The other day I was reading one of Victor Davis Hanson’s articles—all of which are uniformly excellent and thought-provoking—and came across this passage:

Education, Education, Education…

The public schools were once the key to California’s ascendance. Universal education turned out well-prepared citizens who were responsible for California’s rosy future — one based on an excellent tripartite higher education system of junior colleges, state colleges, and universities; sophisticated dams and irrigation systems; and a network of modern freeways and roads. In the private sphere, the culture of shame still prevailed, at least in the sense that no one wanted his 16-year-old son identified in the papers (with his home address no less) as arrested for breaking and entering. And such crime was rare. Rural California was a checkerboard of 40- and 80-acre farms, with families that were viable economic units and with children who worked until dark after school. It is hard to steal when you must disc ten acres after baseball practice.

I think it is a fair assessment to say that all of the above is long past. Since about 1992, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing, California ranks between 41 and 48 in math and science, depending on the year and the particular grade that is assessed. About half of the incoming freshmen at the California State University system — the largest public university in the world — are not qualified to take college courses, and must first complete ‘remediation’ to attain a level of competence that was assumed forty years ago in the senior year of high school. The students I taught at CSU Fresno were far better prepared in 1984 than those in 2004 are; the more money, administrators, ‘learning centers,’ and counselors, the worse became the class work.

I finally threw out my old syllabi last month: the 1985 Greek Literature in Translation course at CSU Fresno seemed to read like a Harvard class in comparison to my 2003 version with half the reading, half the writing, and all sorts of directions on how to make up missed work and flunked exams. It wasn’t just that I lost my standards, but that I lost my students who could read.

Life in the Whatever Lane

Does any of that matter? Well, yes. Those who are not educated soon inherit the reins of public responsibility. In practical terms, the symptoms are everywhere. I now expect that my county property tax returns will have common errors, from the spelling of my name or address to the particular acreage assessed.

When entering the bank, I expect people not just to not speak English, but occasionally not to write any language, and thus put a mark down, in Old West fashion, to cash their checks.

When I deal with a public agency, I assume the person on the opposite end of the counter or phone will not to be able to transact the requested service, or at least not be able to transact any other service other than the narrow one trained for. Calling any public agency is to receive a recording and then an incoherent order to press numerous buttons that lead to more recordings. Woe to the poor fool who walks into a Department of Motor Vehicles office on an average day, seeking to obtain a copy of his pink slip or find a registration form. The response is ‘get a number,’ ‘make an appointment,’ ‘get in line,’ “wait,” or ‘see a supervisor.’

These are issues I’ve dealt with before, but with school about to begin again, and with the Olympics flooding the airwaves, it’s a good time to revisit them. 

What do the Olympics have to do with education?  Quite a lot actually, because we’re dealing not only with educational reality, but public perceptions and attitudes.

One would be hard-pressed to find a single American that argues with the idea that only the best should be allowed to participate in the Olympic games.  Not only that, but only the best of the best, the top tiny fraction of a single percentage of the human population, will win a medal.  No time is wasted worrying about the self-esteem of those that narrowly miss a bronze medal, and even less than no time is wasted worrying about those who didn’t make the Olympic teams.  In this field of human endeavor, we accept, without argument that some people are simply faster, stronger and more skilled than others.

Not so in the field of intellect.

Now, my triple-twisting back-flip quadruple gainer into the pool of controversy: some people are smarter than others.  Not only that, some people work harder than others, and as a result, are more successful.

This isn’t controversial you say?  Ask Mitt Romney, who recently suggested that culture matters in terms of national accomplishment and prosperity.  The media leaped on this statement as an example of Mr. Romney’s prima facie lack of fitness for the presidency, and the usual perpetually outraged were—well—perpetually outraged.

Dr. Hanson suggests that about half of freshmen students in California colleges are not ready for college level work, even the watery mush that passes for college level work these days.  I’m sure he’s correct.  “What the hell is wrong with those high schools?” many are surely asking.  “The public schools are a failure!” they scream.  But while there are, here and there, poor schools, they almost entirely miss the point.

