Turning the Sow’s Ear into a Silk Purse

Lately I’ve been struggling with the concept of “educated beyond one’s intelligence”. Testing and education is supposed to separate the meritorious from the masses. Unfortunately, education serves only to cut off the very bottom, obviously inept cohort, but seems to have less ability to separate truly good people from mediocre intellects and fakers. This has direct implications beyond Academia, as David Foster pointed out when he noted the reliance of businesses on paper trail rather than accomplishments as a means of filtering potential new hires.

I’m now starting to construct a mental model for why education seems to be failing at this central task, and a few terms spring immediately to mind.

Term One: Education as Trade Unionism

My mother spent all of her working life as a worker bee – a schoolteacher. She had absolutely no desire to go into school administration. It therefore amuses me greatly that immediately upon retirement she took a job as a librarian that promoted her into management within a year. She started as the children’s librarian, and was extremely good at it. When she was promoted to branch chief, a new children’s librarian was provided for her by the system, and she became a manager.

This new person was eminently qualified – on paper. She had a degrees in library science and teaching, and she interviewed well. But the new employee was lazy – failing to catalog and shelve books, failing to provide adequate enrichment activities during storytime, and failing to get requests from patrons for new children’s books to the central library. This person left the system in a huff when passed over for a promotion in another branch.

A new children’s librarian was found. She works hard, she always has an interesting activity for the pre-schoolers’ story time, and she is liked by the patrons. Mom was telling me that if these two were to compete head-to-head for a job, the first person would win every time. The poor employee is more articulate in an interview, and she has the sheepskin that impresses today’s bureaucrat.

Later in the conversation, we were discussing some children’s books that I had recommended, and why the library system (not just her branch) was doing such a poor job in obtaining good books for young adults. Once again, the man responsible for purchasing children’s books has the sheepskin, but no drive or discernment.

Now that it is well known that education is valued more as a signaling mechanism than for any intrinsic knowledge that is imparted over the course of fours years of listening to over-educated fools blather on about Foucalt and Derrida, the rent-seekers of marginal intelligence and even lower work ethic are pushing to look for a “soft place” as the rent-seekers in the USSR used to call a position of low responsibility and reasonable remuneration. A sheepskin provides the cover for this kind of subterfuge.

So one answer to the question of why so many “experts” are not creative thinkers is that they are simply rent-seekers who have done the minimum to get by for their degree, and sink further into sloth afterwards.

However, a second kind of less-than-useful expert is a hard-working mechanic – he or she learns algorithms – studies hard to learn algorithms, but has no true understanding of many critical subjects in the field. The abundance of those kind of experts is explained by flaws in the process of testing and educating.

Term Two: Measurement of Intelligence and Aptitude

When I sat back and thought a little harder about rent-seeking behavior, I began to wonder why the battery after battery of tests that I had undergone in my academic career, in addition to the educational processes of matriculation and degree granting, do not separate the wheat from the chaff. That led me back to a couple of older posts from Zen and Dan, which I have been meaning to post on for a while. Those posts touched on the Flynn effect, which is a recognition that IQs have been slowly rising with time.

There is something, if not broken, then insufficient, in the way we measure both intelligence and aptitude. Let’s start with aptitude. I received my B.Sc. from a small but prestigious engineering and science institute. I have serious doubts that anyone there scored less than the 95th percentile on the SAT Math test. Most of us scored in the 99th. As a point of fact, I scored in the 99th percentile. And I am telling you now that I can rattle off dozens of names of schoolmates who were better at math than I.

One might make the argument that the SAT does not cover much advanced math, and that differentiation for advanced students should take place on the GRE. Except that the GRE math is no more difficult than the SAT math. Same story for me: 99th percentile, lots of folks in grad school better than I am. Why does neither the GRE nor the SAT differentiate in that critical cohort of people who are going on to graduate school in science and engineering? Well, the easy answer is that there are subject matter GRE tests to do that. The GRE is a general test.

The deeper answer is that the very problems that would differentiate in the top cohorts a) don’t lend themselves to the multiple-guess format and b) take much too long for a timed test. Differentiation has been sacrificed for reproducibility in the SAT and GRE. Most of us who have taken more advanced math classes can tell you about worrying a single problem to death for hours, days, or weeks. Those are the problems that separate the girls from the women, and by their very nature are not good standardized test fodder. What standardized tests measure best are mastery of algorithms, which any fool can, and many fools do, master.

The fact that we test primarily for algorithmic mastery opens a huge back door for the rent-seekers. It explains exactly why there are so many Mitt Romneys out there- process jocks who cling to the process – even when it’s obvious that the process is broken – because process and algorithm are the only tools in their kit.

