Ideology of the Meritocracy

Philip Weiss makes a shrewd (and I think correct) point about Jews marrying non-Jews:

A lot of meritocratic Jews like me were hoist on the petard of superiority. If you bought into the ideology of intellectual excellence–the ideology of the meritocracy, which we Jews helped to build so we could get into the good schools (and which the WASPs then helped us to festoon with prestige, to disguise the fact that none of us would have to actually serve in Iraq)–then you would inevitably look around for smart people to socialize with, and most of them turned out to be gentiles. See, it’s my family’s fault [that I married a non-Jew].

Weiss went to Harvard. “Ideology of the meritocracy” is a good phrase. Richard Herrnstein, the late Harvard professor of psychology and Bell Curve co-author, was indeed meritocratic — in a narrow way. (Which is the trouble with ideologies.) When I was a graduate student, he gave a talk at my school (Brown) and several graduate students, including me, had lunch with him. He was on the Harvard admissions board. During lunch, he said that some kid was the perfect candidate: “800’s on his SATs, plays football, plays the flute.” He was serious. Surely the best candidates should be less easily described, I thought.

A Student’s Unlovely View of UC Berkeley

I recently met an undergraduate named Samantha who is majoring in Economics at UC Berkeley. She is almost done. I asked her a few questions about her education:

SR: Did UC Berkeley help you figure out what you were good at?

Samantha: No. In UC Berkeley classes you don’t get to do any individual searching. You just have to do what they tell you. Because it’s all theoretical, none of it is very practical. You don’t do any practical projects. The classes don’t give you any idea of what you want to do career-wise.

SR: Did UC Berkeley help you figure out what you enjoy doing?

Samantha: No.

SR: Why not?

Samantha: I’m here just for the name. It scares you away from trying new things. Intimidating class sizes, professors that don’t seem invested in the students.

A student advisor’s view.

Inside College Classrooms

Tom Perrotta, author of the novel Little Children, was an undergraduate at Yale, a graduate student at Syracuse, and a teacher at Harvard and Yale. I assume this passage from Little Children is based on that experience:

What did her in [as a graduate student] was the teaching. Some people loved it, of course, loved the sound of their own voices, the chance to display their cleverness to a captive audience. And then there were the instructors like herself, who simply couldn’t communicate in a classroom setting. They made one point over and over with mind-numbing insistence, or else they circled around a dozen half-articulated ideas without landing on a single one. They read woodenly from prepared notes, or got lost in their muddled syntax while attempting to speak off the cuff. God help them if they attempted a joke.

Curious. To “love teaching” is to love hearing your own voice and showing off. This passage seems to imply that Perrotta’s teachers either “loved teaching” in this unpleasant sense or were muddled and awkward failures. I would have thought that in a non-occupational-skills class (such as sociology, history, or literature), what a good teacher does is tell lots of stories. Apparently this didn’t happen much in Perrotta’s experience.

Absurdity and Pathos in Elementary-School Education

At the San Francisco Chocolate Salon, which I attended because of my interest in connoisseurship and gifts, I learned some sad truths about elementary-school education. A San Francisco public school teacher told me:

1. The curriculum is mandated. Tests are mandated. And they disagree. For example, you are forced to teach what a certain word means. You spend two weeks teaching that word and then the tests use a different word for the same idea.

2. There is no allowance for differing rates of learning. Some kids learn faster than others. Teachers are not allowed to adjust.

3. There are rules about what teachers must put on classroom walls. If a federal inspector comes around and you don’t have the proper material on your classroom walls, a note goes in your permanent file.

4. The Reading First program requires that reading be taught before everything else. Some kids are relatively slow to learn to read but they are able to learn in other ways. The effect of the mandate is that these other kids sit in the classroom baffled and unhappy and lose self-confidence.

5. The rigidity of the curriculum — which must be exactly the same for all students — squashes encouragement. For example, suppose a student is interested in bugs. You could encourage reading by giving the student books about bugs. This is a natural, effective, and easy way to teach reading. This way of teaching is not just discouraged but prohibited.

