In a discussion on a forum today, I responded to this comment:

Of course, it also might help if we stopped allowing people to get away with villifying academics, intellectuals, and “smart kids”.

and since my reply turned into an essay, I’m posting it here for future reference.

Agreed, that would help. But, to be completely fair about it, the vilification goes two ways. There are a lot of academics, ‘intellectuals’ (and let me note that one of the few OSC opinions I share is about literature departments in colleges) and smart kids who look down their noses at the kind of people who shop at WalMart and keep guns in the house. I’m not immune myself; Wal-Martians really are a loud, obnoxious lot – more so even than middle-class Americans, who as a general rule have not been taught the concept of an indoor voice. But the savage contempt and really biting jokes, by people who don’t seem quite aware that they are not talking about fictional characters – it’s not helpful in maintaining respect. Respect travels two ways, or it is mere touching of the forelock to the squire. (And the squire, for all his flaws, at least spoke to his tenants once in a while!)

If academia wants respect, I think there are several steps it can take on its own side, which will be a lot more useful than any reform aimed at the working classes. The workers resent attempts to improve them, especially improvements in the direction of forelock-tugging, and who wouldn’t? But they respect, or at least they have respected in the past, genuine knowledge that doesn’t, on its side, despise non-intellectual work. So, my three-step plan for increasing academic respect:

[*]Throw out the English, “X studies”, and philosophy departments, and do considerable amounts of cleanup in sociology. The 2% of these departments that is actually useful can be accomplished without separate departments producing 98% dreck.
[*]Stop trying to form the entire nation in an academic mold. It seems possible, although unlikely, that we do in fact need 50% of our workforce to have a college education. But the plain statistical fact is that for college to mean anything, you need to be a sigma or so above average, and that means that at most one-sixth of the population can get a meaningful college degree. Trying to shoehorn the remaining five-sixths into academicians will not produce college degrees in the sense of people who know how to think, it will produce pieces of paper saying “University of Attendance Checking”. With, more than likely, a major in X Studies. This is not useful, it’s just the Brahmin caste trying to shoehorn the Vaisya and Kshatriya into its own mold by exploiting its mystique and supposed command of otherworldly forces. It won’t work in the long run.
[*]Stop the dang sneering. Ok, you don’t personally want to keep a gun in the house; there’s no reason to assume that those who do are low-browed Neanderthals who enjoy taking potshots at neighbours. Same for shopping at Wal-Mart. So you have a college degree, good for you; tell me, how sure are you that it’s not a piece of paper? And the reason it might be a piece of paper is that the previous generation insisted on this kind of sneering – and their degrees, to be fair about it, really did mean something. Then the unwashed masses decided that fine, they would prove they could do college too, dammit. They stormed the doors of the universities, who weren’t about to turn down tuition-paying customers (especially since, with lots of scholarships granted by politicians voted in by the new college-determined masses, they could turn up the tuition without any particular student feeling the pain) but found that, oops, these people couldn’t be taught anything approaching a real liberal arts degree. But no matter, they would pay just as well for pieces of paper saying, in good calligraphy, “University of Attendance Checking attests that this Wal-Martian has faithfully attended classes in X Studies, and therefore has the right to sneer at those who haven’t.” And, more to the point, not to be sneered at by the actual ruling class, a convention you’ll notice I’m not paying much attention to, here.

Again, it may be helpful to have a look outside America, to see how other nations deal with this kind of thing. My experience is with Norway, so that’s the example I’ll draw on. First, let’s note that Norway, like most of Europe, has a tradition of, eg, University professors being an extremely high-status position. Case in point: My father is ‘dosent’, roughly equivalent to a teaching professor, of mathematics at the Naval Academy in Bergen. He was hired in 1981, and his appointment had to be confirmed by Royal Order of the King in Council – roughly speaking, the equivalent of a Cabinet meeting, or perhaps a Senate confirmation. (Except that they didn’t actually have him turn up in person and answer questions; the actual procedure was a bit of a rubber stamp. It was just a holdover from older days.) He can only be fired by impeachment, requiring a simple majority of Parliament. Now, this is a dreadful anachronism, and in fact the custom was discontinued shortly afterwards; these days the Naval Academy hires and fires like an ordinary school. (Indeed, my father was the last teacher there to be appointed by Royal Order.) But it demonstrates the tradition of respect and the seriousness with which academics are treated in Europe. There had been a time when this was the procedure for every university professor in Norway. (Which is, fortunately for the guy with the rubber stamp, rather fewer than in America! But notice that there was also a time when no rubber stamp was involved.)

