Reason for a New Age

Posts Tagged ‘education’

Meritocracy

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/02/22


By the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries), Europe had paper, loans, and the scientific method. One might expect it to take some time for these to mature within the society, but still one might think that given these ingredients, you would see the beginnings of rapid technological advance. Instead, it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that this change actually occurred–i.e. the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment.

This is largely personal speculation, but I believe the issue to be the introduction of meritocracy. When you look at modern Mexico or the ex-USSR, you note that though technology can advance, in general it doesn’t. They have loans, paper, and know how to go about scientific endeavors, but that still doesn’t amount to anything. But, in Mexico, you are largely restricted to your birth. If you are a white Mexican, you were already born to a wealthy family, you will marry another white Mexican, you will go to university, and you will inherit your father’s business or enter politics. If you are an Indian Mexican, you will work on a farm in a little village, probably not go to school, maybe not even learn proper Spanish, and inherit your father’s farm or establish your own. While as in the USSR, there weren’t classes so much, but there was The Party. Membership and status in the party was really the only social ladder, and that could only accept a very small number of people, not the whole population–similarly to the Catholic Church in Medieval Europe. Most people were stuck as the slave class for the party minority. The children of those in the party probably became party members themselves. They got to go to the best schools, and they had the nicest fashions and best hygiene.

In a society without meritocracy, where one has practically no ability to climb the social ladder, no one has any particular motive to try and envision and make a better future. The purpose of loans is negated. The upper classes consider themselves satisfied and know that their children will be securely positioned as well; that something better exists that could be created doesn’t occur to them. And the lower classes know that they would never be given a loan in the first place. If a lower class man persists in his attempt to work his way up, he would just end up being mocked and derided by those of the upper class for a while, until they grew bored of it, and took everything away from him again. No one trusts the intelligence, gravitas, or trustworthiness of an Indian Mexican in Mexico. Eventually “saner minds” prevail and leave him stranded.

The lack of meritocracy also leads to corruption. There is no guarantee that the son of the king will have the qualities necessary for ruling a nation. You can’t fire him though since kingship is a hereditary role. The whole of society is similar to this, you have unqualified people in many roles and overly qualified people in many other roles. All of those who are at least qualified must operate around a mass of people who are dead weight. The people who are dead weight can’t be threatened with anything since their position is secure, and so the only alternative is bribery. Or, alternately, if someone wants to succeed beyond his position, he must operate outside the law–for instance, creating or joining the mafia.

Corruption is a difficult beast to fight. Once it becomes habitual for all transactions to have some amount of graft, there is little incentive for a qualified newcomer to turn down this money.

When you walk into countries in Africa, the Middle East, South America, or South-East Asia, believing that you can introduce modern technology and democratic government and see a modern nation come out of it is something that will fail because the people are still classist and they expect graft. To turn such a country around, you need to introduce a social revolution or slowly eat at it over a few generations via top-down force (for instance, the British occupation of India and Hong Kong.)

A Brief History of Meritocracy

In 1199, John of England was crowned king of the nation. Within the first 16 years of his kingship, he proved himself to be amazingly ineffective as a monarch, leading the barons of the land to throw something of a miniature rebellion. They charged the capital–though no one there attempted to stop them, thinking they were in the right–captured the king, and forced him to sign the Magna Carta. Most key of the provisions within it were that a council of barons could veto and supersede the king, and that every person had recourse to defend himself from the law.

300 years later, the Spanish conquest of America lead to a debate between Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Bartolomé de las Casas over whether or not the native Americans should be considered to be equal and free men, or if they were natural slaves and underlings.

Another 150 years later, John Locke developed the idea that government exists for the people, not the other way around. Humanity develops and accepts governance for the organization and prosperity of the group and so while the government does command the people, at the same time it is beholden to them and its purpose is theirs.

John Locke’s ideas, which were descended from English law that descended from the Magna Carta and philosophical debate that had continued on since the Valladolid debate, began the true work between philosophers on this topic. Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Trenchard, and Thomas Gordon are the writers within the English-speaking world, however, that brought these ideas to the every day man’s table, rather than simply in the realm of philosophy.