6. A friend of mine says that bookstores should be divided into “real books” and “other books.” Children’s textbooks, which are worse than anything in a bookstore, deserve their own category. A fifth-grade teacher got around the awfulness of the textbooks by putting real books in the center of the classroom tables and having children sit with their textbooks open around them. This allowed the students to read the real books but if the principal came by the teacher would not get in trouble because the assigned textbooks were open in front of the students.

Excellent posts about elementary-school education by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabbarok.

A Student Advisor’s Unlovely View of UC Berkeley

I started talking with Catherine Pauling, who has worked at UC Berkeley more than 20 years, because I confused her with someone else. While she was head student advisor in the Math Department, she increased the number of majors from 170 to 600 in 5 years. “Some math professors were afraid this was too many — it could only occur because we were bringing in inadequate students, they believed,” she said. “But the percentage of students having trouble and excelling remained the same.”

When advising math majors, she told me, “sometimes I felt there should have been a Red Cross on my door.” She learned to preach compassion — compassion for the professors. She said over and over to the students,

You have to realize it’s not you. The professors will say terrible things like ‘You know nothing.’ But that’s because in the process of becoming the best in what they do, they’ve neglected certain social and communication skills. So we have to appreciate and learn from their gifts and have compassion for their lack of development in these other areas.

Over the years, she was repeatedly shocked by how undergraduates were treated. “If someone has achieved so much, I would have thought it would be easy to be generous. Instead of an interest in mentoring the next generation, I often found impatience and dismissal,” she said. “One student explained to me the difference between Stanford and Berkeley. At Stanford, if a student has a problem, they [faculty and administrators] assume that they’re approaching it wrong and they try a new approach; at Berkeley, if a student has a problem, the assumption is that we made a mistake in admitting the student.”

One recent Dean of the College of Letters and Science (also a professor) began his tenure as dean, she told me, by giving a talk in which he emphasized his belief that students were “gaming the system.” He acted on this belief by rigidly enforcing the rules, with few exceptions. (Many Berkeley students suffer serious hardships, including homelessness and major mental disorders.) When he stopped being dean several years later, it was to take a better position at another university. The next dean was less strict.

For whom do colleges exist?

The Twilight of Expertise (part 7: education experts)

The education improvement program — merit pay for teachers as part of a larger package — promoted by the Milken Family Foundation received a big public boost last week with this NY Times article about a similar program in Minnesota.

A consensus is building across the political spectrum that rewarding teachers with bonuses or raises for improving student achievement, working in lower income schools or teaching subjects that are hard to staff can energize veteran teachers and attract bright rookies to the profession. . . Minnesota’s experience shows . . . that an incentive plan created with union input can draw teacher support.

The plan that is gaining support was devised by Lowell Milken, according to Jana Rausch, who works for the Milken Family Foundation on this initiative. Before he started the foundation, Lowell Milken was a lawyer. As far as education goes, he is self-taught. Yet the program he devised seems to be working better than other programs. Of course many people have proposed merit pay for teachers; but it is the Milken Family Foundation that has managed to make it work. We need engineers to build a better plane. But we do not need education experts, apparently, to build better schools.

Can Dish It Out But Can’t Take It

The presidents of dozens of liberal arts colleges have decided to stop participating in the annual college rankings by U.S. News and World Report.

From the NY Times. I commented earlier on the contradiction between how college presidents think students should be judged — they believe it is fine to judge all students according to one standard that usually has little to do with their strengths and goals — and how they wish to be their colleges to be judged.

“Frankly, it had bubbled up to the point of, why should we do this work for them?” said Judith P. Shapiro, the president of Barnard College.

Yes, exactly: Why help prospective students? Lest there be any doubt for whom colleges exist.

Academic Horror Story (Tulane University)

A few weeks ago, the manager of a New Orleans art gallery told me a story that I wish had surprised me.

When he was a senior at Tulane University, he took a Political Science class about the British Political System. For his term paper he wrote about the functions of the British Cabinet. The night before the final he got a phone call. It was from the Tulane honor board: He was charged with plagiarism. He was devastated, and did badly on the final.

