Debunking Education

Over at Chicago Boyz, the Assistant Village Idiot (How I admire that nom de Internet!) Has some thoughts about education, and they do not involve much handwringing at all. I approve.

I don’t think we argue quite enough around here. Perhaps there have been good arguments in the posts I don’t read the comments of, but it seems too much of “Yeah, and let me tell you another thing about that!” lately. So I will go after a conservative favorite, of how much better education was in the Good Old Days, which I think is bosh. I don’t defend much of what I read about education today, but neither do I think it was any better then. Since 2011, I have increasngly concluded that schools don’t matter quite as much anyway. The worst 20%, where it is dangerous to even go and hard to concentrate – that’s bad. The rest, it doesn’t make much difference. Never did. It’s all right to disagree with me about that, it won’t hurt me. I have seen lots of schools, old days and new; I know lots of teachers, old and new. I have read some of the real research, not the media-driven crap where they still can’t tell causation from correlation, and I have discussed this widely for decades. I know what the disagreements are (though I do get an occasional surprise). Have fun with it.

I am leading with this as a teaser, for its entertainment value, and because it introduces some concepts I’ll be bringing in later. I have edited it only a little from 2011. With the recent elite school admission scandals, parts of this are wryly humorous now.


An anonymous commenter linked to the 1869 Harvard entrance exam that was dug up by a NYTimes writer and made the rounds last year.  It looks pretty intimidating at first glance, and the commenter used it as evidence that Billy Sidis’s entrance into Harvard in 1909 was a pretty solid accomplishment in itself.  Interestingly, the boy’s getting in was probably even better than the exam would indicate.  Harvard was no great shakes in 1869, but had improved considerably by 1909, and was one of the world’s best by then.  I will note that it was still not what we think of today.  Competitive university admission is mostly a post WWII, or even post 1960 phenomenon.  Many of the brightest did indeed go to the Ivies, the Little Ivies, or the Seven Sisters,* but you simply couldn’t count on it.  The rich and the alums got their kids in, and nationally, people stayed closer to home and many of the brightest went to other schools, far more than, say, in 1990.

The gap exactly covers the period of Charles William Eliot’s presidency of Harvard, if you want more background than I will give here.

Read the headings over each section. See how few questions were required.

Also – it doesn’t say what a passing score was, does it?

185 out of 215 applicants got into Harvard that year.

But the test.  That Latin and Greek look awfully impressive right out of the gate. If you are older, and/or a reader of history, and/or a traditionalist, you may still have Latin Envy, believing that a “proper” education must include it, and Greek!  Why, that just seals it.  A different alphabet and everything.  Weren’t they smart, then?

No, not especially. They had had six years of Latin and four of Greek by then, whether by tutor or at academy.  If you took any languages at all in late 20th C, and make the mental comparison of what, exactly, they were being asked to do after six years, it looks much less impressive.  Note also, there was a standard set of works studied in those languages, which these questions are drawn from. There was frequent drill in grammar. Even if you had Latin yourself, you should note that the primary authors studied now are not quite the same as studied then, nor in quite the same way. These exam questions are essentially “Did you have proper teachers, are you reasonably bright, and did you make a moderate effort these last few years?” Nothing more.

Before I get into the math, let me note a major difference, then and now, in the test as a whole.  Look at what is missing in this exam.  There is no biology, no chemistry, no physics, and certainly no other sciences such as geology or economics.  There are no questions on English Literature – no Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton – and certainly no American literature (Horrors!  To even imagine such a thing!).

A lot of what is being said here is, in my opinion, is that teaching to the test is what happened then and happens now, and will happen in 2230. Teachers’, and schools’. reputation is based on how students do on tests, so not teaching to the test is professional suicide, and that ain’t gonna happen.

Could schools be better? Of course, they could. That’s true now, that was true in the ’60s when I went, a hundred years ago when my parents went, a hundred years before that when Abe Lincoln did his semester, and when Socrates taught Plato, who taught Aristotle, who taught Alexander the Great. It just is. Schools run on a logarithmic curve like anything else. Some few are amazingly good, some few are terribly bad. Most cluster around average (because that is what defines average). School improvement is based on raising the average infinitesimally.

Always remember half of the kids in school, like half of the teachers, and half of the schools themselves, are below average.

