Competent, honest people often don’t do very well

Wednesday, October 4th, 2017

According to Techniques of Systems Analysis, almost any honest, technically competent person could turn out worthwhile and interesting results — in the simpler, narrower field of Operations Research:

This last statement does not carry over at all to the much broader problems faced in Systems Analysis. Here we no longer have a definite context with specific equipment. Sometimes we don’t even have definite objectives. Rather we are trying to design a system capable of meeting contingencies which will arise five to ten, and sometimes fifteen, years in the future. We must not only design this system, we must also decide under what conditions it will be used and what we shall want to do with it. The recommendations of the Systems Analyst are mainly concerned with “beliefs,” research, development, and procurement, and only incidentally with operations.

Under these circumstances, competent, honest people often don’t do very well; this does not, of course, mean that we want incompetent or dishonest people. It does mean that, in addition to technical competence and honesty, a certain sophistication is necessary.

To make the role of the Systems Analyst clearer it seems worth while to make a distinction among at least three kinds of conclusions — what might be called intuitive judgment, the considered opinion, and the technical or scientific “fact.”

The first is essentially based on the individual’s experience and background. It is the basis of the day-to-day decisions of executives, businessmen, and in fact almost everyone. While it may be informed, the machinery by which it has been arrived at is not explicitly shown. It is essentially as good or bad as the man who is making it.

The second we have called the considered opinion. It differs from the intuitive judgment in that the logic behind the judgment is made explicit — this usually means that it is quantitative. In the best case it is arrived at by a reasonable and impartial examination of the known facts with due and explicit allowances being made for uncertainties. In the worst case, it may be an extensive and misleading rationalization of a prejudged position. In both cases it usually claims to be “rational.” The value of the opinion still depends on who is making it; however, insofar as the machinery is clearly shown, and not hidden by a mass of charts, calculations, and technical verbiage, the audience has some change of make its own considered opinion from the information presented.

(It should be clear to the reader that we have taken some liberties with common usage in making these definitions. For example if somebody spent some days in trying to decide some crucial choice problem and after much internal debate and struggle made the remark, “Well I have done a good deal of cogitating and it is now my considered opinion that I should…,” we would probably say he has made an intuitive judgment.)

To make the contrast between our definitions of intuitive judgment and considered opinion clearer, it is worth mentioning that in previous times there wasn’t much room in human affairs for considered opinions. In most situations there were experienced men available to make off-hand decisions, or the pace of events was so slow that people acquired experience almost without trying. Even when people tried to make opinions explicit, the best they could usually do was essentially a simple or complicated listing of the pros and cons with little or no explanation of how to balance the pros and cons quantitatively. In addition there really wasn’t much place for any process of arriving at conclusions that tends to take 3 to 12 months and uses “analytic” rather than “practical” processes, except in the fields of criticism, commentary, or reform. The contrary seems to be true today — hence, a major reason for what is called Operations Research and Systems Analysis.

The last kind of opinion is the scientific or technical “fact.” While such “facts” are much more subject to controversy than the general public suspects, it is still true that they can usually be clearly separated from the individual and are in some sense “objective.” In particular, insofar as the opinions are based on experiments, logic, or calculations, other people will invariably have repeated the steps and come up with the same answers, or the results will not be believed.

Experience has been a better guide than theory

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

Techniques of Systems Analysis explains the success of Operations Research — the simpler, narrower precursor to Systems Analysis — during World War 2:

Even allowing for pardonable exaggerations, the analysts often came up with suggestions that were quite different from practice and yet often demonstrably better. This, in spite of the common and well-founded belief that in the past “experience” has been a better guide than “theory” in this kind of work.

The reason for this success is fairly clear. We might, for example, contrast the situation during World War II with that during the Napoleonic Wars, and ask ourselves if scientific personnel could have contributed much to Nelson’s conduct of the battle of Trafalgar. The following quotation contrasts the situation Nelson found to that faced by the professional officer today. It also indicates some reasons why a civilian analyst is sometimes in a better “psychological” position than the professional military officer in approaching new long range problems.