The next semester a hearing took place. At the hearing, he listened to a tape of his professor’s testimony. The professor recommended that he be expelled: Not only had he plagiarized, the professor said, he had flunked the final. The supposed plagiarism was that he had listed ten functions of the British Cabinet without giving a source. He had believed that this was common knowledge, such as saying the sky is blue, and thus did not need a source. He had not copied word for word — he had paraphrased his source. The honor board gave him an WF for the course — withdrawal with an F.

The charge of plagiarism is absurd. It isn’t even obvious that the student did anything wrong — he is correct that you don’t need to reference “the sky is blue.” The telling part of this story is not that an individual professor was cruel and stupid — it is that a committee of professors backed him up.

Another case — this time at Memorial University of Newfoundland — where a committee of professors did exactly the wrong thing with awful consequences for an innocent person. The current Memorial administration now defends this!

A website about how IRBs (institutional review boards) abuse their power. IRBs are university-wide committees that oversee research. They consist mostly of professors.

So you can see why I wasn’t really surprised.

Where Did Blogs Come From?

The more I blog, the more I think about blogging. (And the more I enjoy blogs.) In an email to Tyler Cowen I wondered if blogs were a new art form. He replied:

I’ve long been interested in early literary models for bloggers, including Boswell, Pepys, Julio Cortazar, and John Cage (having a co blogger and comments introduces an aleatoric element)…I’m always looking for others…

I replied:

My literary model is Scheherazade. When I think of more standard precursors of blogs, I think of diaries and epistolary novels. Improvisational jazz, too, the way bloggers riff on something they’ve read. Also the Watts Towers — especially for MR.

I think the way bloggers inject emotion into non-fiction is something new in the world of expression. Robert Caro once said that he tried to inject desperation into every page of his bio of Lyndon Johnson. “Is there desperation on the page?” read a note to himself pinned near his typewriter.

Non-fiction with emotion isn’t easy, in other words. Caro’s books are fantastic achievements because he manages to convey emotion page after page for thousands of pages. Not just Johnson’s desperation — as a friend of mine said, Caro seems to “hate” Johnson. He certainly hated the later Robert Moses.

Blogging with emotion, however, is easy. Almost unavoidable. For post after post. Nobody blogs about stuff they don’t care about or feel strongly about. If you want to learn about something, find a blog about it.

Addendum: Speaking of blogs and art, this NY Times Mag article is excellent.

Is the Goal of Education Obvious?

A Harvard task force has concluded that Harvard undergraduate education needs improvement. One task force member is Eric Mazur, a professor of physics. He has presumably given the matter a lot of thought. Here is what he does and says:

As a model for innovative teaching, Professor Skocpol [head of the task force] pointed to Professor Mazur, the physicist.

He threw out his lectures in his introductory physics class when he realized his students were not absorbing the underlying principles, relying instead on memory to solve problems. His classes now focus on students working in small groups.

“When I asked them to apply their knowledge in a situation they had not seen before, they failed,” Professor Mazur said. “You have to be able to tackle the new and unfamiliar, not just the familiar, in everything. We have to give the students the skills to solve such problems. That’s the goal of education.”

The other faculty in Professor Mazur’s department are surely terrific at tackling “new and unfamiliar” physics problems, which is the skill Professor Mazur wants to teach his students. Yet these other faculty are obviously not good teachers. (When he lectured, Mazur was simply imitating those around him.) I conclude that the skills needed to (a) do good physics research and (b) teach physics well are quite different. So why is Mazur emphasizing the skills needed to do the former (research) and not the latter (teaching)? And what about all the other jobs in the world — what do “you have to be able to” do in those jobs? The goal of education is not as obvious as Mazur claims.

The electrical charge of a single electron was first determined by Robert Millikan, who made a mistake in his calculations (wrong value for the viscosity of air). It was several years before this mistake was noticed. In the meantime, other physicists calculated the charge on a single electron. They did not make Millikan’s mistake — yet they got nearly the same (wrong) answer! Over time, the answers gradually drifted toward the correct answer.

