Monday, September 8, 2008

"Back to the Future" - Educational Romanticism & Bell-Curve Bigotry courtesy of Charles Murray

The other day, one of my Google alerts flagged an article written by an educator in praise of Charles Murray (author of "the Bell Curve") and his 'liberating concept' of Educational Romanticism. (I decided not to link to the post)

The author, who identified herslf as an educator, described Educational Romanticism as the belief that "students' abilities are far more equal and far more malleable than they really are." Then going on to say that, “Educational romanticism has led us to believe that every student can become at least average, and that the right teaching strategies can close the achievement gap." But then came the gem... The author went on to say, "Most teachers can tell within a week how their students rank in ability. (So can the students.) These rankings barely budge between 8 and 18."

I feel I am uniquely qualified to respond to this line of reasoning. As a Mensa member, former Mensa President, and former regional director, there can be no doubt of my cognitive abilities. Yet when I entered Junior High School back in Cleveland all those many years ago, I was among those students deemed to be of low ranking. And so armed with a similar belief that abilities remain relatively constant, I was allowed to fall behind in classes if I had missed a concept or explanation, because after all, how much time should you spend on a child who's struggling if you believe as Charles Murray stated in his new book, "some people are just not smart enough to succeed on a conventional academic track."

I had been identified as a gifted child since 2nd grade. But later in my childhood, my family moved into a better neighborhood in a nearby suburb of Cleveland. I excelled for my first couple years in the new school system but around the time I entered Junior high School, something changed. Based on purely subjective assessments, my father was told by my school that I had an IQ of roughly 98. Suddenly, the students that I'd been grouped and tracked with since 4th and 5th grade were not in my classes anymore. I discerned even then that I seemed to be on a different track, though I didn't understand the reasons behind the change. But just as the academic rigor began to wane, so did my enthusiasm and interest. I rapidly fell to meet the new expectations...

Now my parents were no shrinking violets; they pushed me as hard as they knew how. But what is amazing even to me as I look back on my own life, is that I pushed them BACK. I literally fought with my father, trying to get him to concede that I really wasn't all that smart. I can't imagine how that must've sounded to his ears. Here was a man who bought his son Cervantes famous novel "Don Quixote, man of La Mancha" for his 9th birthday, now listening to that same child 7 years later, defiantly proclaiming his mediocrity. I nearly failed out of High School, not the least bit ashamed...

I was an adult before I truly appreciated what had happened. I was an adult before I took an SAT and scored as high as had any of my former classmates. I was an adult before I took the Mensa test and realized that it was statistically likely that I was far more intelligent than any of those who were charged with assessing my intelligence. And I came to these realizations not while standing on a college campus, not while listening to an engaging lecture on the peculiarities of the American educational system; no, I had my awakening while holding an M-16 on the bank of the Panama canal. You see, I too had come to believe that I wasn't smart enough, I had accepted my 'low rank' and so I gave no care or consideration to my education. I did only enough to pass and I saw the world of suits and briefcases as one that I was unfortunately ill-suited for. I limped out of high school and joined the Army hoping to learn a trade. And as I stood there one evening on the bank of the canal; a combatant with my life on the line in a cause for which I had no passion, it hit me...

I remembered that I was the child who was in 'Major Work' at Gracemount Elementary. I remembered that I was the child who started the science club in 4th grade. I remembered that I was the child who got to read most of his reports over the school's PA system, I was once a straight A student, I did have teachers like Mr. Charles Pattillo who really nurtured me and told me I was brilliant, and I remembered that my mother and father had always believed in me and my abilities; even when I didn't believe it myself. And I realized that the change that occurred didn't begin with me, nor with my parents or their faith in me... The first change, the first cause, was the set of diminished expectations held and repeatedly reinforced by those who were there to educate me.

And through that lens I can now see the analysis of Mr. Murray and his supporters for what it truly is; a terribly consequential though benign bigotry, cloaked by a saccharine paternalism. When the author says things like, "By forcing them to try work they can't do, we've condemned these kids to 12 years of frustration, misery and humiliation.", she completely misses the point... If you look out into your classroom and identify children who you believe to be incapable of learning, they will eventually work to meet you at the level of your expectation. If you "protect" them from humiliation by not asking them the tough questions, by not challenging them with rigorous assignments, and/or not pausing the class when necessary to ensure that they've grasped the concepts, then you only reinforce those lowered expectations. To protect a child from failure is to protect them from success.

Now I'm not against vocational education. I think there is great value in the trades. However, whether a child pursues a career in the trades or not should be their choice. And the educational system that we all contribute to should at least prepare them to make that choice.

And as for the Bell-Curve itself, I stopped believing in that garbage 49 points ago...

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INTJ - "Mastermind". Introverted intellectual with a preference for finding certainty. A builder of systems and the applier of theoretical models. 2.1% of total population.
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