But of course, all of this had actual impact because meritocracy had slowly been growing within Europe. By the 18th century, one could purchase a title for instance. Standing armies had developed and if a man had shown bravery, honor, and talent within the military, he was considered to be worthwhile of high standing and hence worth investing in. With the desire to conquer or administrate foreign lands, finding and paying people to go to Africa, India, or the Americas made the government very much like a business and desiring talented people. All of this slowly eroded the class system. By the time the US was formed, the nation had little difficulty throwing off almost all ties with a class-based society.

True, it would still take some time for women and blacks to be enfranchised, but there was a large enough selection of white men to establish a working modern economy that produced new technologies and a rapidly changing social landscape.

Education and Meritocracy

As I pointed out in Methods of Growth, a society of 1000 people will experience greater technological breakthroughs than a society of 100 because it will have ten times as many geniuses. But, minus meritocracy, there may be little difference if almost no one has any ability to do anything creative. Enfranchising a greater number of people leads to a greater number of developments without expanding your population.

A thing to note is that the best predictor of financial success in modern day America is educational attainment. The greatest predictor of that is quite likely your parents’ financial standing.

In general, I would argue that you do not want to hinder the greed motive. The ability to protect your family, and see to their futures is a strong motivator for working hard and trying to come up with more efficient or revolutionary ideas. But the simple fact is that whatever seems to work best is our winner. If you look at the number of patents granted per capita, you’ll find that the Scandinavian countries are doing impressively well compared to the US, even though they tend to be quite socialistic. Comparing them on a GDP per capita basis shows that they are not significantly different from the US.

Economic growth is an issue of technology. The rate of the discoveries of new technologies is probably best summarized by the number of patents granted to a populace.

If we want to stay ahead, we need to make sure that as many people who are capable of impressive things have a chance to achieve that success. The children of the wealthy will always still have an advantage, be it due to personal tutors, connections, or simply from the parent-to-child direct education of how to be successful. You don’t really need any more than that, so you are better off to focus on making it otherwise an even game.

Posted in Editorial, Research, Theory | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

A Liberal Arts Education

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/01/30


Unfortunately, this blog is an editorial rather than something with more research behind it. The reason for this failure will become clear, though.

As I brought up in a previous blog, it is a decently likely theory that the human brain can accomplish a higher average capability than we are getting today. And ultimately, in society, humanity’s greatest resource is our intellectual potential. Our inventions, philosophy, and actions are all limited to whatever level of intellect we have. If you can increase this, you have just accomplished the greatest good there is on the planet.

Obviously, the question is how does one do that?

Many people think that the general quality of education has been decreasing with time. President Bush II instituted the No Child Left Behind Act based largely on this belief. Bill Gates has been giving speeches and writing extensively on the topic, besides funding several private schools that run according to a methodology that he thinks will be beneficial.

Now, when I was only 8 or 9 years old, I had a chance to visit Japan. This would be in the mid-80s, at the peak of Japan’s prosperity. I remember being told that the children there would go to school, and then after school was done they would go to juku–which was essentially just more school. On the weekends, they would end up going to juku again. Your average Japanese child might have had double the amount of time in school as an American child.

I also remember, as a child, being informed that on standardized tests like the SAT, the Russians and the Japanese were both outperforming us. My teachers brought this up to instill some amount of competitive ire in us–which it did in me, at least.

But the thing to note is: Where are the Japanese and the Russians today? These super-children would be in their 30s and 40s today and seeing to the great conquest of the global economy. And yet they aren’t.

Measuring Intelligence

When the idea first came along to measure general intellect, these tests ended up asking questions like “What is the Latin root of ‘question’?” As time went on, the people who managed the testing of IQ saw that questions like these simply tested knowledge, not intelligence. You could stock up the greatest idiot of the world with facts and so long as his memory was decent, he’d be able to score highly. And yet everyone who knew him would quite decidedly opine that he was indeed an idiot. Eventually all these sorts of questions were removed, leaving behind puzzles and riddles and such. These don’t rely on knowledge, but do test a person’s ability to understand and solve problems–which is really what one is looking for when he is testing for intelligence.