That is essentially what is happening here. Mazur realizes something is wrong with the current system, but he has twisted his thinking — just as post-Millikan scientists determining the charge of an electron tweaked their equipment and data analyses — until the discrepancy is small enough to live with. The notion that “the goal of education” is being able to solve new and unfamiliar physics problems (or new and unfamiliar problems in general) doesn’t survive even a little scrutiny, but that’s what a Harvard professor who cares about education has come to believe.

What If College Were Taught by Basketball Players?

1. “I don’t teach passing, I teach teamwork,” says a Professor of Ball Handling at an elite university.

2. The more prestigious the school, the taller its students and professors.

3. The Bell Curve is about the advantages of being tall. Taller people have better life outcomes, the authors discover via analysis of a large data set. Curiously, the authors — both tall — conclude that tall people should be favored even more.

4. The better students say that at college they learned how to learn. They mean they learned how to learn to play a sport.

5. At “research” universities the professors spend more time playing basketball than teaching.

6. A Princeton, New Jersey company develops and sells a fast standardized way to measure basketball ability.

7. Sports Illustrated publishes an essay titled “What Every Educated Person Should Know.”

8. By graduation, students know very well how good at basketball they are but know almost nothing about their ability in other areas.

The excellent humorist Henry Alford wrote “What If” articles for Spy magazine and, more recently, for Vanity Fair, such as “What If Paris Hilton Were President of the United States?”

A Professor Complains Loudly

Generalization #1: Everyone likes to be listened to. Being a professor is being paid to be listened to. It’s like being a restaurant reviewer or a professional athlete — your job is doing what others do for fun. Generalization #2: American colleges are run more for the benefit of professors than for the benefit of students, as I have intimated earlier.

That’s why this complaint is noteworthy:

This has been an excruciating term, because for the first time I had students who resented having to think, to work, to meet expectations, who seemed to really believe that showing up was all it took . . . As hard as I’ve tried, I haven’t been able to salvage any time for my own research, so I feel as though — in addition to wasting my efforts and care and concern on students who wouldn’t even grasp that I was doing them some favors (yes, I’ll teach extra evening sessions to help you understand the material that was a prerequisite for the course, but, um, yes, you need to do the reading) — I made absolutely no progress toward tenure. . . . This term has taken too much out of me, and right now, the thought of teaching again — ever — makes me want to sob. So here’s my secret: I don’t want to go back. I never want to see these people again — colleagues or students — and I think I made a terrible mistake.

A comment was “AMEN!”

I’m sure we’re genetically wired to teach and learn but that doesn’t mean the process can’t go badly wrong. We’re genetically wired to eat, too, and lots of ways people eat are very unhealthy. I have compared formal education to agriculture. Sure, agriculture is more efficient than hunting and gathering but agriculture caused nutrient deficiencies that reduced human health for a very long time. (My weight-control research and omega-3 research suggest it is still doing so.) We barely know how to eat. This complaint suggests we know even less how to teach.

The !Golden Rule and Reed College

In the programming language R, ! is the negation function — !FALSE is TRUE, for example. The !Golden Rule, the opposite of the Golden Rule, is to treat others as you yourself do not wish to be treated.

An example comes from Colin Diver, the President of Reed College (my alma mater), who complains in an Atlantic Monthly piece about college rankings. Reed has opted out of the U.S. News and World Report rankings. President Diver explains why:

Trying to rank institutions of higher education is a little like trying to rank religions or philosophies.

That’s right: If different colleges have different goals, it is unfair and misleading to rank them on the same scale.

By far the most important consequence of sitting out the rankings game . . . is the freedom to pursue our own educational philosophy, not that of some newsmagazine.

Actually, you can pursue a singular educational philosophy in any case, rankings or no rankings. It’s just that the rankings punish you for doing so.

This is an example of the !Golden Rule because what President Diver complains about happens in every Reed classroom. All the students in a class are graded on the same scale with the same requirements. Perhaps different students have different goals, just as different colleges have different goals? Perhaps this system of grading punishes students with unusual goals, just as the U.S. News ranking system punishes colleges with unusual goals?

