Over at Unofficial Manifesto, D-Train takes me to task over a conversation we had a few weeks ago concerning the role of the Spirit in academic progress in which I expressed my cynicism concerning academia and our educational system. His criticism is worth reading and I hope you will check it out.
As D-Train points out, we agree a great deal in our relative positions on the Spirit in intellectual matters. It may be that we are really saying the same thing, but that he is misunderstanding me, or I him.
D-Train says “…if one desires to receive revelation for one’s profession that will significantly move that profession forward, one has to be among the best at it. Quite simply, the Spirit cannot help us beyond our preparation…. unless you understand the state of the art, you can’t go beyond it, with or without divine assistance.“
This may be true to a certain extent, but what I object to is the implication that we should wait to seek relevant revelation until we are confident that we are experts in the field already. The idea that the Spirit cannot help us go beyond our own preparation is true at a certain level, but implies that the preparation is something we are to do unaided by the Spirit. It is this â€œdo it on your ownâ€ view that I stridently oppose.
D-Train emphasizes the importance of doing well in the world as a prerequisite to receiving revelation for the world. I think that the interrelationship between the two is far more complex. I see the role of the Spirit as continuous and non-linear. Throughout the process of education we should be leveraging our revelatory access to deity to gain additional insights about the material we are learning. Throughout the process, prayer and the Spirit should enhance our preparation so that we will be able to go beyond the state of the art. It is not a linear progression from personal preparation to revelation. It is a continuous, nonlinear feedback loop in which revelation through the Spirit influences our preparation which in turn influences our ability to receive more from the Spirit, and so on.
President John Taylor declared:
“You will see the day that Zion will be far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind as we are today in regard to religious matters. You mark my words, and write them down, and see if they do not come to pass.”
I believe that such a state is only possible if we establish the kind of complex continual feedback system between Spirit and Learning that I describe above. If we wait until we are the top of our fields to start to seek further light in our realms of learning, it may very well be too late. The spirit can help us become the leaders in our fields.
Perhaps another difference in our views is that I maintain that the Spirit is operating in the world, even among those who are not members of the church, to produce the progress that we are making. He provides the nonlinear flashes of inspiration, the moments of insight that are so essential to the advancement of science. If men have genius it is because God gives it to them. They should be praised for their hard work and achievements, but the inspiration of the Spirit is an essential ingredient.
In the second part of his post, D-Train dubs me â€œAnti-Intellectualâ€ and at least one of his readers considers me to be completely clueless in the matters at hand.
Anti-Intellectual is a loaded term. The term “intellectual” implies knowledge, wisdom, and intelligence, and so to be called “anti-intellectual” is frequently perceived as connoting that one is against knowledge, wisdom, and intelligence, or at least suffers from a handicap in these areas and therefore feels a need to deemphasize them to compensate for his or her own lack of genius. I am certainly not against knowledge, wisdom, or intelligence, though I may very well be handicapped in them.
In the sense that I take academic elitism and pretensions with a grain of salt (and at times a whole salt-shaker full of salt) I certainly qualify as espousing a degree of anti-intellectualism. But I am not wholly anti-intellectual.
D-Train found my cynical statement about academia to be â€œuncharitableâ€ and I suppose that it is. I do wonder, though, if the commandment to be charitable really extends beyond people to institutions, or systems of thought? One can be have charity for Marxists, or Laissez-faire capitalists, and still be a completely uncharitable cynic about Marxism or Laissez-faire Capitalism. And I don’t see anything wrong with that.
D-Train assumes that because I criticize academia I must hate academics, and prefer people who do “useful” things like make widgets. D-Train is applying a convenient “anti-intellectual” caricature to me as a kind of straw-man/ad hominem that he can easily dismantle. I do not hate academics. Most of my closest friends are academics. I grew up with academics. My father has a Juris Doctor as well as a PhD in Social Psychology. He has practiced law for nearly thirty years. My mother graduated with a double major in English and International Relations and went on to get a Masters in Instructional Design and Technology. Most of my friends through high school, college, and currently are intellectuals and academics. I grew up in wards populated by BYU professors with whom I had close association. My cynicism is born not only of my own experience in academia, but from my long association with academics and intellectuals and their own criticisms of academia.