You know what makes the most difference in education? The kid’s parents’ attitude. If a kid is taught to be curious, to attempt to learn, instead of to shut up and do what he’s told, he’ll learn, in school, or not. Vice versa is true too.

Almost all the rest, the theories, the books, the lecturers, the bureaucrats, are a scam, to make a living, often a good living, off of the fact that half of everything is below average. Some may help, many will probably hurt, all will cost you (or you as the taxpayer) money. Caveat emptor.

Long ago it was declared that education was the parents’ responsibility. It still is. Schools are a tool, but only a tool, whether it is Oxbridge, or an Ivy, or Podunk Central Junior High. You get out what you put in.

Nothing more and nothing less.

About NEO
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13 Responses to Debunking Education

  1. the unit says:

    Well, I don’t know anything about the Chicago Boyz’s empiricism here.
    For me just another source saying I don’t know what I talking about that Good Ole Days” was good old days.
    And maybe we don’t argue enough. But I don’t surf the net looking for a wave to throw me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      Yeah, I don’t know either, really. But I’m thinking there may well be a fair amount of truth in it. The world surely has been going to Hell in a handbasket at least since Christ was a corporal! 🙂


      • the unit says:

        Christ a corporal. 🙂
        And well…
        Yep, your last two sentences sums it up for back when and now.
        “You get out what you put in.”
        “Nothing more and nothing less.”
        Was so in where I came from made up of Greek boat builders, Cajun shrimpers, and a mangerie of folks from all over at Keesler AFB (and now Seabee Base).
        Mangerie here meaning, not animals necessarily, but from “an odd or eclectic assortment of things” 🙂
        However, I had very good teachers for math, chemistry, and biology. English maybe not so much. Mrs. B said Jack and I wouldn’t amount to much, but Denny was going places. Jack became mayor and later a Reagan appointed administrative judge in D.C. (him deceased as are the teachers). Denny is likely sitting at a bar and will be heading home even before happy hour. Me, well I am what I am. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Yep, that’s my all purpose description of life. Just don’t think the only reward is money, or respect of others. If you like the guy in your shaving mirror, well you’ve won the game. And yesh, I’ve learned a lot more from just hanging about than I did in school, and one of the lessons was not to spend more than lunch hour in the bard in daylight. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • the unit says:

          About every five days I look like Gabby. 🙂
          Yeah, who yesterday much or today less knows what to do with a seized up rear main bearing. Or what they think that must have to do with LGBT, and I probably forgot a letter there. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          I think the answer is buy a lot of oil! 🙂

          Prolly, I didn’t look it up in the last five minutes, so I’m out of date, no doubt! 🙂


  2. A great teacher can make a huge difference too. Or the accident of randomly encountering the one thing, a book, a museum visit, a crazy scientific fact, that fires your imagination and gives you the energy to use education to chase that one thing down to its roots. What I mean is that it’s important to build strong families and to put in place good educational systems but ultimately all they can do is increase or decrease the odds that something beyond their power, the desire to be educated, will happen in some particular individuals in every generation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • NEO says:

      Absolutely, I wonder what would have happened with me if first, I hadn’t become intrigued by a biography of General Grant, and then had a very good history teacher in high school. Not to mention parents who were also interested in lots of things.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Nicholas says:

    I think that part of the issue is the mess that prestige makes of things. Vanity, among other things, drives people to take degrees. Now, that’s not the worst thing in the world if the person makes something of it. But if that person really should have been pursuing a vocational course, and the degree is largely a waste – then I would rather that person had gone to vocational route and learned to be proud of that instead. Although access to high quality academic material is hard and expensive, there’s nothing wrong with being an “average Joe” who satisfies his academic interest in his spare time when he’s not “on the job”.

    Added to this mess is the state supply of student loans. Universities are businesses. They want our money, come hell or high water, just like any other player in the commercial world. This clearly creates a conflict of interest between getting the money and giving a person honest advice about whether s/he is cut out for university (at this time in her/his life). Cut off the state supply of money, or limit it to STEM only, and people will start to make more responsible decisions about their life paths. We also need to convince the business world that this system is bad for the economy as a whole and that something less expensive can be done to produce the quality of candidates they require for white collar jobs (e.g. community college style courses that can be combined with work – like evening classes – covering: contracts, supply chains, business development, writing professional documents, etc).

    Liked by 1 person

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