That’s one example; another is the way our secondary education is organised. There is no assumption that secondary education is preparation for college. At 16, you choose whether to enter the academic track or a vocational track. If vocational, you get a bit of theory – the people taking these tracks tend to complain that they get more theory and academic stuff than they actually want – and considerable practical education. For electricians, you spend say ten or twenty hours a week fiddling with wires; carpenters, a similar amount knocking pieces of wood together; and so on. Then you get an apprenticeship (while technically still in school) and are off to work. These tracks are very popular and not at all un-prestigious; in a slight irony, they are over-subscribed and you need good grades from your 13-15 education to get in. (There are only so many apprenticeships.) The academic lines, on the other hand, will take anyone who breathes, so they get a mix of college-bound overachievers and the working-class overflow from the vocational tracks. (Which occasionally makes for some odd social dynamics, but I digress.)

I don’t say that this approach would solve every problem of America’s schools, but it does seem to me that it would be a lot better than what you have now. Get the people who are bored by academics out of the academic setting where there is nothing they can do to shine, and let them work with their hands doing something useful. I think a lot of high-school problems are down to primate instinct, and this would alleviate that. A human male of age 16 to 18 is, biologically speaking, ready to be a father, a hunter, and a warrior or even a leader of warriors. When, instead, we put him in a classroom and tell him to sit down and listen, he interprets this as “My tribal status is low”, and his natural instinct is to either lead a bloody coup against the tribal leaders and take all their women for himself, or else to strike out into the wilderness with a small band of followers. Neither is very practical today, so you get all the familiar litany of high-school dysfunction instead. (I write about males because that’s the set of hormones I’m familiar with, but I imagine there’s a similar effect for women, who biologically are ready to be mothers and food-providers at 16. But female status games tend to be a bit less violent.) The exception to this is the people who do well in an academic setting, and can gain status and prestige by listening to the teacher. And notice: Here is a set of people against whom the non-academics can viably rebel, and by god, they do!

The obvious solution is to take the non-academics out of the academic setting and give them prestige for something they can actually compete at. Few people find it unpleasant to be low-ranked in something they can see the point of. A man might chafe at low grades for literary analysis, when he loathes the meaningless chatter of the books he’s given to read and hates writing about them. And who can blame him? But if he does badly at electrical wiring, at least that’s an activity he understands the purpose of; it’s meaningful to him even if he can see that he’s not that good at it.

I also have a slightly different perspective on teacher power. When I was in school, a teacher could (in increasing order of severity) shout at you or bang a book on your desk; send you out of the classroom, or to the principal’s office where you would get a Severe Talking-to; get your parents to take you home; give you ‘parade’, that is, you had to turn up an hour earlier the next day, or – the final argument – have you suspended from school for a limited period. (By that stage both parents and principal would have been involved, so strictly speaking the teacher couldn’t do this on his own.)

Now, these reactions are conceivably a bit stronger than what an American high school teacher has, I don’t know. But it does seem to me that they do not add up to a real power of quelling genuine rebellion. If a teenager is really determined to buck the system, what does he care about being suspended? Sitting in the hall instead of a classroom is not a strong punishment for someone whom the classroom bores beyond endurance.