Many argue that IQ still only measures certain, minor, points of general capability. Others will try and convince you that the whole thing is pseudo-science and you might as well roll a die. And while IQ certainly doesn’t seem to have much relevance on income–though it does establish a lower bound for a reasonable income–I would personally say that of people whose IQ I know, it has always matched up with about what I would guess, so I personally would say that it does seem to measure accurately. But I would agree that at higher levels its only value is to research and science, not general social interactions and politics.

It also happens that quite often you can still take a test like the SAT–which generally asks knowledge-based questions–and calculate from it the person’s probably IQ. This is possible because the sort of person who is naturally intelligent generally appreciates knowledge and its gathering, and is thus more likely to actually commit knowledge to memory. A person of more natural intelligence commits even more.

Teaching to the Test

A problem arises, which is what we see in Japan and Russia, that you can cram a person with random knowledge and you can force them to work over small little puzzles and riddles and they will end up being able to score higher on either sort of test. Perhaps this sort of training does have some positive points. The Japanese are credited with being skilled at finding ever better refinements of things. But they also tend to lack the desire to create entirely new products, or take on new markets. Puzzle solving might be there, but imagination and chutzpah are lacking.

But, for example, if you play puzzle games like these you’ll almost certainly be better the second time you play it, and even better the 100th time. Eventually it becomes all too easy and you have to expand the game field or otherwise make it harder to solve. If you’ve played lots of games of this ilk, you are probably going to do better at an entirely new game than someone to whom the whole realm of small puzzle-games is new. That other person might well be smarter but you’ll end up scoring higher simply because you have greater experience to draw from.

Or to put it another way, let’s say that we have a professional arm wrestler. If you establish a test of strength which, to make testing easy, requires you to simulate a move like arm wrestling, recording how much weight you can lift, this test will be effective for almost all of the population. How strong a person is, is generally a fairly well-balanced thing. When our arm wrestler comes in, however, he’s going to score particularly high even though his overall strength is rather poor.

Certainly if arm wrestling or puzzle solving is our very precise needs of the day, our test is all we ever need, but if we want something that’s generalized for all purposes, then we need better tests than what we have today or we need to ensure that people don’t teach to the test.

The problem is, once testing becomes the standard for success, teachers have a habit of teaching to the test–their livelihood and the demands of the parents require it–and this is what makes me fear both President Bush’s and Bill Gate’s attempts at reform, however well intentioned they may be.

Crazies among Giants

Within the hard sciences, it’s a fairly decent bet that the people at the top are going to have generally higher IQs. Ones level of chess, for all those of equal experience, is probably highly correlated with IQ as well. And note that I mean a properly tested IQ that’s going to be representative of general ability, rather than of your taught-to-the-test version of a tested IQ.

You would expect, then, that among these groups of people that you would have a very sane and reasonable group of people.

While I have no particular numbers to give, I have noted that this doesn’t seem to be true. You will find physicists who believe in alien abductions, who deny the holocaust, or believe any other number of random and inane things. You could get thousands of PHDs to sign some document warning about the dangers of fluoride in the drinking water.

Obviously, while IQ does measure some amount of problem solving it still falls short in the realm of critical thinking. Or perhaps it too strongly prefers those who can find patterns among random details–even when those details truly are random and unrelated.

What is a Valid Test?

Personally, I have only ever had two ideas. One measurement is to look at the rate of bringing new technologies to market. This requires a bundle of intellectual skills, of which human interaction, critical thinking, and chutzpah are almost certainly all involved. Unfortunately, it would be tremendously difficult to ever actually prove that what you were seeing was a matter of the education of that country. That it would take 20+ years to find out the results of any one change certainly doesn’t help either.

The other measurement–in theory–is to ask those who are being taught.