As more and more schools and parents become aware of the algorithms that are tested on the exams that mean access to wealth and power, those skills are emphasized, and we see the Flynn Effect in IQ scores as described by Zenpundit:

One of the well-documented aspects regarding IQ testing on which you can safely make broad generalizations, is that aggregate mean IQ scores have been rising. Not just here in America or in advanced countries but everywhere (though at different rates), rich or poor, free or unfree, north or south. Moreover, to the extent to which we can assemble reliable and valid psychometric records, this societal increase in mean IQ, known as “The Flynn Effect” after researcher James Flynn, has been going on for about a century.

At the same time that mean IQ has increased, the results of standardized testing of k-12 students at the national level has not reflected this improvement, at least not proportionately; seniors and some parents are also prone to make the anecdotal observation that children today simply aren’t as proficient at many practical kinds of problem solving as they were many decades ago. How can these phenomena be reconciled ?
Flynn now argues the change is due to the increasing complexity and stimulation of the modern social environment – children are getting better at certain kinds of thinking (which impacts IQ scores) demanded by their environment but other kinds of cognitive skills are falling into disuse.

As Dan of tdaxp pointed out, if the IQ test itself can be gamed, there are probably other measures that might better get at a measure of core intelligence, either instead of or in conjunction with IQ:

A good example is the Test Necessary Arithmetic Operations. This test was devised by Guilford to measure a specific cell in his Structure of the Intellect Model. Each item presents a short word problem. The examinee’s task is not to solve the problem, but to say which two operations she would use, and in what order. There are four operations: add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Thus, problems do not require advanced mathematics. Yet in the sample of over 100 Stanford undergraduates who were administered most of the tests in Figure 2, Necessary Arithmetic Operations had one of the highest loadings on the [fluid intelligence] factor (Marshalek, Lohman, & Snow, 1983).

Just as a layman’s observation, I expect a genius to have insights I don’t. When I see genii as defined by IQ such as Maryln Vos Savant, my first reaction is “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” Where is her Nobel, her solution to one of the great unsolved problems in mathematics, her economic model that reshapes the way we see society – or even her Great American Novel? I’m not terribly impressed with any of her writings. I’ve personally come in contact with other people whom I know have tested as a genius and have also been less than impressed. Not all of that lack of living up to “potential” can be laid at the feet of low EQ, either. Maybe it’s that IQ, like the SAT, is useless at the top end of the scale. It is likely that there are other things that need to be measured than what those tests can quantify.

Term Three: Our Education System Does Not Encourage Deep Understanding

Assuming the intelligence and aptitude tests are flawed, couldn’t we use then as a first pass filter and then differentiate the mechanics from the creatives in our higher education? Ostensibly, that’s what grading at the University level should do. But many of the same problems with a timed test apply to testing in a college classroom. In a two hour test one can’t put all that many truly differentiating problems on the exam, and even if one did, some kids would come up with better answers given more time. And in the real world, new stuff comes from someone spending a lot of time worrying a problem to death.*

The mechanics often do very well in school if they have a good work ethic. When I was in undergrad, my O-Chem teacher commented that P-Chemists tended to do poorly in O-chem because they were always wondering why some reaction worked the way it did, rather than just memorizing it and going on to the next reaction. Electron pushing is voodoo, and I never really felt I understood O-Chem until I took graduate classes in Frontier Orbital Theory. The mechanical O-chemists who got As in undergrad O-chem hated FO theory, however, because it required understanding, not memorization. Well, understanding and math. But they got through it, via the same process that mediocre engineers survive: the process that the super bright engineers derisively call “plug-and-chug” – memorize all the applicable formulas and when to use them, and every problem likely to appear on a test becomes an exercise in finding the right algorithm.

This isn’t new, either. Feynman wrote about mechanical learnings in “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman”:

I often liked to play tricks on people when I was at MIT. One time, in a mechanical drawing class, some joker picked up a French curve (a piece of plastic for drawing smooth curves–a curly, funny-looking thing) and said, “I wonder if the curves on this thing have some special formula?”

I thought for a moment and said, “Sure they do. The curves are very special curves. Lemme show ya,” and I picked up my French curve and began to turn it slowly. “The French curve is made so that at the lowest point on each curve, no matter how you turn it, the tangent is horizontal.”

All the guys in the class were holding their French curve up at different angles, holding their pencil up to it at the lowest point and laying it along, and discovering that, sure enough, the tangent is horizontal. They were all excited by this “discovery”–even though they had already gone through a certain amount of calculus and had already “learned” that the derivative (tangent) of the minimum (lowest point) of any curve is zero (horizontal). They didn’t put two and two together. They didn’t even know what they “knew.”

