is apparently filled with people who are (a) highly intelligent, (b) have a weak spot specifically for math, even to the point of struggling with the principles of fractions.

The sad truth is that these people are almost* certainly not intelligent—they merely believe that they are, because the material they encounter in other fields requires too little thinking to learn, or to get a good school grade, for an intelligence deficit to become obvious. If someone is taxed by understanding** something as basic as fractions, elementary trigonometry, or high-school algebra, this points to serious limitations—even in the face of e.g. a later bachelor*** in a soft field.

*Exceptions might exists, possibly relating to some neurological condition; however, if they do, they are likely rare and I am not aware of any example in my personal experiences. There have been some cases of someone using the “I am intelligent, just weak at math” claim—all of which have been fairly stupid.

**As opposed to memorizing some rules about how to use fractions—those with an understanding can derive the rules when they need to. Further, as opposed to just finding math boring and not bothering to put in the effort. (Here a part of the problem with other fields might be found: Understanding can be quite important in these fields too, but is often entirely unnecessary to pass the grade or to create the self-impression of having mastered the topic, implying that a lack of understanding is not punished and that the student might not be aware of his lack of understanding.)

***Indeed, a disturbingly large proportion of the population seems to jump to the conclusion that anyone with a bachelor is intelligent—irrespective of field, grades, effort needed, and how much was actually understood (cf. the previous footnote).

I once heard the claim (and I would tend to agree) that we all have a point where math becomes “too hard”—the difference lying in the when and where. Comparing fractions with some of the math I encountered as a graduate student is like comparing splashing about on a flotation device with elite swimming—to fail at the former is a disaster. (And note that there are further levels yet above what I encountered even at the graduate level—just like not all elite swimmers are Olympians, not all Olympians win a gold, and not all Olympic winners are Michael Phelps.)

Generally, the impression of math created in school does not have much to do with true math: Math is not about knowing or being able to calculate that 13 + 25 = 38. It is about things like being able to reason, spot a flaw in an argument, find an overlooked special case, solve problems, come up with creative solutions, think abstractly, abstract the specific and find the specific in the abstract, see similarities and differences, … While there might be some room for having more or less math-specific talent (and definitely interest) for two people who are equally good at these skills, the skills are quite generic and translate into any number of other areas, including everyday life. Indeed, I would not trust anyone unable to understand fractions with any decision of importance or in an even semi-important role—not because understanding fractions is vital, but because the inability points to more general deficits.

Using math as a proxy for being “college material” is a plausible sounding idea—and it has the advantage over “[be] able to consistently learn through a mixture of reading and own thinking” (my suggestion in the original post) that it is easier to test in advance. However, on an abstract level, it has similar disadvantages to those of an I.Q.* cut-off, while my suggestion automatically takes care of aspects like differing difficulties of various fields. Of course, more practically, the “test in advance” aspect is quite important—which explains why e.g. the vanilla SATs have a math section and not a chemistry, history, or whatnot section.

*Not only are math ability and I.Q. fairly strongly correlated, but they are both arguably proxies for the same thing(s) in the context of being college material.

Excursion on the benefit of being pushed to struggle and revealed to be wrong:
An incidental benefit of studying math is that the student has a greater opportunity to learn both humility and his own limits. Math requires thinking, can push us to the border of what our brains can understand, and the only way to escape being provably wrong, again and again, is to be superhumanly good. In the social sciences, it is possible to go through a college education and an ensuing academic career without the same exposure to “I do not understand” (cf. above) and “I was provably wrong”* (either because the actual tests are missing or because there are loopholes when the tests go the other way).