People don’t like sitting about doing something that they don’t feel has practical value. They might not necessarily have a grand interest in a topic, but they do more-or-less know when they’re actually getting what the teacher is giving.

The only problem here is that we are dealing with children, and children are liable to simply vote for the teacher with the funnest classes rather than the most useful.

Liberal Arts Education

For a child to even measure the level of his education, he also needs to understand what it is that he is ranking. When I grew up, I know that lots of my fellows complained that they weren’t learning anything of practical value. For instance, we had to learn to be able to place the 50 states on the map. Given that it’s simple enough to simply look at a map and see where any one state is, if you actually need to know, what practical purpose does this serve? If I’m the stupidest kid in class or I want to become an artist, what value do I gain by learning algebra or that the Earth is round?

I could argue that once you have learned arithmetic, reading, and writing, you are done with all of the non-vocational learning you will ever need in your life. The extra math that we gain after that, this is perhaps the only knowledge-based learning that perhaps serves a purpose in teaching to our children at large. History, science, etc. these are all unneeded knowledge unless somehow related to the child’s vocation.

So, why do we not start our children on vocational teaching after the age of 8?

That the child can’t know what profession he wants to enter is a factor of course, but more importantly is realizing that when you teach history or make children read a book and write a report, you’re giving them something to think about.

In Japan, when history is taught, it’s taught as a list of events. “Matsumoto killed Hanzo in 1237.” A week later the children receive a test which asks, “What year did Hanzo die?” They answer the question and then gleefully forget all of this information. It’s a factoid, devoid of context, and entirely useless for anything beyond scoring high on tests or TV game shows.

When you put that into context though, it’s giving children something to consider about how humans react when put in certain situations, when the rules of society are such and such, when the personalities of the main players are so and so. This knowledge becomes a sort of second hand experience.

When a teacher then says to his students, “Think about everything you’ve heard and try and think of something which doesn’t make sense or you think doesn’t sound right. Historians create history based on small scraps of information that are connected together with guesswork and probabilities. Half of everything I told you might be wrong. Find the part that seems like it might be wrong, and find out more and tell me what you think.” Now he’s developing their creative thinking, critical thinking, curiosity, research skills, and ability to form an argument.

If a teacher has children do a science project, and the child looks in a book of experiments, follows through what it says in the book, and then tabulates the results, he has done nothing of value. He’s done no science and developed his abilities none. If instead he thinks of any random question about life and figures out how test it, he advances his creative thinking, critical thinking, curiosity, problem solving, and skill at coming to conclusions in a scientifically rigorous fashion.

All of these useless topics that are presented to us in school aren’t there as knowledge. They’re toys which we play with as a method of developing our intellect. If all of this ends in being asked, “What year did Hanzo die?”, all this shows is that the teacher doesn’t know what it is that he’s meant to be doing.

While I always had a somewhat instinctual understanding that this was the purpose of my classes, I could only wish that I could go back to when I was 8 years old and tell myself and all of my classmates this so that we all approached these topics in that manner. Unfortunately, I don’t know whether a group of children would actually understand this, nor at what age they really would. But I would suggest that it is worth testing. I think that most people, even children, when told on what criteria they are to measure something will give an honest response. If you ask them which teachers seem to be the best at making them progress intellectually and get them ready for the modern world, you will learn what that is. If you ask teachers who of their students are the brightest or most hard-working will certainly be able to tell you. The combined valuation of a student by his teachers, or how he does in an interview at his prospective company or school are likely to be the most well-rounded test of intellect that can ever be devised.

What Teachers Teach

I would say with some confidence that liberal arts education is at its most useless when presented as factoids without context. I would also say that what is actually taught is more or less irrelevant. Variety is certainly good since different children prefer some topics over others and hence be more inclined to actually think about it and exercise his mental muscles, but really any topic is sufficient for that. And, it could be argued, having a population with backgrounds in a wide variety of ideas and second-hand experience is perhaps as ideal a thing as you could ever achieve.

