Monday, January 31, 2011

Academic Performance

Miss Self-Important writes:
Look people, it is important to do well in school, both for short term ends like getting a job and for long-term goods like happiness, understanding, and self-knowledge. Pushing your children to master the middle school math curriculum when they would rather get C's is not a form of cruelty or an impossibility--middle school math is not that hard and far more children can master it than currently do. I know you all know of dozens of people (including yourselves) who are geniuses despite their indifferent academic records, but you and those people would not be less brilliant if they'd also done well in 10-grade geometry. It is easy enough for kids like me, who quite liked school, to decide at age eight that they're good enough at reading and writing, so don't really need to also be good at math and to promptly stop trying for the next 10 years. This was a mistake. Yes, things have so far turned out fine despite this mistake, but it was no less a mistake. It is as important to understand mathematics as it is to understand any of the other constitutive structures of our society (language, literature, history, etc). It's too bad that I constitutionally suck at math, yes, but I could've sucked somewhat less if I hadn't simply given up in grade school. Whether the suckage differential would've been significant in any way, I don't know, but at the very least, it would not have hurt to try. Childhood is long and its petty injustices are easily forgotten, so a few more math problems would hardly have made a dent.

FLG doesn't disagree with the main point of Miss Self-Important's argument -- that maybe parents ought to just force kids to work toward mastering difficult skills even if they are somewhat arbitrary and the kids don't like them at the time because many things become more enjoyable once you've mastered them. FLG learned this lesson with skiing. It takes several miserable trips before it becomes fun, but once you get over that hump it's a blast.

What FLG does have an issue with is this:
Look people, it is important to do well in school, both for short term ends like getting a job and for long-term goods like happiness, understanding, and self-knowledge. [...] I know you all know of dozens of people (including yourselves) who are geniuses despite their indifferent academic records, but you and those people would not be less brilliant if they'd also done well in 10-grade geometry.

There are several issues. All things being equal it's better to do well in school than not. If you want to climb the existing hierarchy, then by all means do well in school. And by existing hierarchy, FLG means everything from scaling The Ivory Tower to professions like Law, Medicine, Banking, Managemenr Consulting, etc, etc. Good grades are a prerequisite for successful careers in these industries.

FLG thinks the reason for this is two-fold. First, it demonstrates some successful combination of intellectual horsepower and work ethic. No problem there. Yet, secondly, and FLG wishes he could express this more accurately, it also demonstrates a deference to established authority. A hesitance to rock the boat, if you will. The Ancient expressed how to get an A thusly: "I figure out what the teacher wants and give it to him."

Via Photon Courier, FLG finds this passage:
I wonder if that’s really good for America, though. To become educated is a marvelous thing; to have the opportunity to study is a privilege too many take for granted. But have we become a society that places too much weight on the attainment of a diploma, which sometimes indicates nothing more than an ability to keep to a schedule and follow a syllabus, and underappreciates the ability to wonder, to strike out on an individual path, and to learn on one’s own? When did non-conformists become so unromantic and undervalued?

FLG doesn't want to oversell this point, but getting good grades does require the acceptance, or if not the acceptance the acquiescence, of the student to the existing hierarchy, whether that be the teacher, classroom, school, academic discipline. Now, obviously, this isn't necessarily problematic. Hierarchies and structures are necessary, and FLG would be the last person to suggest that existing hierarchies or traditions don't deserve respect.

But FLG does worry about the habituation of top students toward proceeding down a path that's lain out for them. They don't want to rock the boat, only please. Now, sure, this is probably an age old lamentation and FLG doesn't think all students who get good grades are thoughtless lemmings, but there's some truth to it too. A lot of truth to it, FLG would say.

Let's imagine the successful establishment child:
They do well in high school, taking AP or IB classes. They get into a good school, preferably Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. From there, they study hard and again do well. (Insert FLG's argument above.) They go to law school or medical school, where the same process continues. Or they probably go into I-Banking or management consulting.

Here's the thing though. Do i-Banks and management consultants really want these kids because they are so fucking smart? Most people seem to think so, but really these jobs aren't rocket science. Oh, sure there's the quants in i-Banks that are doing very complicated math, but by and large being an i-Banker isn't about being smart. It's about working long hours and not rocking the boat. To FLG, at least, these kids are getting hired not so much because they are smart (Not that they want dumb people, but a large swath of college educated population could easily master the job of being an i-banker or management consultant), but they've demonstrated that they will accept an existing hierarchy and expect to be rewarded for it. They will play by the rules. FLG isn't exactly sure if corporate law firms hire along the same lines, but it's probably not an insignificant portion.