For Whom Do Colleges Exist? (continued)

Yesterday on BART I saw someone reading The And of Poverty. It was an illegal Chinese edition of The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. I asked the person reading it what she thought of it. “Very ethnocentric,” she said. “Very Jeffrey-Sachs-centric,” I said. (For a good critique, see The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly.) America is not the only ethnocentric country, she said, so are other countries who give foreign aid, such as Japan. “What gives me hope is the growth of micro-finance,” she said. “People have a great capacity for figuring out what they need.” I agreed.

In the comments on my “For Whom Do Colleges Exist?” post someone asked what I would suggest. In my opinion, almost all attempts to improve colleges have had the same core problem as almost all foreign aid: The helpers think they know better what to do than the people they wish to help.

My prescription for higher education is simple: Give students more control of what they learn. When I did this in spades — more by accident than design — my students blossomed. I had never seen anything like it. It happened again and again. When I helped my students learn what they wanted to learn, as opposed to what I thought they should learn, they learned much more. Funny, huh?

Giving students more control of what they learn can be done in many ways, of course. At UC Berkeley, where I teach, here are two possible baby steps in that direction:

1. There exists a system of student-organized-and-run classes called DeCal. Allow one DeCal class to go toward satisfying the Letters and Science college-wide breadth requirement (seven classes, one from each of several areas). The DeCal class would replace any of the seven classes.

2. Allow — or, even better, encourage — admitted students to take a gap year, as they do in England. A gap year is a year away from school between high school and college. (I proposed such a thing a few years ago to the previous UC Berkeley chancellor. My suggestion was given to an administrator who dismissed it. Too hard to administer, she said.)

Professors should like these suggestions. The DeCal proposal will reduce the number of students who take a class because they are forced to. The gap-year proposal will reduce the immaturity of freshmen. When I gave my students much more power to learn what they wanted to learn, my job got much easier. Funny, huh?

For Whom Do Colleges Exist?

On Book TV last weekend I saw a discussion of the terrific-sounding new book You Can Hear Me Now by Nicholas Sullivan, about how an ex-banker named Iqbal Quadir started GrameenPhone, which helps poor people in Bangladesh get cell phones. From the discussion:

Someone from the UN: I hear that the UN should spend $100 in a million places rather $100 million in one place. But what else?

Iqbal Quadir: The UN should empower the people, not empower their governments. And if they cannot empower the people they can just shut it off. My point is that helping the wrong side is harmful. So if they cannot help the right side they should at least not help the wrong side. I’m not trying to say anything radical here, frankly. The governments belong to their people. You must make sure you don’t disturb that relationship. If you change the incentive for the government, you are disturbing the emergence of democracy.

I had never heard it put so clearly. We can ask if governments exist: 1. To improve the lives of the governed. 2. To employ the governors. 3. To help other governments. Similarly, we can ask if colleges exist: 1. To teach the students. 2. To employ the teachers. 3. To help businesses who will eventually employ the students (the signalling function of college).

Suppose we believe that the main function of colleges is to teach the students. How, then, should we improve colleges? By giving mini-grants to teachers (as is done at UC Berkeley, where I teach)? By giving awards to the best teachers (as is done at UC Berkeley)? Or by doing something quite different?

Addendum: The growing disillusionment of a University of Michigan student.

Agrees With Me About College

According to Bryan Caplan, “our [higher] educational system is a big waste of time and money.” He is writing a book about this — yay! He attended college at the place I know the most about — UC Berkeley. Here is why it is a big waste of time. Professors can only teach what they know. All they truly know how to do is how to be a professor. At a research university, that mainly involves doing research. Berkeley professors can teach how to do research, sure, but that has little to do with what most Berkeley students will do after they graduate. So a lot of time is wasted. It is most unfortunate to (a) require all students to imitate professors and (b) to rank them according to how well they do so.

In response to Caplan, Catherine Johnson says her undergraduate education was useful. But she became a nonfiction writer — very close, in the big world of work, to what professors do. That’s one of those exceptions that prove the rule.