A teacher is always going to be better at teaching the things in which he has an interest–he’ll learn more about it himself, present the information with greater passion, and be able to supply plentiful context. And the things that people form an interest in is going to be based on what seems relevant or somehow worthwhile to modern day life. One might postulate that a sort of “market force” will average on the most useful ideas which will filter down into our children to give them a great start to come up with the next group of ideas.

Telling a teacher who is interested in Chinese history to teach American History results in a rather bored man listing off facts from a text book, with zero passion and zero context. You are better off to let him teach about China. And when he teaches about China, you’re better off to let him teach about what intrigues him about it–which might be specific to only a tiny region during a ten year span–rather than forcing some sort of general historical overview.

Obviously, you need to make sure that a course of study presents necessary background and is well taught, but from there, you might as well let that be that teacher’s class.

Conclusion

A thing I noted in talking to a friend in the Netherlands–if I recall correctly–is that the number of years that a person stays in school is dependent on their ability. One could say that the US is set up in this way to some extent, but it’s more an issue of personal choice and funding really. Within Japan, as you graduate from each level of education, you have to compete for your next school.

Knowing that people are different, some smarter, and knowing that some people can learn the same things faster and overall progress at a faster rate, it does seem like perhaps there is something to the idea of splitting up children based on ability–where the population density makes it feasible–but only so long as a viable method for testing students and teachers can be developed. If that method is based on anything where one can teach-to-the-test, I fully discourage it compared to something more free-style and unregulated. That preferred level might only be so far as it was previous to No Child Left Behind, but I think that my suggestions of an even more anarchic/individual-actor-economy system is worth a trial. There is certainly enough evidence that the American style has been quite effective compared to other nations if you look at our success in the global economy If we could find the peak for our originality and energy as a nation, you might even find the era where our teaching style was the most ideal.

Posted in Editorial | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Evolution, Instinct, and People – Part 4

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/01/24


This will be the final segment of this series, though I presume that I will bring up further thoughts in future blogs.

Bootstrapping and the Flynn Effect

There’s a fairly interesting thing. Through history there has been some small number of babies who actually were brought up by animals and survived into adulthood.  Despite what the Tarzan stories might lead you to believe, such feral children don’t end up as likable, sociable ruffians. Instead, for lack of a better description, they end up as poo-flinging monkeys. They can’t learn to read, write, nor speak, let alone mingle and socialize with people in any more meaningful way than an animal might.

Obviously humans can learn to do these things, but it isn’t something that can be achieved as an adult. Quite likely there are particular stages of development which each have a window of time during which they can be taught. If you miss that window, you have likely impaired the child’s abilities. You might be able to teach them later, but it’s a much harder path and of course eats time away from the things that should be being taught at that time. Work with aboriginal peoples has indicated to a large extent that even when one does receive training from human parents, you are largely limited to whatever the level of abstract thinking is of your group (though the precise level of this is still debated). Other research seems to indicate that based on the way ones language refers to things can change the methods by which people think.

In total, the amazing difference between people who receive the training of how to be a modern human by their modern humans and those who have received none, and the differences in ability based on various minutiae is terribly interesting.

But so then there was a thing discovered that is referred to as the Flynn Effect, which noted that IQ rates seem to continue to rise from generation to generation in the modern world. When, generally, people of lower IQ have more children than those of higher IQ, one might expect that if anything the general intelligence of modern communities would lower as the upper classes start having only single children or whatever.

One possible explanation that is put forth is that this is largely a matter of continuing development in nutrition. People who have healthy, nutritious diets growing up have a healthier and more powerful brain.

Another explanation though, and much more interesting, is the thought that the human brain hasn’t reached the peak of its ability yet, just like the aboriginal may have improved over the feral human, but not yet gained all the ideas that modern man has. People theorize that with TV and internet and an ever-widening source of information coming at each of us, and doing so in a more rapid-fire way, that it is spurring our youthful brains to adapt to a faster, more intensive world.

Assuming this latter theory to be true, it suggests that the method by which children are taught could use a fairly impressive overhaul.

People Fear Conflict

By the word conflict, I mean debate or otherwise being challenged upon some point. People, of course, love sports, games, and other sorts of non-cerebral conflict.