*Note that I speak of opinions based on faulty thought, not e.g. faulty memory: There are many things (e.g. the year of Napoleon’s death) that are recorded as (more or less) fix truths, which might be misremembered and the memory verified as incompatible with the accepted record. A simple memory error says relatively little about someone, however, and being exposed to a memory error is unlikely to bring humility. In contrast, an elaborate hypothesis involving Napoleon and the Illuminati might be impossible to actually disprove, even when others consider it patently absurd.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 31, 2018 at 8:54 am

College material

with 4 comments

Occasionally, the question of who is and is not college material is relevant to my writings. This is a tricky area, seeing e.g. that different fields differ in how much ability to think and how much ability to memorize is needed—even complications like grade inflation and underwater basket-weaving aside. Approaches like drawing a line at an I.Q. of a given value (e.g. 110 or 115) are too inflexible both in this regard and through neglecting criteria like the willingness to put in the work. (In other words, a certain I.Q. might be a requirement, but is not, alone, sufficient.)

Based on my own observations, I would suggest that a better heuristic is to consider as college material those who are able to consistently learn through a mixture of reading* and own thinking—without needing lectures, detailed** other instruction by professors, TAs, whatnot, or the help of other students. Lectures are there for people who cannot read and/or cannot think for themselves! (See an older text for more information on why lectures are idiotic. Note especially the centuries old Samuel Johnson quote.)

*Typically, appropriate books; however, other types of texts can be relevant, including scientific articles and various ad-hoc texts written for a specific course.

**Needing occasional help, e.g. due to an unclear passage in a book or a rare blind-spot, might be acceptable. Even here, however, the preferred solution should be to spend more time thinking until one “gets it” through own efforts, possibly aided by alternative written sources.

Regrettably, the current trend goes in the other direction, e.g. with Germany increasing the proportion of “mandatory presence” lectures during the Bologna process—college is by now based on the assumption that the average student is not college material, be it by my measure or by an I.Q. measure. Certainly, the school system is neither geared at giving students skills of this type, nor at filtering them by such skills.

In a bigger picture, this measure points to fundamental flaws in the education process, including the wasteful use of professors for holding lectures—contrary to popular opinion, the main tasks of a professor should relate to research and not education. Or consider the point of going to college: For a student with the capability to learn on his own, this point is to get the degree that own studies cannot provide—the other benefits he can gain on his own. Why not reshape colleges to focus on independent learning with opportunities to just have knowledge and understanding tested?*

*Seen as a non-rhetorical question, answers like “Because we would be hard-pressed to charge an arm and a leg per year just for a testing opportunity!” arise.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 25, 2018 at 2:27 pm

Generalization of opinion corridors

leave a comment »

A while back, I published a text on “opinion corridors”. Since then, I have realized that this concept is just a special case of a wider phenomenon of corridors of compliance and similarity. Generally, there seems to be a strong human tendency to be hostile towards those or that which is different. While such a tendency could have made great sense in an older time*, it is rarely helpful and very often harmful today. Consider e.g. the relation between the words “strange” and “stranger” (noun; not comparative), the way children with the “wrong” clothes are often mistreated by other children, the “Tall-Poppy Syndrome” and its variations, and, obviously, various xenophobic attitudes. From another point of view, there is often a strive to create similarities in outfits, mannerisms, whatnot within groups that set themselves apart, e.g. in that members of a clique, a gang, a professional group, or some more formal associations match their clothing or adopt a uniform—culminating in the very formal uniforms used by military and police forces. (Also note the overlap with a recent text on identity politics.)

*E.g. because the differences between two people might have resulted from their stemming from two different tribes, because there were times when experimentation brought more danger than benefit, or similar.

A particularly dangerous variation of this is the wish to be “brav”, likely often related to the “me too” band-wagons:

When people hear that this-or-that opinion is the right opinion to have, the opinion that a particular idol or political leader has, the opinion that members of a certain party or movement usually has, they are more likely to adopt that opinion without proper thought. When people hear that this-or-that accomplishment in life makes one successful, they are more like to strive for that accomplishment without considering whether it makes sense in their own lives. When people hear that a college education is a must to make a good living and what sets the intellectual apart from the non-intellectual, they are more likely to go for a college education without considering whether some other road might work better or be more suited to their own talents. Etc.