My cynicism does not lead me to reject all academics or even academia outright. As D-Train points out, of course there is diversity in academia; I might point out, however, that there is diversity in budgerigar populations too, but they are all still budgies. :-p
I described universities as â€œspawning tanks for counter-culture and socio-political radicalism.â€ In his response, D-Train, reading a great deal into my words, points out, correctly, that radicalism isn’t necessarily all bad, and that, in many relevant ways, Mormonism is counter-cultural and radical. I agree with him. My main point in describing universities in this way was neither to attack or defend counter-culture or radicalism per say, but to contrast that aspect of universities with the systematic emphasis on conformity. As a hobbyist who has spent considerable time spawning various species of living things in one of numerous tanks and aquariums in my home, my use of the phrase â€œspawning tanksâ€ does not carry as much negative connotation as D-Train assumes. However, D-Train is right that inasmuch as counter-culture represents rampant promiscuity, sexual deviance, moral relativism, and the destabilization of the family, I am against it.
Concerning my description of the grading systems as â€œmostly smoke and mirrors, designed more to test conformity and to provide businesses with a convenient way of ranking potential employees, than to engender innovation,â€ D-Train displays a typical academic’s blind-faith in the academic system. He declares:
â€œIndividual grades may well be flawed. But the population of students possessing a 4.0 at Institution A is going to be more intelligent and learned than the 3.0 kids. I agree that false precision is a problem with grades. 3.6 doesn’t mean a lot more than 3.59, or even 3.4….There might be students that are brilliant little Edisons that just can’t squeeze a B from their superliberal professor. But there aren’t many…. Individual mistakes in grading are clearly likely, as are mistakes in any large statistical sample. In the aggregate, they tend to be very accurate. â€
Many experts in instruction and assessment know that, in many, if not most, cases, grades have no real educational meaning or purpose. Grades are most often assigned for administrative purposes only–to rank, sort, advance, hold back, or punish students. They do not indicate anything about what learning goals have or have not been reached, let alone the intelligence of the student. They provide no guidance for instructional planning or self learning.
There is little to no scientific basis for the belief that the population of students possessing a 4.0 are more intelligent and learned than the population of students with a 3.0. Contrary to D-Train’s unproven assumptions, studies have shown that even in math and science classes, grades are wildly meaningless when it comes to educational assessment. In one study, different math teachers who were asked to grade the same math exam varied the grade assigned to the exam from a D grade to an A and everything in between.
Scientifically conducted experiments have also shown that grading can often involve a degree of self-fulfilling prophesy on the part of the teacher. When teachers were told that a certain, arbitrary subgroup of students had been evaluated with high IQ and learning potential compared to their peers in the same class, those students consistently were found to be the top students in the class, regardless of what their actual potential in relation to their peers was.
Even the applicability of the well-known Bell-curve grading practice is mostly based on folklore, and is designed to produce a statistical ranking system that represents little else than arbitrary ranks.
It is natural for academics to think that getting all As means something… after all, getting As is what they were good at themselvesâ€”that is how they became academics. This is what I referred to when I described academia as â€œlargely a self-perpetuating, incestuous system designed primarily to produce more academia.â€
Before I finish, I might as well drag in a little history of the IQ, which is related. Grades and IQ are all about trying to rank people–a concept that seems to me, in some ways, to run contrary to the principles of the Gospel. The following history is adapted from this article.
A cousin of Charles Darwin named Francis Galton started us on the path toward IQ testing. He was apparently jealous of his famous cousin and wanted to produce some great new idea too. His idea was that intelligence was measurable and that it was hereditary and he busied himself mapping the number of geniuses and fools in families. Galton dreamed of selectively breeding people from families full of high achievers to develop a deserving elite to lead society.
Some time later, the French government approached a psychologist named Alfred Binet. They were concerned that their universal public education system was costing a lot of money but that it was not turning out well educated students. They wanted Binet to devise a way of identifying the students that would struggle before they even started school.