The professional officer, stimulated always by the immediate needs of the service to which he devotes his life, becomes naturally absorbed with advancing its technical efficiency and smooth operation. This task has become ever more exacting with the increasing complexity and rapidity of change of military technology.

Nelson, whose flagship on the day of Trafalgar was forty years old yet in no wise inferior in fighting capacity to the majority of the ships engaged, could spend his lifetime learning and perfecting the art of the admiral without fearing that the fundamental conditions of that art would change under his feet.

Today the basic conditions of war seem to change almost from month to month. It is therefore difficult for the professional soldier to avoid being preoccupied with means rather than ends, especially since his usefulness to his immediate superior hangs upon his skill and devotion in the performance of his assigned function. And if there is one thing above all that distinguishes the military progression from any other it is that the soldier always has a direct superior.

Nelson and his contemporaries could have had forty years’ experience in handling the equipment they were fighting with. In fact, they could have had effectively even more. They could draw not only on their personal experience, but on the experience of others through personal contacts or writings. Under such circumstances the analytical process does not usually yield results with will compete with those that can be obtained by an experienced man using ordinary judgment and inventiveness.

World War II was quite different. Nobody really had much wartime or even peacetime experience with the equipment because so much of it was relatively new. In some cases it did not exist before the war and the military didn’t even have the benefit of exercises and discussion. Under such circumstances, a theoretical or analytical approach, particularly if it can be made quantitative, will often prove to be fruitful. In fact, it was found that almost any honest, technically competent person could turn out worthwhile and interesting results.

I would make time to read that book

Friday, September 29th, 2017

Mike Hennelly reviewed the last six reading lists from the Army Chief of Staff and declared the most recent list the weakest of the bunch:

The various Army Chiefs of Staff issued six different professional development reading lists between 2009 and 2017 (Casey I, Casey II, Dempsey I, Odierno I, Odierno II and Milley I). All these lists are completely different — Dempsey’s brief list consists of 26 books while Milley’s massive list clocks in at a staggering 115 books. These six reading lists cumulatively contain the names of 240 different books, yet not a single one shows up on every list and only one book (Makers of Modern Strategy 2nd ed.) shows up on five of the six lists. In fact, 80 percent of the books on the most recent list are not mentioned on any of the previous lists.


In the 2017 reading list, Gen. Milley wanted to focus attention on George Marshall. Great idea. Marshall is a wonderful model of military professionalism. Unfortunately, the reading list directs people to Forrest Pogue’s four-volume (!) biography of Marshall. I read all four volumes this summer and it was painful. What is odd about this choice is that the Army has a perfectly good 95-page monograph on Marshall and strategic leadership (written by an Army colonel at the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College in 1993) that would serve the same purpose.


Guess which conflict makes Army generals more comfortable World War II (14 books) or Vietnam (1 book)?


There is an entire field of human thought devoted to planning, organizing, leading and controlling organizations. It is called the field of management. As an academic major, management is the most popular in American universities (and coincidentally, the most popular academic major, by far, among cadets at West Point). One would think that people who are responsible for planning, organizing, leading and controlling one of the largest organizations on Earth would be at least a little interested in the field of management. The 2017 reading list shows otherwise. Despite containing 115 books, not a single one of these books is from the field of management. Michael Porter, anyone? Clayton Christensen? Jim Collins? Bueller?


Every single one of the 115 book descriptions on the 2017 list sounds like it was written by a teaching assistant for an undergraduate syllabus. Just once, I would like to read a book description on the CSA reading list that was written by a senior Army leader who says: “I first read the following book as a lieutenant and it fundamentally changed my ideas on (fill in the blank); I reread it on a regular basis and learn something new every time.”

I would make time to read that book.

Psychology beats business training

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

Francisco Campos and his fellow researchers chose to monitor 1,500 people running small businesses in Togo in West Africa and gave them two different sorts of training:

The typical firm had three employees and profits of 94,512 CFA francs ($173) a month. Only about a third kept books, and less than one in 20 had a written budget.


As they report in Science, the researchers split the businesses into three groups of 500. One group served as the control. Another received a conventional business training in subjects such as accounting and financial management, marketing and human resources. They were also given tips on how to formalise a business. The syllabus came from a course called Business Edge, developed by the International Finance Corporation.