This is made worse when journalists, teachers, politicians, and other influencers of public opinion tend to be uninformed, poor critical thinkers, ideologically biased, whatnot.

The college example (and education in general) is particularly telling: Having a college education might have been truly beneficial in the past, when few people had one, when the filter effect* was strong, and before dumbing down and academic inflation. Today, a bachelor is severely watered down/transformed into regular school and everyone and his aunt has a bachelor, turning the master to the first degree that has a true filter effect. In the U.S. this has coincided with a steady increase of tuition fees, making the cost–value quotient compare even worse with the past. A strong case can be made that going to college today is a bad idea in many countries, including the U.S., for those who do not have some specific careers** in mind. Nevertheless, journalists, teachers, and, above all, politicians never seem to tire at telling us how urgent it is that the proportion of the college educated is increased even further, that everyone without a college degree will have a poor (and those with one will have a great) future, etc.

*I re-iterate my claim that, when looking for work, the main benefit of a certain level of education was the demonstration of an implied level of intelligence, diligence, ability to work independently, …—not an implied level of knowledge.

**Notably, careers in academia and research, and those that have a certain educational requirement, e.g. as a physician.

What if someone was better off going straight to work after high school*? What if some type of apprenticeship was a better road? What if some other** approach to higher education was better?

*Indeed, even high school is dubious on a systematic level. For many, it amounts to over-education, a waste of time, the wrong type of education, or a sub-optimal way of reaching an education—I, e.g., have always learned faster and better outside of school (note: “school”, not just “high school”).

**Apart from the obvious possibility of self-studies, I note that with many U.S. colleges five-or-so students could pool their money and afford to hire their own, dedicated full-time professor as an alternative… A current hitch with such alternatives is getting a formal degree, but I suspect that this will change with time, one way or the other (e.g. in that there will be a few providers that allow anyone to take the tests for much-smaller-than-tuition fee, and leave it to the students to develop their knowledge and understanding anyway they see fit).

Written by michaeleriksson

September 1, 2018 at 9:22 pm

Poe-litically correct mad-houses

leave a comment »

I have long marveled at the absurd excesses, extreme irrationality, and virtual insatiability of large parts of the PC crowd, e.g. among Swedish feminists or in U.S. colleges.* The problems in higher education are especially depressing, because colleges and universities are supposed to be about truth, knowledge, rationality, freedom of speech and opinion, intellectual development …—an example for all of society. Starting in the 1960s and heading downward ever since, they have been slowly turning into the opposite of this—a center for pseudo- and anti-intellectuals, those pushing ideological agendas over truth, those trying to indoctrinate the younger generation instead of teaching it how to think critically, those wanting to silence their opponents by any means, …** In some cases, the transformation is more-or-less complete by now.

*See a number of older posts, or sites like www.mindingthecampus.org and www.thefire.org, for examples and deeper discussions. Also note an excursion at the end. If you think that I engage in rhetorical exaggeration, please read even a handful of articles on such topics from other parties first—you will find that I do not. (Notwithstanding that the mentioned sources do not necessarily give a complete overall image of the college situation, as they focus on particular types of abuse and rarely have a reason to mention positives.)

**In all fairness, the faculty is, at least outside social sciences, the place where the sensible people are still most likely to be found. Students and administrators often appear to be the larger problem; and the three reinforce each other’s behavior. To boot, the destructive tendencies do not necessarily reflect majority opinions in any group—maybe they do, maybe it is more a matter of who cries the loudest wins. (And can these people cry!)

The point has come where I often even doubt whether mere ignorance, stupidity, intellectual dishonesty, hypocrisy, a “the end justifies the means” mentality, whatnot, are enough to explain the situation—or whether at least some of the involved people might actually suffer from severe mental problems.