Those folks in his technical drawing class were largely educated beyond their intelligence.

This is why mediocre people get degrees from prestigious schools. The people in Feynman’s book were students at MIT fer cryin’ out loud. Many of them probably had decent, even great GPAs. These people go on to play politics because they have little to offer content-wise in their jobs, so they concentrate on the political aspects, and unfortunately tend to rise to middle management. These same people are threatened by those of greater ability, and tend to hire subordinates of even lower ability, and thus we come to the tendency of large organizations to ossify.

I’m not sure how to get around the problem of ranking graduates at the educational level. Requiring some sort of internship for most degrees might help, but managers of interns are loath to give poor recommendations even when they are deserved, so in the programs I’ve seen you get a regression to the mean on the internship scores. I was in charge of a largely useless intern on one of my assignments, but we really didn’t torch the evaluations we should have at the end of the internship. I’m not proud to say that my lack of criticism I probably contributed to the eventual hiring of that intern as a field manager at another company. I’m not saying we gave a glowing review, but I also didn’t go into the details of the hand-holding I had to do in order to not have the intern’s project come out as a disaster. As my boss at the time said: can you imagine the attitudes of the former intern’s subordinates, who are successful entrepreneurs running franchises that are basically semi-independent businesses, having to listen to that intern’s blatherings? No. I can’t. I’m truly sorry guys.

It is difficult for a large business to let an underperformer go, which leads to the over-reliance on pieces of paper that hardly tell even one third of the story of a person’s competence. This in turn explains some of the huge inefficiencies that I see around me in big business and government. Another corrective mechanism might be to make it easier to dismiss employees and harder for them to sue unless clear wrongdoing is evident. That will make my job much less secure, but also much less frustrating. I’m willing to take the chance.

12 thoughts on “Turning the Sow’s Ear into a Silk Purse”

  1. “a second kind of less-than-useful expert is a hard-working mechanic – he or she learns algorithms – studies hard to learn algorithms, but has no true understanding of many critical subjects in the field”…I read somewhere that many structural failures (in buildings, bridges, etc) are attributable to “handbook designers”–ie, people who know the formulas (or can look them up) but don’t really have a feel for how the forces flow in the structure, and hence fail to invoke the formulas correctly.

    This phenomenon is by no means limited to structural engineering.

  2. What I see is an entrance criteria mismatch in the hiring process. True “process jocks who cling to the process” would be dedicated to improving it. There’s a reason why when moving to higher process maturity levels, out of the eleven elements of a Deming process workbench (PDF), defining the work procedures is eighth and negotiation of entrance criteria with suppliers is dead last. Documenting the details of exactly what you’re supposed to be doing doesn’t come easy, and figuring out what you really need when hiring someone (to say nothing of enforcing those standards) may be the hardest thing of all.

    Management is also key in guiding employees through the stages of “enthusiastic beginner,” “disillusioned learner,” and “reluctant contributor” to — ideally — “peak performer.” So I would add familiarization with Blanchard to the Deming mentioned above as a way to get the productivity we supposedly deserve from the better-educated.

    Perhaps we should revive a formal system of apprenticeship.

  3. First, thank you kindly for the link, John.

    I recall Ayn Rand used to refer to a group of ppl she termed “second-handers” – it fits the process jocks and rote memorizers well.

    Having worked with gifted and profoundly gifted children, what differentiates them from the very bright hard-working, “teacher-pleasers” (who were admiring Feynman’s horizontal angle) is the spark of intellectual curiousity and mental restlessness that drives them to see the world with new eyes, at least episodically. Hard work and smarts will make you a valuable employee. Insights though, create fields that, eventually, have whole industries with employees.

  4. I did read, perhaps in one of Feynman’s memoirs, that he tested at 123 on an IQ test in high school. “Somethings bloody wrong with our IQ tests today”. Lovely post.

  5. Maybe its because ‘Personnel Management’ is one of the least developed functions of many businesses and other social institutions. How many of your best and brightest are found there? Is it really nothing more than pushing paper? How easy it is to ‘select’ because someone has piece of paper in his hand rather do a real check of capability. That takes commitment, time and money. How many employers hiring look forward to ‘interviews’? Isn’t it easier to have a cookie cutter check list and be done with it?