Again, this lack of creativity and independent thinking is an old refrain. And FLG doesn't want to overemphasize it. He has certainly seen people who get good grades who embody those other traits, but good grades isn't solely about hard work and intelligence. It is also about acceptance and acquiescence at some level. At an individual level, as far as individual success goes, it's probably beneficial to signal your willingness to accept the existing rules. Existing structures provide a clear path to success. But there's something very disconcerting to FLG about the apparent ramp up in pushing children along that path. Does that acceptance, acquiescence, willingness to obey as Miss Self-Important put it, habituate children in a way that perhaps even if it benefits them personally, inhibits the creativity in our society.


Miss Self-Important said...

I don't see how learning calculus precludes being creative, whatever that means. There is enough time in the day for both, and creativity doesn't fall on us from the sky; it too requires foundational learning. Also, this sounds like a joke my parents like to tell about the Chukchi, who are an Eskimo tribe somewhere in Russia that is the butt of many (possibly racist) jokes. It goes:
A Chukchi applies to the university to study literature, and the examiner asks him which books he's read. "Read?" the Chukchi asks. "Chukchi aren't readers. We're writers."

FLG said...


Learning calculus in and of itself isn't a big deal. It's a matter of needing to get straight A's in every class that kills creativity because you have to accept.

As I said in the Nietzsche post, it's a matter of moderation. There's a point at which the virtue of academic success becomes a vice through the habituation of doing what is expected.

The Ancient said...

1) Later down in the post you referenced, I said getting A's was particularly important if you want to keep going to school.* If all you want out of life is to be a partner at Goldman Sachs, A's help, as does your education, but probably not nearly so much as your personality type. My dear femme, le Comtesse de Crepitude, always says that the B students with aggressive personalities -- even borderline sociopaths -- are more likely to make it at Goldman than someone with a glittering academic resume. I think she's right.

2) As for corporate law firms, what matters most is brainpower, and a willingness to work long hours for an uncertain reward (partnership). Law firms that twenty years ago only hired from HLS and a couple other schools will now often take people who grew up in Nowheresville and went to some third-tier school -- because they have demonstrated brains and drive. (Besides, almost none of what you need to succeed in corporate law is taught at law school.)

3) I didn't find calculus much of a challenge, but I think the vast majority of students would be better served by a mandatory, year-long class in statistics. (FLG has written about this before.)**

4) I don't buy that "kills creativity" crap. Very few people are genuinely creative, or have the ability to become so. (For example, Steve Jobs pretends he dropped out of Reed because he didn't want to burden his adoptive parents with the expense. In point of fact, he couldn't do the academic work, and the Dean let him hang around for a few months to monitor courses because, really, he had nowhere else to go. And that's when he audited a calligraphy class that seems, in retrospect, to have changed his -- and our -- world. But how many other drop-outs could say the same? Not many, I think.)
*I think it's very easy to get straight A's and do quite a few non-related things along the way. (It's probably much harder, I suspect, for people who are in romantic relationships.)

**In the real world, I think it must be very, very hard for high school students -- even the brightest ones -- to do well at calculus unless there is someone at home who can help them over the occasional rough patches. That's just another way our society is segmenting (cf. Charles Murray).

Jeff said...

I understand where FLG is coming from here, because D.C. is packed with well-educated people whose conventional ambitions have rarely left them free to pursue their own notions outside the usual Biscuit Reward Program, even if they lead to dead ends. A Washingtonian's hobbies are more likely to involve some sort of systematic or group activity, like team sports, than a pastime that leaves them alone with their own thoughts for extended periods, like gardening, fixing cars, mastering a musical instrument, etc. The exceptions to my (potentially offensive) sweeping generalization tend to be the ones who run things, drive new ideas, and affect others; the rest of well-educated Washington works for them.

Look at American University's recent attempt to brand itself "home of the wonks." Hey, you're never gonna be a Senator or Secretary of State, so why aim high? Come here; we'll equip you to be an adequate staffer in someone's office. As insipid as the campaign is, it's also not unwise, because our education system isn't half bad at creating competent, uncreative biscuit-chasers. But such people aren't innovators or leaders--or even, at the end of the day, terribly interesting.

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