As I contemplated* grabbing an online copy of “Alice in Wonderland” to explore the topic of insanity by transforming it into a portrayal of U.S. colleges, I stumbled upon something usable as is, with only a minor switch of mental perspective: Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether. In brief, it tells the story of a (as it transpires) less-than-bright young man, who visits a “mad-house” in the hopes of educating himself on a new (fictional) system of treatment—“soothing”. Soothing takes an extremely tolerant approach to the behavior and self-/world-perception of the patients—to the point that someone who believes himself a chicken is treated like a chicken.**

*I might or might not. This will depend on how much time I have available, how long it is, and how well the overall story can be made to fit. (I have not read it since a teenager, leaving me a little vague on these details.)

**In all fairness, unlike e.g. U.S. colleges, this is partly with the intent of making the patient return to a more conventional perception, e.g. in that someone being given only corn to eat might realize that he is not entirely a chicken after all.

Our unnamed protagonist finds himself in the company of the superintendent, Monsieur Maillard, and a young woman. After the departure of the latter, he expresses some curiosity as to whether she was one of the patients, but is reassured that she was a niece of Monsieur Maillard’s. He receives some information about the system, the history of the mad-house, and whatnot—but is also told that the soothing system has been replaced by one largely of Monsieur Maillard’s invention, with influence by Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.

The protagonist is not yet allowed to see any patients, but is invited to dinner “[…]where a very numerous company were assembled — twenty-five or thirty in all. They were, apparently, people of rank—certainly of high breeding[…]”. As dinner progresses, various stories of patients are told and absurd events occur that have some very clear implications to a rational reader, but, sadly, not to the protagonist. This includes the young lady from before attempting to undress in front of the rest of the party…

Monsieur Maillard eventually tells a story of when the soothing system misfired, strongly contributing to its abolition, and the patients took over the mad-house, showing rather less consideration to their former keepers than had been shown in the other direction: “The keepers and kept were soon made to exchange places. Not that exactly either — for the madmen had been free, but the keepers were shut up in cells forthwith, and treated, I am sorry to say, in a very cavalier manner.”

Further said about the how the leader of the revolution kept the new state of affairs secret: “He admitted no visitors at all — with the exception, one day, of a very stupid-looking young gentleman of whom he had no reason to be afraid. He let him in to see the place — just by way of variety, — to have a little fun with him.”

Shortly thereafter, in the timeline of the dinner, the “lunatics”/keepers stage a break-out*, take back control, and reveal further parts of the story, including that they had been tarred-and-feathered and locked up for more than a month.

*This, regrettably, has not (yet?) happened in the real world.

The story concludes with the protagonist’s lament “[…] that, although I have searched every library in Europe for the works of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, I have, up to the present day, utterly failed in my endeavors at procuring an edition.”; however, I am certain that things have changed since Poe’s days and that any modern college library will contain these or many similar works…

Excursion on insatiability:
A particular absurdity is that the less* actual reason for a complaint is present, the greater the complaints are. This includes, e.g. accusations of racism, intolerance, hate speech, … The reason appears to be that the goal-post are continually moved to more and more extreme positions, even after an absurd state has been reached. Consider e.g. Swedish feminists who, as arguably the most privileged and advantaged major group in the world, still complain about oppression, discrimination, and whatnot; or the U.S. idiocy of micro-aggressions, which can make any interaction between a White straight man and someone not a White straight man into a grave offense; or objections to hoop ear-rings worn by the “wrong” people; or fits being thrown over the casting of a “binary”** person in a “non-binary” film role.

*From the point of view of the Leftists/PC crowd/SJWs/… Other parties can have quite a lot to complain about, including racism, intolerance, hate speech, … by these groups.

**I.e. someone who identifies as purely man or purely woman and does so in concordance with biological sex. (I am uncertain whether heterosexuality is also required.)