I think practically everyone learns well if any of three conditions are met:

  • Apprenticeship. You want to be good at doing X, you will learn by watching someone skillful do X. Effortlessly.
  • Guru. If you think of so-and-so as a guru, you will learn from him or her. Effortlessly.
  • Stories. Stories teach values. Things associated with the hero become considered good and desirable; things associated with the villain become considered bad and to be avoided. Effortlessly.
  • Most university classes, however, fulfill none of these conditions. On the face of it, university classes teach; but crucial details are missing. It’s like butter and margarine. Margarine is supposed to be as good as butter but it’s not. There is a superficial resemblance but margarine lacks crucial vitamins that butter contains. Because university classes lack crucial elements, they are forced to use grades, tests, and fear of failure as motivation. These motivators don’t work very well, as Alfie Kohn among others has pointed out. Sort of for the same reason Humpty-Dumpty couldn’t be put back together again.

    Jane Jacobs on College

    Jane Jacobs, the urban and economic theorist, wrote:

    Only in stagnant economies does work stay docilely within given categories. And wherever it is forced to stay within prearranged categories — whether by zoning, by economic planning, or by guilds, associations or unions — the process of adding new work to old can occur little if at all.

    In the case of college, the “work” is post-high-school education. College students are not forced to join a union but the need for credentials forces them to attend college, where, as Jacobs correctly predicts, a narrow range of subjects is taught in a narrow range of ways. Take my department (psychology at UC Berkeley). As one of my students, a psychology major, asked, why isn’t there a course about relationships? That’s what’s really important, he said. Yes, why not? There has never been such a course at Berkeley nor, to my knowledge, at any other elite university. What a curious omission. And why do practically all classes involve lectures, reading assignments, and tests? Aren’t there a thousand ways to teach and learn? I think Jacobs has the answer: Work has been forced to stay within prearranged categories — categories that seem increasingly outdated. The pattern of chapters in almost all introductory psychology textbooks (which cost about $100) derives from the 1950s!

    An earlier post by me about college. Other people’s comments. Jane Jacobs on the food industry and scientific method.

    The Trouble With College

    Yesterday I heard something — a very ordinary bit of info — that neatly summed up the trouble with college. Someone told me about a friend of hers who was a graduate student in English at Berkeley. Her friend taught a small class of freshman and sophomores. He was enthusiastic about what he was teaching, but his students were not. He couldn’t make them enthusiastic, even a little. They just sat there. When I started teaching at Berkeley, I had a similar experience. My first class was introductory psychology. Over the first few months, I came to see that my students, almost all of them, had different interests than me. I thought X and Y were fascinating; they didn’t.

    No one is at fault here, of course. It’s perfectly okay that the grad student enthused about something that leaves his students cold. It is perfectly okay that I liked Research X and Y but Research X and Y bored my students. Nothing wrong with any of this — in fact, we need diversity of thought and knowledge, which grows from diversity of interests. We need diversity of thought and knowledge because we have many different problems to solve.

    At fault is a system (Berkeley and similar colleges) that fails to value that diversity. (In fact, it doesn’t even notice the diversity, except in a one-dimensional way: how much students resemble their professor.) Even worse, the system tries to reduce diversity of thought because it tries to make students think like their professors. Why should the 20 (or 800) students in one class be forced to learn the same material? The students vary greatly. Forcing all of them to learn the exactly same stuff is like forcing all of them to wear exactly the same clothes. It can be done, especially if rewards and punishments (i.e., grades) are used, but it’s unwise. Just as feeding children a poor diet stunts physical growth, forcing college students to imitate their professors, instead of letting them (or even better, helping them) grow in all directions, stunts intellectual growth.

    I wrote about these issues here and gave a related talk about human evolution. Aaron Swartz and I have ideas about a better way, and how to get there, which I will blog about. I will tell a 10-minute story about this as part of the Porchlight story-telling series on March 26 (Monday), 8:00 pm, Cafe du Nord, 2170 Market Street, San Francisco ($12 admission).

    Bruce Springsteen on Education

    In an interview, Bruce Springsteen said:

    I wasn’t quite suited for the educational system. One problem with the way the educational system is set up is that it only recognizes a certain type of intelligence, and it’s incredibly restrictive — very, very restrictive. There’s so many types of intelligence, and people who would be at their best outside of that structure [get lost].

    Yes! That’s what I’m saying here, here, and here. The quote is from David Shenk’s great new blog about talent and how to nurture it.