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Web Letters | The Nation

Should All Kids Go to College?

The perniciousness of tracking

Although it is good that Dana Goldstein openly used the word “tracking” —which is almost always a forbidden term in “polite” public education discourse—she has a naïve idea of tracking in the creation of the US “comprehensive high schools,” saying they emerged historically as a “compromise” between those favoring trade schools for Negro students and those favoring university liberal education. The history of US education shows that tracking is what can be characterized as the “evil genius” of the evolving US educational system, which consistently transmits race and class privilege over the generations (now called “the stubborn Achievement Gap”), while maintaining the fiction of “equal opportunity.”

At major historical junctures when a new group of disadvantaged citizens (Negroes, working-class whites, women, etc.) begins pushing for access for higher levels of schooling, decision-makers create new tracking systems (touted as what the new groups “need”) to divert the unwashed masses away from the elite levels of schooling. Now that there are huge numbers of Latinos graduating from high school and clamoring for access to college admissions (see the Dream Act struggles), one might ask rhetorically, will the US elites gladly open up their wallets and open up significant seats in four-year colleges for them? Not on your life—instead they push the ever-growing systems of community colleges (see The Diverted Dream: Community Colleges and the Promise of Educational Opportunity in America 1900–1985, by Steven Brint, and The Cooling-out Function in Higher Education,” by Burton R. Clark [PDF]), which aim to “divert the main herd” away from the selective colleges. And President Obama tries to persuade the most naïve in his Latino and working-class audiences that community colleges will solve the US economic crisis, and he is throwing a piddly $4 billion at them for “experiments” to find what might work to improve their well-known and persistently dismal record of getting their students through to transfer to four-year colleges. Tracking between types of schools and colleges, tracking between schools in wealthy/poor neighborhoods, within schools and “ability grouping” within individual classrooms—Tracking is the Man.

Progressives cannot afford to keep quiet about it and accept that career education is what the new groups “need” in order to stay in their place.

Fred Millar

Arlington, VA

Jul 7 2011 - 12:39pm

Should All Kids Go to College?

Asked and answered nineteen years ago

The author asks: “Do poor and working-class kids have the same need for a liberal arts education as their middle-class and affluent peers? Or does the reality of inequality in America—the sheer unlikeliness of climbing from poverty into the intelligentsia within a single generation—call for a more practical approach to educating the poor, with a focus on technical skills that prepare a child for the world of work?”

The flippant response to calls for “college for all” is recite the maxim “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and it annoys the hell out of the pig.” But this is too serious a subject for a flippant response.

It’s been nineteen years since Murray and Herrnstein published The Bell Curve and I have cited this book at least a dozen times here over the years. Even a cursory understanding of The Bell Curve renders the thought of “college for all” ridiculous.

These are the facts: (1) Intelligence is real and can be measured. There may not be one, perfect definition, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. (Gould even concedes this in “The Mismeasure of Man”). (2) Excepting head injuries, intelligence is largely unchangeable after adolescence until the declining years. (3) Intelligence is about 50-70 percent inherited/genetic and 30-50 percent environment/nutrition.

These may be uncomfortable realities for radical egalitarians, but that doesn’t wish them away.

Now to address the question regarding the “sheer unlikeliness of climbing from poverty into the intelligentsia”. It is interesting the author conflates economic class with cognitive class. The point most people retain from The Bell Curve is that income is highly correlated with intelligence. What most liberals fail to understand is the distinction between dependent variables and independent variables.

A college degree doesn’t make you rich. I know, many of you are having trouble with that statement because it appears as though a college degree (independent variable) creates the wealth (dependent variable). But it’s not true. Both are dependent variables and the independent variable is IQ. A high IQ is needed to create academic achievement (thus a college degree is a dependent variable) and a high IQ generally creates a high income (again, the dependent variable).

Putting someone in college or even high school doesn’t make them smarter. This is the distinction between intelligence and knowledge. A person with a 120 IQ could study math or economics or language or art. The intelligence is the same (IQ = 120) but the knowledge is different. Intelligence is the ability to learn and solve new problems and the ability to learn and solve new problems is innate. Being taught techniques to solve old problems created by others doesn’t make one more intelligent, only more knowledgeable.

Intelligence (along with character, self-discipline, temperance, sobriety, etc.) is what makes a person a valuable employee irrespective of whether the person is employing knowledge related to law, or engineering or medicine.

Another point in the book is that America is incredibly egalitarian with respect to secondary education. It doesn’t matter if your family has the ability to pay, if you are smart, you can get a college education through public or private grants, scholarships, and loans. Presidents Clinton and Obama are shining examples of this. Both completed college, law school, and Clinton even went to Oxford.

A person needs a bare minimum IQ of about 110 to really succeed in college. This unfortunate reality means over half the US population is not suited for college. That is the cold, hard reality, and there is nothing that can be done to change it.

Darin Zimmerman

Cedar Rapids, IA

Jun 16 2011 - 4:12pm

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