Cream and Bastards
Last week we waded through Plato's Apology and Crito, and then dipped into Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit. Echoing Socrates, Nussbaum argues that citizens skilled at thinking for themselves will operate without a default trust in authority. They will question all assumptions, think for themselves and accept only those ideas that meet their reason's demand for consistency, logic and evidence. Ultimately, she argues, such people strengthen civic institutions. They are good for society. Indeed, democracy can't exist without them.
Toward the end of class on Friday, I challenged the students to generate reasons why Nussbaum and Socrates are wrong. Maybe society doesn't need critical questioners and gadflies. Maybe such people are just pains in the neck who create too much disruption and dissension. Or, alternatively, maybe society does need them, but it doesn't really want them. In fact, most people can live fairly unexamined lives and with every sign of keen enjoyment. So why bother when you'll likely end up hated for asking a lot of troublesome questions?
One of the counter-arguments to Socratic citizenship that arose on Friday ran along these lines: not everyone is capable of rigorous thinking and questioning, so it's inefficient to educate all under this model of citizenship. Indeed, other countries screen higher education with tests given around the age of 16. Those who make the grade get assistance to go on to university. The rest can shift for themselves, join the army or get packed off to trade schools.
I often point out when this argument shows up that half of the students at our university are below the institutional average. Why not just start lopping off the bottom? "I mean really," I say to the class. "How many of you have ever looked across the room and wondered 'What am I doing in here with that guy?'" The question always produces a few knowing smiles.
The rank 'em and yank 'em approach to education is certainly an attractive argument, one that--in effect--Plato himself came to advocate in The Republic. And about 40 percent of my students began to buy into this idea. It does have a certain realist, bean counter appeal. But is rule by an educated elite any better than rule by a wealthy or hereditary elite? And does elitism--even one ostensibly meritocratic in nature--produce some unintended consequences?
This is where we will pick up the argument on Monday, and I've been trying to come up with a way to attack the question. So I think we'll start class on Monday with a little psych experiment that illuminates how fixed versus flexible views of intelligence can affect performance. After all, the rank 'em and yank 'em approach holds that some people can learn and others just can't. By definition, it takes a fixed view of intelligence. You either got it or you don't.
That's where the experiment comes in. You announce a short intelligence test and give students three words and a limited amount of time to remix them into new English words. Half receive the following:
The other half receive these words:
The problem is that there is no anagram for Slapstick, which means you've set half of the class up for failure. Interestingly, very few who fail at Slapstick manage to get the third term. They just assume they aren't smart enough to do the task and give up. In other words, they buy into a fixed view of intelligence and assume they ain't got it. This same effect can be seen in countless studies showing how subtle racial or gender cues in testing can skew results. If people accept a fixed view of their intelligence, they are more likely to fail. If, however, they see failure as something that can be overcome with effort, they are more likely to succeed. This isn't to say there aren't differences in intelligences. There clearly are, but they are the result of effort rather fixed potential.
Indeed, the acceptance that teaching is a waste of time on some students almost always results in an ugly brand of elitism. And elitism of any stripe--gender, class, race, or even intelligence--tends to be a self-reinforcing phenomenon. Hell, justifications for slavery have always been premised on a fixed view of intelligence: "Slaves, women, those people are simply incapable of wisely governing themselves, so we'll just have to do it for them..."
For Socrates, however, reason was the common point of contact for all human beings. Indeed, it was the essence of being human. He assumed that all people could, if they wished, become rational creatures and act in their own best interests, an assumption about human nature that is also the premise of democracy. Such societies, if they wish to remain democracies, must educate all equally in spite of the glaring truth that not all can be equally educated, which makes the whole enterprise fundamentally inefficient, costly and frustrating, but no less necessary.