Sunday, March 27, 2011

I'm with stupid.

Image courtesy of some wingnuts on the margins of American politics

So I'm reading Slate (don't be hating; it has the Red Rascal!) this morning, as I'm wont to do instead of doing productive things. There isn't much there; but there is a link to this 2008 article by Neil Howe at The Washington Post that slipped right by me at the time.

Choice thought:

" If the data are objectively assessed, which age-slice of today's working-age adults really does deserve to be called the dumbest generation?
. . . . [I]t's Americans in their 40s, especially their late 40s -- those born from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. . . . Compared with every other birth cohort, they have performed the worst on standardized exams, acquired the fewest educational degrees and been the least attracted to professional careers. In a word, they're the dumbest. . . . Like it or not . . . Sarah Palin (born in 1964). . . is . . . representative of this group. . . . . On both the reading and the math tests, and at all three tested ages (9, 13 and 17), the lowest-ever scores in the history of the NAEP were recorded by children born between 1961 and 1965.
The same pattern shows up in SAT scores . . . .[which reached their] all-time low in 1980. . . .
[At the same time] [f]or the first time in decades, the share of young adults entering professions such as law, medicine and accounting began to drop median income [stagnated] . . . .and . . . household assets [declined] among Americans in their 20s. . . .

Wait! That can't be right! My whole generation can't be a bunch of morons. Look at the quality literature we read! Look at the movies we loved!

That's right, we are smrt! Laugh while you can, monkey boy!

Or, wait. Howe actually has an explanation, which he calls the crowding out effect. Coming at the end of the baby boom, we were crowded out of parental attention, good schools, and teachers. We took the brunt of rapidly rising divorce rates. As we were coming into the workforce, we encountered the bloating of the learned professions that persists to this day. There's only so much room in the lifeboats around the sinking carcass of "Generation X," and it can only carry so many people away to the safe shores of middle classdom.

Sure, whatever. It fits my experience  growing up, but about that I can only say that this guy is a fraud; he never went to the North Island, and neither did many people with teaching degrees and uncrushed dreams.  That's not a slag on the good teachers that I did have; just the facts. I'm certainly not going to generalise about those teachers, but the  hypothesis fits Howe's numbers. In general, my generation was poorly educated.

As with any thoroughly depressing tale, Howe has to end with what the front-jacket blurb writer of my first year English class text of Waiting for Godot chose to call a "thrilling threnody of hope." Ha, ha, Mr. Blurb Writer. I'm laughing with you, not at you because Samuel Beckett is totally hilarious, and that wasn't a waste of my time at all.

Not that I'm bitter or anything: plenty of people liked Waiting for Godot. So, Mr. Howe's threnody of hope:

"Most early Xers know the score. Graduating (or not) from school in the early 1980s, they saw themselves billboarded as a bad example by blue-ribbon commissions eager to reform the system for the next generation, the Millennials. Angling for promotions in the early 1990s, they got busy with self-help guides (yes, those "For Dummies" books) to learn all the subjects they were never taught the first time around. And today, as midlife parents, they have become ultra-protective of their own teenage kids and ultra-demanding of their kids' schools, as if to make double-certain it won't happen again."

Yeah. That's what we're doing. We're nagging the teachers up at Carisbrooke to make sure that "it never happens again." (I' nagging for the nephew and the niece because I can't nag for my own kids, because I kinda forgot to have any. I should do something about that soon.)

See, this is where I disagree with Mr. Howe. The problem isn't that Mrs. Wormwood is chugging Maalox straight from the bottle. The problem is that Mrs. Wormwood has been put in that position in the first place.  It's a demographic thing. There's only enough good jobs for a few people. And how do we react? Oh, we yell at Mrs. Wormwood. But our aim is to make sure that there's room in the lifeboats for our precious.

Okay: here's one thing, and here's another. If I were to snark about having Waiting for Godot as a freshman English reading, I would have reason. 1982 saw UBC's first year failure rate  approaching 50% and English 100 was tied to the English Composition Test a mandatory, pass/fail examination that was scything down would-be minority professionals. But I'm not going to snark, because a play judged as one of the most important of the century is defensibly the subject of a course about reading and writing English that one can reasonably expect university graduates to have taken and passed.

Nor am I going to complain about the gap between high and low culture; twas ever thus.

What I'm going to complain about is much, much simpler. These are fucking gatekeeping functions. How do you tell which person deserves to get into law school on merit? Hard question: one of the ways that you can do it is ask them to analysis their culture --the stuff that I linked to above. That's the conversation that us stupids were having. How do we, individual stupids, do? Are we passive consumers, or are we in the conversation? If we are in the conversation, how do they fare? That's a great way to tell who is a smart would-be lawyer and who isn't. Where that leads you in terms of the law-talking profession, I have no idea. The point here is that it is a hard thing to do because you have to evaluate the prospective students.

Here's an alternative trick. Ask them about Waiting for Godot. Since no-one of their generation has read it voluntarily, there will only be two kinds of students to choose from. Those who haven't read it at all, and those who read it under instruction at the right kind of school. They will sound tolerably smart, and you can pat yourself on the back for gatekeeping the dumb students out of law school, even as in fact what you'e done is police the kind of education that gets you into law school. Or, to put it more vulgarly, only the right schools get in. 

Fill our childrens' heads with the kinds of stuff they teach in the right kind of schools, if you please, Mrs. Wormwood. That way, they'll know to let them on the lifeboat. It's not a new thing, it's not necessarily a bad thing, I'd say, because a great many of the bad schools are bad because they're content to coast. (I'm writing this in the midst of a two-week long Spring Break. Seriously, when did we lose touch with the idea that education was good for kids?)

But who cares from what I think? I'm with stupid.

If I weren't stupid, though, I'd have a suggestion. More lifeboats, please. More jobs. More people.

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