    Back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, the newspaper business was a trade. You spent your time doing your apprenticeship, journeyman and master development. It was in the post war period that universities and colleges started ‘professional’ programs that delivered the piece of paper to show qualification. See what we get today. It was a pattern they’d continue to follow. I still remember 2 year teachers colleges [back when SAT scores were on the raise]. In the great campus revolution of the late 60s when ‘relevancy’ trumped traditional education, the institutions of higher learning shifted to high gear paper mills handing out ‘certifications’ of qualification. All of which made personnel management easier and dumbed down. You just needed a piece of paper. And dont’ tell me Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, etc aren’t brand names for employment by personnel management offices.

    You’re not going to find a perfect system, but we can certainly do much better. However, it will require something that most people try to avoid – making other people unhappy. Unhappy because they’re forced to do their job. Unhappy because they weren’t selected even though they had the ‘right school’ and the ‘right courses’.

  6. Part of the problem here is that too few managers know how to conduct an effective interview. If you’re not confident in your interviewing techniques, you’re likely to rely excessively on credentials. If you’re *falsely confident* in your interviewing techniques, the results will be even worse.

    Interviewing, IMNSHO, is one of the fundamental skills of any manager, and requires work and thought. No one should ever leave the hiring of their employees to HR, and managers in organizations where this is the normal mode of doing things should consider going somewhere else. On the other hand, a good HR person can be an extremely useful part of the hiring process.

  7. Many of the traits that make someone a good worker and innovator have little to do with intellect or education but are instead matters of character. Its emotional intelligence that matters, not symbolic processing measured by IQ and similar test.

    Modern education and culture in general do not place an emphasis on developing character. We seem to feel it transgresses to much in various ways. We worry that people will feel insulted or offended if we try to educate their children in developing the attitudes and beliefs that lead them to true success. We similarly fear trying to select employees based on the same criteria.

    Since we’ve taken character off the table, we really only have dry, imprecise measurements from various test scores from education to judge people by. Since we reward people who test well, we get people who test well but who can’t work well.

  8. I write from my own set of experiences and do not claim universality, but it seems to me that a fundamental problem is the model that one “gets an education” and then “gets a job.” The problems with this are often compounded because the people furnishing the education have never had the job for which they are ostensibly training people.

    I am not a research physicist (for example) and recognize my perspective won’t apply in all cases, but I think we lost a lot when we moved away from an apprenticeship model. Lord knows, Ed Schools and J Schools are absolutely destructive of value, but I think that has much broader application. We would be better served in many/most career fields by a model based on more vocational or at least practical education in high school, and then the young person applying for and being hired into an apprentice or provisional position at 18. After about 2 years, the employer and the employee decide whether there seems to be a good fit both as to career and specific employer. If there is a fit, the young person can pursue any necessary formal education in whatever mode works for him/her (part-time while working, full-time on leave of absence, or whatever), and perhaps the employer if there is a long-term relationship. But at least there is some basis for establishing whether the young person has appropriate work and other habits and abilities to function and be happy within a certain culture (both the professional culture and the specific employer). Heck, the great reporters all came up this way, working the night police beat at City News, where they learned their craft and were exposed to the “real world.” Today’s J-school grads are universally pathetic, by comparison.

    Tricky bit is what happens to the person who, at 20, finds his first job wasn’t a good fit. I suppose they try again in a different situation, informed by having learned something about themselves. There can’t be a big cultural condemnation of people who are trying 2nd or 3rd jobs to find a fit. But, better to learn this at 20, after having actually worked for 2 years, than to learn at 28, with a college and advanced degree and a pile of debt in hand, that your chosen career isn’t a good fit.

  9. I advised a young friend of mine to forget about going to college immediately and, at least, forget about full time attendance. I’m convinced that working in the field in any capacity (sweep the lab. floors, whatever), will let the young person work with or around current professionals in the chosen field and this will will pay off. It’ll make the novice take note of the profession in a low key way and the profession will take note of the novice during and after any formal education; at the place that he has worked at or, later, in his resume.

    This might not be the best advice for some “fortunate sons” or legacy cases but it suits an ambitious kid that wants to make his way effectively.

  10. Many thanks to 1) John Jay for the original post, which I neglected to praise in my first comment; 2) David Foster for the pointers to Photon Courier, etc; and especially 3) Marty for

    Tricky bit is what happens to the person who, at 20, finds his first job wasn’t a good fit. I suppose they try again in a different situation, informed by having learned something about themselves. There can’t be a big cultural condemnation of people who are trying 2nd or 3rd jobs to find a fit. But, better to learn this at 20, after having actually worked for 2 years, than to learn at 28, with a college and advanced degree and a pile of debt in hand, that your chosen career isn’t a good fit.

    This was another reminder to me of how fortunate I was to have royally screwed up by age 20, thereby being able to spend the next decade learning how to make myself useful rather than finding myself useless at the end of it.

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