The final group was given a course inspired by psychological research, designed to teach personal initiative — things like setting goals, dealing with feedback and persistence in the face of setbacks, all of which are thought to be useful traits in a business owner. The researchers then followed their subjects’ fortunes for the next two-and-a-half years (the experiment began in 2014).

An earlier, smaller trial in Uganda had suggested that the psychological training was likely to work well. It did: monthly sales rose by 17% compared with the control group, while profits were up by 30%. It also boosted innovation: recipients came up with more new products than the control group. That suggests that entrepreneurship, or at least some mental habits useful for it, can indeed be taught. More surprising was how poorly the conventional training performed: as far as the researchers could tell, it had no effect at all.

How Harvard helps its richest and most arrogant students get ahead

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017

Sarah Ruden bitterly explains how Harvard helps its richest and most arrogant students get ahead:

It was the end of a semester at Harvard University, where I was a doctoral student, and I’d been called into a professor’s office. He was the faculty member overseeing the third-year undergraduate Latin course that I had just finished teaching and grading. One of my students was seated in the office when I arrived, with a look of dignified outrage on his face, having already made his case against me. The offense?

I’d given him an A-minus.

That he apparently felt welcome to petition against that grade might tell you everything you need to know about how Harvard coddles certain students.

True, giving an A-minus to a classics major, a potential “friend of the department” (read: likely future donor), didn’t always go over well. But the same professor who was now entertaining that undergrad’s grievance had, that year, briefed us teaching assistants on the tough new guidelines for combating grade inflation, counseling us to be judicious, to think through what a Harvard “A” meant before awarding one. Hence, it had seemed reasonably safe to assign that grade.


To arrive at the final grades, I’d carefully marked all the assignments and used a standard point scale and the prescribed weighting of each part of the coursework. I had given only one A in the class. The complaining student was smart, but on the evidence, he had been coasting; at an ordinary institution, he would have earned a C, not an A-minus. but Harvard undergraduate courses aren’t set up that way.

I thought this professor would ask to see the student’s written work as a backup to his complaint. That’s what had happened to me years before when I challenged the C-minus I got for my first undergraduate essay at the University of Michigan. The reaction was harsh — I was grimly scolded; the C-minus went unchanged — but it motivated me. I shut up, buckled down and improved my performance so much that I not only received an A for the course but also eventually graduated summa cum laude and was offered the nation’s premier fellowship for PhD study in classics.

All this had misled me as to what I should expect when teaching at Harvard. This professor didn’t ask to see any evidence. He accepted the student’s plea that he had “worked really hard.” Then, in front of the student, he pressed me to explain the reason for my poor teaching, apparently the only thing that could reveal why the student wasn’t satisfied with his grade.


Once he extracted my synthetic mea culpa, the professor happily raised the grade. The triumphant student left, and the professor praised me for my professional behavior.

At Harvard, this kind of encounter wasn’t limited to the humanities and social sciences, where the requirements are sometimes easier to bend. For example, three biochemistry graduate students I knew and trusted all had an identical story. In the introductory course they taught, undergraduates weren’t required to show up at a single lecture or section; they could score in the teens on the final and still pass. The professor’s basis for leniency, they said, was that “they pay too much tuition for us to fail them.”


In fact, genuine rigor — which would, of course, challenge the prerogatives and sift the career options of privileged students — isn’t what Harvard wanted. Such teaching would hamper the real institutional mission: instilling in the elite a conviction of innate superiority and a corresponding contempt for people with technical knowledge, culture, talent or professional experience.

Why don’t students like school?

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017

In Why Don’t Students Like School?, cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham argues that teachers don’t have a full understanding of certain cognitive principles and therefore don’t teach as well as they could. Peter Gray offers another hypothesis:

Ask any schoolchild why they don’t like school and they’ll tell you. “School is prison.” They may not use those words, because they’re too polite, or maybe they’ve already been brainwashed to believe that school is for their own good and therefore it can’t be prison. But decipher their words and the translation generally is, “School is prison.”

Let me say that a few more times: School is prison. School is prison. School is prison. School is prison. School is prison.

