Thursday, September 01, 2005

Sometimes the marginal rate of technical substitution is zero 

Reader jw sent this story from the Chronicle of Higher Education, discussing the US Naval Academy's attitude towards underachieving students. Says one of its faculty, the school's collective head is in the sand on learning problems.
At the U.S. Naval Academy, as I discovered by serving a year as a faculty member on the admissions board, we go out of our way to take in a surprising number of weak students in preference to stronger ones in the pursuit of our various ideological hobbyhorses: affirmative action for sports, selected racial minorities, and blatantly pro-military activities in high school. The academy also seems to be ideologically committed to the power of the individual to overcome all odds. In the academy's conservative, military mind-set, everything is a "choice," and motivation alone decides whether you succeed or fail. The only reason the Naval Academy can accept to explain why a student is failing is that he or she isn't trying hard enough. Any other factors are irrelevant, and in any case are ruled out of court. The academy just doesn't want to hear about them.
Professor Bruce Fleming, who teaches English at the school, talks about students who pass because they get lots of extra instruction from readily available faculty.

There are two potential problems with the Naval Academy's reasoning. First, Fleming points out that lesser talent can always be offset by greater effort. That's not always true, he says. This reminded my reader of the point Charles Murray raises in group differences in intelligence. Even if you find them statistically, critics suggest, you can offset those inherent disadvantages by making allowances on the other side. This is couched in terms of "cultural competence" or "global understanding", but what it often comes down to is either creating separate scales for each group or devoting much more attention to the disadvantaged group. Setting aside the question of fairness, the fact may be that you can't make the substitution. In Prof. Fleming's story, he gets the learning-challenged student through the class by adding scads of his own extra instruction, getting the student to memorize. But no actual learning has occured; the student graduating becomes an officer in the Navy who can't rely on memorization in the heat of battle or when an emergency occurs, say, on a submarine. We can change the rules of college football to help the 175# player, but this will accord him no advantage in the pros. We can add tutorial after tutorial for inner-city students who have perhaps a combination of group and environmental disadvantages, but we cannot pass on the ability needed to perform opera, brain surgery, or flying an airplane.

The other is that many of the students I see with learning disabilities are often treatable. I'm at a state university, not a service academy, so I feel a greater need to provide for the students that Prof. Fleming's administrators pretend don't exist because I think the public wants that. But there's nothing worse for these students than an undiagnosed physical explanation for poor learning. Faculty have difficulty dealing with angry students, but good faculty can pick out the ones who are angry out of frustration with their own problems from the ones who are angry someone told them they stink (either due to lack of motivation or lack of talent.) I have some cases of students with these disabilities who have gone on to be quite successful -- and you'd probably find those stories with a majority of the faculty here.

The point is, education is a retail venture, and usually involves customization. Thinking everyone's problem is a lack of motivation makes no more sense than thinking everyone can draw that fawn on the back of the matchbook just as well as the next guy.