Observing that children are able to solve increasingly complex problems as they age, he tested a large sample of children to determine the average level of problem complexity for each age and called it â€œmental ageâ€. Then he compared individual children with the average he had found. Binet hypothesized that how individual children performed in relation to the average â€œmental ageâ€ could be used to predict how well a child would do in school. He never claimed to be measuring intelligence, just aptitude for school.
In 1916 Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman adapted Binet’s test for American children and adults. The test was called the Terman-Binet Intelligence Test and is still in use today. Borrowing an idea from German psychologist William Stern, Terman devised a way of representing intelligence with a single number. He divided Binet’s â€œmental ageâ€ by the chronological age and multiplied the quotient by 100. The result was the Intelligence Quotient (IQ). An 10-year-old with a mental age (so-called) of 10 would have an IQ of 100. An ten-year-old doing the work of a 15-year-old had an IQ of 100 times 1.5, or 150. After testing Mexican Native American Children, Terman declared that â€œtheir dullness appears to be racial.â€
The scheme was revised for adults and eventually a baseline â€œmental ageâ€ was determined for each age group and called 100. IQ baselines are reset every few years (because it really is only useful for ranking people in relation to one another). If we look at the change in baselines over the last 40 or so years it seems people in general have increased in IQ by about 30 points!
When the United States entered World War I, the U.S. Army needed to build an instant army of more than a million soldiers. They needed a way to assign officers, technicians, soldiers, etc. in very little time. They didn’t want to waste their time trying to educate people who couldn’t be educated. They contacted a certain Robert Yerks to accomplish for the Army what Binet had been asked to do for French schools. Yerks produced two tests: one for Literate English Speakers and One for the Illitarate and Non-English Speakers. The Army tested and sorted 1.7 million people and filled their officer and soldier training camps based solely upon their scores. The tests were poorly administered, inaccurate, and largely unfair, but the Army’s wholesale adoption of IQ popularized the system.
An IQ expert named Henry Goddard was hired as a consultant on Ellis Island. After testing he declared that 83% of Jews, 80% of Hungarians, 79% of Italians, and 87% of Russians were â€œfeeblemindedâ€ based on IQ testing. In 1924 a law was established that set immigration quotas based on country of origin based upon Goddard’s IQ testing.
IQ testing suffers from severe conceptual and practical problems. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court virtually banned the use of IQ tests as a hiring tool. Since th 80’s many school districts have banned IQ testing altogether. But it has, lamentably, remained a strong force in popular culture.
Grading suffers from many of the same problems, and is driven by many of the same motivations, as IQ measurement, and yet our culture has put so much emphasis on it. D-Train is wrong when he asserts that it is companies and not academia that artificially emphasized grades. Universities are companies–at least they run very much like companies and it is easy to see the emphasis in grades in university admissions around the nation and world. It isn’t merely office politics, the same as everywhere else. Grades are an institutional paradigm. Everything revolves around badges, even if those badges mean only that you are good at jumping through hoops and getting badges, or that you were lucky enough not to have calculus from Professor Blunderbuss.
There are many good, intelligent people in academia. But, to a great extent, they exist in spite of the system and not because of it. There are also many good, intelligent people who have been excluded from academia because they don’t play academic games.
As members of the church we walk a fine line. We must excel in the world without making worldly excellence our aim. We must strive to be excellent and give all the glory to the Father. We must work to produce the best the world has ever seen, and at the same time remain humbleâ€”rejoicing in the success of our neighbor as much as we would in our own; and rejoicing in our own success as much as we would had it been our neighbor’s.
As members we should not invest too much faith in the “arm of flesh” academic system and exlude the Spirit–or put off its influence until that time that is apt never to arrive without His help. We must be wary lest, having excelled on the entrance-exams, we enter into that great and spacious building, floating in the air.
We must always esteem our temple recommend more than the recommendation to the ivory tower we received while dressed in the robes of the apostate priesthood.
(Perhaps I will be eviscerated in the bloggernacle because of this rant…but that’s the fun of blogs isn’t it! I hope it’s a fun conversation. After all, blog are, above everything else, entertainment.)