Excursion on other works of literature:
Much of what goes on is disturbingly similar to some works by e.g. George Orwell, Franz Kafka, Anthony Burgess, and Ayn Rand. The extreme attempts at thought-control and extermination of even the slightest hint of dissent, as well as the ever sinking threshold for thoughtcrime and sexcrime, might leave the impression* that “Big Brother” has been taken as a deliberate role model. (A separate text on this might follow.) The quasi-Orwellian slogan “Ignorance is Enlightenment” also catches many of the problems…

*More likely, it is a natural development paralleling the problems that inspired Orwell—at the hands of those ignorant of his works. Litmus test: When you hear “Big Brother”, do you think surveillance or thought-control?

Written by michaeleriksson

August 10, 2018 at 4:51 am

A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part III)

with 2 comments

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

Annoyingly, I find that I left out a major subtopic from part II: Denial that one thing* can be be better than the other, or even that there can be differences between them. This post is thrown together a little haphazardly with the aims to 1) be able to close the discussion, 2) have enough material to justify a part III.

Among the disadvantages of such stances is, obviously, that it becomes harder for people to gain opportunity to excel and recognition when they do; ditto the risk that suboptimal things are taught, that societal progress is reduced, etc. Of course, in many cases, it can be discussed whether two items are comparable**, which of the two is the better, whether a certain valuation only applies from one perspective or for one purpose, what is a matter of objective evaluation and what is a matter of personal taste, etc.—and, yes, sometimes the comparison is highly dubious to begin with***. If that was the level of discussion, I would have no beef—but it is not: Far too often blanket rulings of “everything is equally good” are made. Often, especially in politically correct areas, merely raising the discussion can be a cause of condemnation and vicious attacks.

*I deliberately use a vague word, because there are so many, very different examples.

**In a mathematical sense; along the lines of comparing two oranges and not an orange and an apple.

***Humans appear to have a strong tendency to feel superior to others based on groups, including even who favors what sports team. The PC crowd is no better, having merely substituted one “superior” grouping with another. This is often the PC crowd, it self, or a sub-section of it; however, individual choices can include e.g. a particular combination of sexual and gender orientation—I have seen people who non-ironically identify with something containing two or even three hyphens… Sadly, the problem with sexism/misandry within the feminist movement is enormous; while the black movement, in my impression so far, contains considerably more racism than the white (or black) overall populations. Whenever contrasting two groups, while being a member of one of them, it pays to really consider whether the evaluation is a knee-jerk support of the “home team” or whether there are actual arguments to support it.

To consider a few examples (I stress that these are not all examples of actual problems; some merely illustrate the general attitude; and all are resulting from “free association”):

  1. My early school years (I doubt that things have improved…) and much of the children’s literature I encountered had a very strong focus on “different—not better”. A particularly telling example*, is how I talked to the school nurse after we had been measured for height and she showed me a diagram of height projections. I used the word “normal” to refer to the average curve, a use I still consider harmless—and saw her go into full panic mode, as if I had just called those lying on more extreme curves, including my own**, deficient.

    *And I have to admit that I, after so many years, remember very little else with sufficient detail to use as an example. In my strong suspicion, I would not remember this incident either, had the nurse reacted less strongly…

    **I was an unusually fast grower as a child, and had a projection well over two meters at the time. (Adult me topped out at a more modest 1.91 ~ 6’3”.)

  2. In a natural continuation, we have the whole “differently abled” thing: In many cases, this can be a justified phrasing, e.g. with some groups of autists, or blind people who have developed other senses and abilities to a considerable degree. In many other cases, however, the correct prefix cannot reasonably be “differently ”—it should be “dis-”: In most cases of disabilities, we have a clear possibility to compare, with no or only an inadequate compensation in other areas. Still going with “differently abled” in these cases is a clear sign of an agenda.

    Of course there is no evil in e.g. considering someone with a bum leg less able as walker or a soccer player—the evil would arise when he is considered of less worth in unrelated areas, say suitability to hold office. Similarly, going a bit off topic, it is not the words and descriptions used that matter, and just finding more pleasing names does not alter the underlying facts.