I teach high school English, primarily tenth graders, and love them madly.  When students walk in my classroom door on the first day of a new year and quickly demonstrate they are years below the level of competence they need to succeed in the tenth grade, I don’t immediately think their 9th grade teachers were incompetent.  Instead, I marvel at how far they were able to bring those kids in the short time they had to teach them.

Teachers, you see, can’t work miracles.  All they can do—and I can’t repeat this enough—is provide the best educational opportunity their abilities and resources allow.  If kids—motivated by their parents—choose not to take full advantage of that opportunity, they will not progress at the proper rate–at best.

But more than that, competent teachers know that some people are simply smarter than others.  In terms of college accomplishment, this means that most people are just not capable of doing truly college level work.

Back on January 2, 2012, I posted an article in a series on education problems and solutions, titled “The Higher Education Bubble (and the Soap Scum It Leaves Behind).”

In that article, I wrote of Charles Murray, the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.  One of his most interesting works (PDF available here) written in 2009, is entitled Intelligence and Education.  Murray referred to a survey that found 90% of high school students were encouraged to attend college by their counselors.  It is not surprising, therefore, to discover:

For 40 years, American leaders have been unwilling to discuss the underlying differences in academic ability that children bring to the classroom. Over the same period, federal policy, backed by billions of taxpayer dollars in loans and grants, has aggressively encouraged more and more students to try to obtain a college education. As a result, about half of all high-school graduates now enroll in four-year colleges, despite the ample evidence that just a small minority of American students — about 10-15% — have the academic ability to do well in college.

Using his own research and that of others, Murray came to an interesting, and if one considers carefully, common-sense conclusion about what is necessary for genuine success in college: an IQ of at least 115.  Murray continues:

There is no inconsistency between Kobrin’s results and a 115 mean IQ among white college graduates. The students who make salient points in classroom discussions, who write well-researched term papers, and whose final exams demonstrate that they understood the material are usually well into the upper half of the distribution of academic ability among those who go to college. In other words, they are somewhere in the top 15% of the population — and usually in the top 10%.

I recommend, gentle readers, that you take the time to read Murray’s article.  There are some bits of knowledge all well-read people should possess.  Murray’s is one of the most intelligent, well-reasoned pieces on the topic I’ve yet seen, in large part because it employs equal doses of common sense, logic, competent research, and insight into human nature.

On the other hand, with our president determined to send an unprecedented number of kids to college on the public dime, and seizing total control of the education loan industry to do it, it’s not surprising that colleges have geared up to respond in kind.  To be fair, the college bubble has been a long time indeed in growing to its present brobdingnagian proportions, but the President’s thinking and rhetoric have not helped matters.

When colleges establish what are essentially high schools on their campuses, with counselors, remedial teachers and courses—most of which provide no academic credit for completion—when it’s possible for students to spend a year on campus without earning a single college credit, it’s clear that colleges have no room for complaining about the intellectual abilities of kids they choose to admit.  In the real world, factories don’t hire people they know can’t lift 50 pounds.  They particularly don’t knowingly hire such people, employ them for a year, and then whine when they still can’t lift 50 pounds and then blame others for their employee’s lack of basic ability.

One doesn’t need a college education to be successful and to live comfortably, particularly not in America.  There are myriad skilled trades and other business opportunities that do not require college credentials.  If one pays attention in high school and takes advantage of the learning opportunities presented there, they can easily handle all of the tasks Dr. Hanson finds Californians quite incapable of performing.

When Johnny arrives on campus in the fall and can’t pass college English 101, there might be a few questions worth asking, questions like:

(1) Didn’t anyone examine Johnny’s high school transcripts?

(2) Didn’t anyone examine Johnny’s SAT or ACT scores?

(3) Did anyone care whether Johnny had the work ethic or intellect necessary to do freshmen level college work, or was the color of his money and politically correct policy more important?

(4) If college professors and administrators are so smart, why are they accepting students any idiot would know cannot do college level work?

We have no trouble accepting the idea that only a small portion of the population will perform in the Olympics.  If a college degree is truly to mean anything at all, shouldn’t we accept the reality that most people won’t be able to properly perform in college?  And if we accept that reality, shouldn’t we reassess to what degree high schools—and their teachers–are to blame?