No, I think that what actually kept us in line was the culture. The schools I went to got people from all over the socio-economic spectrum; there were people like me who had “college” written all over them, but there were also working-class children who hadn’t been able to get into the vocational schools and as a consequence were just sitting out their three years and receiving their 2s and 3s. (The grading system is 1 through 6, 2 being the lowest passing grade. Anything below a 4 means real trouble for getting into college, with the possible exception of PE. And, before you ask (he said with dignity) I had a gentleman’s 4 in PE.) There were drugs being passed around, there were girls who got pregnant at 16 (and their feckless boyfriends, obviously), there wasn’t necessarily a scrambling determination to get into college.

Nonetheless, even among those who didn’t get 5s and 6s themselves, there was admiration for those who did, and an overall understanding that the purpose of school was to learn and that the ones who were best at that had a claim to respect. I once saw a girl cry over receiving a bad grade on a math test; partly perhaps in fear of what her parents would say, but also I think because she was bright enough in other subjects and plain frustrated at being unable to do long division, or whatever we were working on that month. (I must admit I have no clear memory of exactly what math I was taught at age 14. Presumably I learned something, if only to sit still and not complain while the slowpokes caught up. Fractions? A quick Google: Looks like a bit of big-number multiplication, decimals, fractions, some constructive geometry, basic histograms. Nothing very interesting. But I digress.) My point is, even among the children, there was an impression that learning things was important, and that the teachers were within their rights to yell at you if you were being noisy. It wasn’t that we never whispered or passed notes or leaned back in our chairs or threw paper balls; it was that we knew that these were breaches of the rules, and that the rules were important; and so we stopped when the teacher took notice. Usually they didn’t even have to raise their voice very much. (Although some of them, I’m fairly convinced, took positive joy in sneaking up on children engrossed in a private conversation and SLAMMING a book down on their desk. You can get a hell of a startle reflex out of most kids in this manner.)

I don’t know how such a culture can be re-gained once lost; but I’m not convinced that additional powers for teachers will do it. It’s certainly possible to impose a forced quiet and overt obedience by stringent measures; and that might well be an improvement over what exists now. But in the end, discipline is self-discipline or else it’s useless because it ends when the constraints go away. It’s easy enough to say that the parents must be involved, and probably true as well, but how are you going to do it? Paddlings for adults who don’t measure up?



Filed under Academics, Random thoughts

2 responses to “Education

  1. Richard Campbell

    I feel that you have unfairly maligned English education in your missive (English literature being at least as useful a study as French or Spanish literature, and proper English composition and writing being a pearl beyond price in our society and not something that Sociology can pick up [see any number of posters on various fora]).

    Nonetheless, I think you are wandering around a valid point: not everyone should go to college, and a split between university and vocational tracks makes intuitive sense.

    However, there are 2 things working against you:

    1) Unlike other countries (especially Germany, I am given to understand), the top end jobs available without a bachelor’s degree are woefully inferior to the top end jobs that require a bachelor’s degree (barring elected positions, such as Governor of Alaska).

    2) The reason for 1) is that employers generally are only interested in two qualities:
    a) Smart
    b) Gets Things Done.
    See generally:
    There is no proven test for a) and b). The best proxy an employer can find is to see that someone has been through a number of selective tests and passed. Being admitted to a college, although not perfect, is one step down the funnel. Actually finishing a degree is another. And so it goes.

    Unless you can find a way to validate people who went down the vocational track, I’m afraid it will always be ignored.

  2. kingofmen

    Yes, but hang on; other countries apparently do manage to give people jobs without requiring a college degree. Taking the example of Norway again, I believe the vocational-track people are required to pass some sort of practical test plus some theoretical exams; say, something in the direction of “Install wires on this test setup” for an electrician.

    It does seem possible that there’s no easy way to get from the current equilibrium, with a bachelor’s degree as the only accepted signal of competence, to the European equilibrium where a vocational-school diploma will do. (That’s a bit odd, actually – you’d expect that the Europeans, with their much more byzantine regulations about when and why you can fire someone incompetent, would be the ones with the stronger need for a signal.) But the other equilibrium does *exist*. What’s more, an employer who managed to find the competent people with no diploma could make a killing, since nobody else is hiring them and he can pay less.

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