  3. And another step further, we have the Swedish obsession (at least back then) with educating everyone together, irrespective of ability—piece of shape-less dough in, kneed and bake, identical bread out. That someone was offered to skip classes was extremely rare* at the time and other forms of “acceleration” were mostly unheard of; only the worst of the worst** had to re-take a year; and everyone had to do virtually the same things. Of the re-takers, a particularly illustrative case is Hans-Erik, who joined my class for a year in (likely) fifth grade, during his slow, wasteful, even cruel*** progress through school: Hindered by severe cerebral palsy, he had only very barely managed to get where he was at age 17 (!), about six years older than the rest of us.

    *I recall only one case among the several hundred children that I came into contact with during my school years, but there might have been others.

    **I recall only three cases, but there almost certainly were more.

    ***Off topic, this is still something that infuriates me: Imagine being forced to spend year in and year out in school, getting no where, always the slowest, ridiculed by half the class-mates, seen as a recalcitrant obstacle by the teachers, …—and what for? Even a nominal fifth-grade level is almost useless for a modern adult, and his real grade level was lower yet. If he ever entered the work-force, it would by necessity be in so simple a position that his school years brought him no benefit. (And with his coordination problems and severe speech impediment, there is no guarantee that any job would be available.) Any personal benefit from education would be dwarfed by time wasted during schooling. Why not just let him spend his time having fun?

  4. One of my own first contacts with the current negative trends in the U.S. college world was reading an introductory text in linguistics, where the author claimed, without supporting arguments or qualifications on the claim, that “Ebonics”* was just as good as standard English (possibly also that no language was better than any other, but my memory is to vague). This might be superficially true in that all languages** with some degree of development can fulfill the same tasks, just like one Turing-complete programming language can, in some sense, replace another. However, just as with programming languages, it does not end there. On the contrary, there are many factors to consider, often with a dependency on the perspective applied. Take e.g. (inherent to the language) expressiveness, number of words and nuances available, the risk of ambiguity, the ease of learning; or e.g. (relative the overall world) number of speakers, compatibility when comparing the language at different points of time, available literature; or (subjectively) aesthetics.

    *Do not get hung up on the specific example. The rest of the discussion is mostly in the abstract and I do not make direct comparisons within this specific pair. (Nor do I imply that English would necessarily win all comparisons, e.g. ease of learning, if they were made.) The point of Ebonics as an example is a combination of the claim almost certainly being motivated by politically correct and non-linguistic concerns, and the failure to provide a supporting argumentation, although this pairing should have made such an argumentation non-negotiably necessary, considering the typical reputation of Ebonics. (Indeed, at the time, I assumed that the claim was outright and obviously incorrect. Today, I do tend strongly towards rejection, but am too cautious to do so outright, seeing that my knowledge of Ebonics is highly limited—and I focus my criticism on the way she approached the claim.)

    **Used in a wide sense, without e.g. differing between language, in a narrower sense, and dialect.

  5. When we extrapolate such claims within a single language, the result is the currently popular and very detrimental everything-goes-because-there-is-no-right-and-wrong attitude. (Cf. e.g. an older post discussing prescriptive and descriptive grammar.)
  6. The PC crowd and the Left is obviously a major source of other examples, many that have been discussed repeatedly in the past, notably the common absolute denial that differences in outcome can result from differences in inherent characteristics. I will not rehash them here, but note that the interesting point for the purposes of this post is not what the truth* of the matter is—but how the truth-finding is approached. Feminists, e.g., tend to start with a certain set of assumptions (a new-born as a “tabula rasa”, social construct this and Patriarchy that, etc.), and then interpret observations to fit this assumption—while the very thought that in-born differences could exist is anathema.

    *But, yes, the evidence in favour of in-born differences of various kinds is much stronger than against when we compare e.g. men and women.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 19, 2017 at 11:24 pm

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