The reasons why people do things are usually quite shallow. We’re religious because, 90% of the time, our parents were. With 99% certainty, I could determine your political affiliation based on the region you live in, your skin color, your religion, and your income–of course that will match up almost exactly with the type of people that you socialize with regularly. Essentially you believe in your politics because the people in your social group are being promised more by party X than party Y. There is almost no one who self-sacrifices for the sake of the greater good, based on reasoned debate.

Going against your peers–aka the pack–going against your self-interest, is hard. Educating yourself on the issues is laborious. And even when you are more aware of the specifics of any one topic than 90% of everyone, you can still get slapped down like you don’t know anything by the guy who knows 92% more than everyone. For instance, I can point at socialism and say that it’s a failure, but a die-hard socialist who has studied every ounce of data on the subject can make me look like I have no idea what I’m talking about. If I knew as much about the subject as he, I’m quite certain that I could readily debate and come out ahead. I don’t though. Similarly, I can make most people look like they’re idiots when they bring up some particular issues that I know more about than most, and yet still know that I’m just as likely wrong given how passing my knowledge truly is.

All of this takes energy and time, and to do it all when deep down in your subconscious you’re fairly certain that you’re either acceding to something not in your best interest or to something that will be disruptive to your ability to continue socializing with the pack, that’s just more than can be expected for most people. But then getting right in their face and making them feel bad about their lack of willingness to consider greater or finer points, this is active antagonism, regardless of best intentions.

And all this makes sense, again, from an evolutionary standpoint. If there is, for example, a leader of the pack and then one rogue wolf who is trying to usurp control, if people are easily willing to convert to any side, the battle between the two leaders has the pack in chaos for lengthy periods of time and nothing gets done. A certain amount of pigheadedness and inertia is necessary. The rogue wolf has to make very good points, so good that the chance of splitting the whole pack in two is possibly worth it. Otherwise, regardless of whether his way might be somewhat more efficient, it’s not worth the conflict.

There are very few things in life which are all that important.

In many countries though, for instance Japan or China, the idea of popular interest in political affairs is fairly non-existent. Everything is done within the realm of those who enjoy or are not fearful of conflict. And honestly, so long as the people are able to continue to eat and raise babies, they’re quite happy to leave all that hassle up to the politicians. Even within the US, political battles between the parties are to most people little more than sports games. Red team versus Blue. If their team loses, the ire is that of having lost, not due to any particular understanding of what implications it actually has. They go home and make food and raise babies. If the economy gets bad, a few of them switch teams.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

As I pointed out in Failure in the Information Age, the cause of the recent recession was nothing more than everyone knowing that a recession was coming. Rather than be the person left with his pants down, everyone pulled out of the economy and thus tanked it.

People have a tendency to make what they think is going to happen, happen. When they think the world will be good, they buy things, great others with open arms, trade, invest, etc. With everyone doing this, everything becomes good. If I think that, if I go on that cruise vacation, I’ll meet people, I’m likely to go and join all the outings, talk to people, and end up meeting people. If I think I’ll be hated and ridiculed for being overweight and looking bad in my swimwear, I’ll hide in my room, wear clothing that is bland and reeks of reclusiveness, and end up not meeting anyone.

I suppose that this isn’t so much a human trait as “just one of those things.”

But it bears mentioning in a blog about politics because “managing expectations” becomes a significant factor in doing the job well. If you wrestle for a trillion dollars to stimulate the economy but then tell everyone that we really needed 2 trillion and what we have now will only go towards paying off interest on our debts, you’ve just killed your entire stimulus package. People will receive their bonus check, and put it straight into savings, waiting for when things will improve.

For issues such as this, the amount of the stimulus isn’t as important as how well you can sell whatever dollar amount it was that you decided on.

And when you talk about a “housing crisis”, you need to make sure that people understand how small a crisis it really is, lest they all sell their stocks and hunker down for a recession.

It may seem silly, but economics and politics are still more about psychology and philosophy than math.

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