No Monopoly on Grey Matter

In “College: A Cruel Hoax for Some” Ron Dreher raises the question of whether everyone ought to attend university and whether everyone can actually succeed there.

Dreher raises the topic of “contemporary American disdain for the dignity of manual labor”. Work that does not require skills learned in universities is no more or less noble or dignified than work that does. While certainly the trades no longer hold the prestige they once did, there has always been a desire for some jobs over others, generally based on the ratio of compensation to difficulty. After all, there is a lot to be said for a job that is, as someone once said, “indoors and no heavy lifting”. Obviously not everyone, but I think a large, not-very-vocal percentage of people respect the competent person in a less prestigious vocation than the incompetent person in a more prestigious one.

When I was at university, the computer science department refused to teach the C programming language because “we are an educational institution, not a trade school”. Yet the students fought to get into the one class that used C because they wanted to have proficiency when they graduated and needed to find a job. A well-rounded education certainly has value, but so do specific skills. The ivy-clad university can continue to provide academic education, but there also seems to be a market for, and a value in, schools that teach applicable skills. Shop classes in high school and trade schools once served that market. The decrease in the number of jobs for buggy whip assemblers and blacksmiths did not decrease the number of people who are not destined to be academicians.

I agree with his proposition that everyone has different innate talents and that American society tends to ignore that inborn inequity. I assume it stems from the Puritan part of American culture, but the idea that hard work can overcome any disadvantage persists. For the most part that idea, while oversimplified and sometimes inaccurate, benefits society by associating the improvement of one’s lot in life as the outcome of hard work. While hard work can not overcome everything (e.g., I can never have a career as a jockey) it can overcome more than folks assume, so that idea serves quite well as a heuristic.

Sadly I have to disagree with Dreher’s statement, “We’d laugh at [the notion that we could all be equivalent physically], because we have no problem grasping that nature has not endowed all of us equally well in terms of physical strength and capabilities”. There seems to be ample evidence that American society tells its women, and increasingly its men, that they need to be taller, blonder, tanner, leaner, more muscular, et cetera and that “[their] physical limits are defined only by [their] desires and will to succeed”. Rather than laughing at it, most people appear to buy into it.

In college I read about an experiment that randomly rewarded birds with food pellets. The birds incorrectly assumed that whatever behavior they were exhibiting at the time of the reward had caused the reward. Each bird adopted a different behavior to earn the reward, including my favorite: spinning in a circle. I subsequently read that an inconsistent reward provides stronger reinforcement than a consistent reward. Perhaps we rationalize that the inconsistency results from our lack of trying hard enough so we increase our behavior in hope of increasing the consistency.

William Shatner made a surprisingly insightful observation like “People don’t know anything”. When Dreher says, “the gnostic egalitarianism of US culture, which holds that we create our own realities by force of will”, I think he highlights that, like the birds in the experiment, people attribute any outcome directly to their own actions. Lacking any true knowledge about what caused what, our brains rationalize that it surely must have been our diligence and brilliance that led to the successes and others’ laziness and idiocy that led to the failures. Fatalism and foolishness both cripple. An optimistic pragmatism where a small dose of belief in our own efficacy gives us hope seems to be the best balance.

The crux of the concern in the article appears to be that the intelligent would “disavow social responsibility for those who are not as gifted”. In that concern I find the very disdain the author decries. I think those people who are academically ungifted are perfectly capable of being responsible for themselves and do not need of the academically gifted (or the bloggers or the pundits) to take responsibility for them. To assume that they do is to equate them with the mentally handicapped, which is far more damaging and insulting than sending them to university.


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