Sunday, October 19, 2014

Income gaps mean class warfare. Brain gaps mean classroom warfare

Much is made of Einstein's poor academic record. The future scientific giant was a hopeless student, and his even more hopeless teachers failed to recognize his brilliance! This well-worn narrative is a tad exaggerated; when taking his college entrance exam Einstein knocked it out of the park in math and physics. Nevertheless, the Einstein example of classroom failure and subsequent success has been used to offer hope to academic laggards since at least the days of my youth.

It's a nice yarn, but on further analysis, it probably isn't the best story to share with kids who struggle academically. Underlining that the man with the greatest mind since Isaac Newton eventually managed to bring attention to his brilliance doesn't give the struggling student with the middle-of-the-road brain much to hope for: "So even though the strain of pre-algebra has me popping Ritalin like Tic-Tacs, all I have to do to overcome this is prove I understand space and time better than any mortal before me? Uh, what kind of GPA do you need to be accepted into the Crips?"

The subtext to the Einstein example is that grades aren't everything, and by extension, upsetting measurements like SAT aren't everything. The Einstein tale is part of the popular modern "wisdom" that we're all an equally skilled ball of clay waiting to be molded into excellence. The SAT just measures your test-taking ability, not innate cognitive skill, right? Good students are just kids who work harder thanks to the village's loving embrace. Careful teacher: your worst student might be contemplating a sequel to relativity!

Einstein aside, many of the brilliant, accomplished, visionary folks DID have their brilliance recognized by conventional means. It WAS able to be measured in some capacity.

Francis Crick attended Cambridge. Watson attended University of Chicago.

Stephen Hawking studied at Oxford and Cambridge.

Alan Turing...Cambridge.

William Shockley attended MIT and Caltech.

Tesla completed his four years in three years.

Marvin Minsky went to Harvard and Princeton.

Brin and Page met at Stanford.

Bill Gates did drop out of college...but it was Harvard. And he got a perfect score on the math part of the SAT.

Salk attended a high school for the gifted.

Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard. In prep school he won academic prizes.

Jobs dropped out of Reed College; a virtual Rhodes Scholar factory. Wozniak failed to finish at Berkeley...

Because most people's measurements aren't stellar, they reflexively proclaim that measurements either don't matter or don't measure everything. Well no shit they don't measure everything. But if you look at a list of great achievers, you'll see that A LOT of them had at least some of their talent measured and recognized before their ultimate breakthrough. Einstein was very much the exception. John Q. Average is going to need a hell of a lot of intangibles to outrun Zuckerberg's tangibles (not to mention Zuckerberg's intangibles). And P.S.: Mark Zuckerberg also knows how to work hard.

An Einstein example in athletics - where every nook and cranny is measured to analyze a player's chances at success - is Jerry Rice. You routinely hear that Rice ran a poor (for a receiver) 4,71 time in the 40-yard dash. Great, but here are the times of some other dominant receivers: Randy Moss: 4:25, Terrell Owens: 4:45, Calvin Johnson: 4:35, Steve Smith: 4.39, Marvin Harrison: 4:38. Jerry Rice's "slow" time is a rarity. Most dominant receivers show much more speed in the NFL Combine and Rice's incredible success doesn't alter that. Pointing to the "slow" receiver to give hope to a kid who should probably consider another position (or sport) isn't doing the kid any favors.

This is just as true in school. You can tell a kid to dream without telling him to hallucinate. If he has no grip on calculus, make his dream to be an electrician; better yet, an electrician in business for himself. Incidentally, that will earn him a better living than many of the liberal arts hallucinaters outscoring him in class.

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