Willingham surely knows that school is prison. He can’t help but know it; everyone knows it. But here he writes a whole book entitled “Why Don’t Students Like School,” and not once does he suggest that just possibly they don’t like school because they like freedom, and in school they are not free.

Cherry-picking the best students

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

Public-school supporters often claim that charter schools manage to “cherry pick” the best students:

Now a series of reports in California and elsewhere show the opposite is true. In one case, educators in the San Diego Unified School District have been counseling their students with low grade-point averages to transfer into charter schools, especially online charters, according to a Voice of San Diego report last month.

Students who were part of the district’s class of 2016 but transferred to a charter school “had a combined grade-point average of 1.75 at the time they transferred,” which is below the 2.0 average needed to graduate. This includes 919 students who left the school system and were “no longer factored into the district’s overall graduation rate,” the news site explained. The districts are able to “dump” students that drag down the overall graduation metrics, which are used to rate schools and influence funding decisions.


The impact often falls heavily on online charters, because brick-and-mortar charters have enrollment caps. Online charters have no such caps, and are an easy way to offload kids who might drag down district test scores and graduation rates.

The subsequent poor performance of some of these students has another benefit to teachers’ union leaders: it becomes a reason to clamp down on charters.

The Caplan Family School is a perfect fit for young Caplans

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

Bryan Caplan interviews his two twin sons — who sound like they may in fact be clones of their father — about their two years of homeschooling in place of traditional middle school.

I don’t share their animosity toward art, music, and exercise, but I will say that their routine sounds like a perfect fit for them:

Their 5′s on the Advanced Placements tests in United States History, European History, Microeconomics, and Macroeconomics are only the beginning.

Earlier he shared his list of homeschooling textbooks:

7th Grade
For Algebra we used Practical Algebra: A Self-Teaching Guide.  This is probably the best math text I’ve ever seen: clear, thorough, and (to our eyes) literally infallible.

For Geometry, I couldn’t find a really good text, so we just used the geometry sections of the Kaplan SAT prep book and Kaplan SAT Math Level 1 prep book, plus miscellaneous others.

Our source for Algebra II was Practice Makes Perfect: Algebra II.  Pretty good, but quite a few errors.

For United States history, I assigned Nation of Nations, volumes 1 and 2.  It’s not thrilling, but was comprehensive, and low on annoying political remarks and outright economic illiteracy.  Here, and in many other cases, I saved a bundle of money by using old editions.  History really hasn’t changed much since 2007, after all.

Later, I bought virtually every A.P. U.S. History prep book for practice questions, as well as Barron’s excellent flash cards.

My students also took my labor economics class, using all the assigned texts.

8th Grade
For Trigonometry and statistics, we used the later chapters of Practice Makes Perfect: Algebra II.

For calculus, we used Quick Calculus: A Self-Teaching Guide.  This book is very well-written and easy to follow.  It’s also full of errors, but a public-minded Amazon reviewer posted a nearly-complete page of errata here.

If Caplan Family School were continuing, I would start a normal calculus textbook from page 1 now that we finished Quick Calculus.  The subject’s hard and deep enough it’s worth mastering the basics, then redoing it with all the bells and whistles.

Our primary source for European history was Carlton Hayes’ A Political and Social History of Modern Europe, volumes 1 and 2.  Few historians are more fun and funny.  Though his words are occasionally monstrous to modern ears, cut him some slack.  The guy moonlighted by saving tens of thousands of lives during World War II.

Since Hayes only goes up to 1924, I added Civilization in the West to get up to the present day.  But despite its massive size, this book’s coverage of the twentieth century was superficial, especially the post-war era.  My sons mainly learned about the twentieth century from random lectures, Wikipedia, and David Phillips’ awe-inspiring flash cards.  Best… flashcards… ever.

For micro and macroeconomics, we relied on Cowen and Tabarrok’s Modern Principles of Economics.  Using a text written by two guys within earshot may seem like nepotism, but my students privately called it their very favorite textbook: written with joy and packed with mind-expanding problems.

This year, my sons also took my public choice class, using all the assigned texts.

It’s definitely a plan by a geek for little geeks:

I’ll probably never get to cheer for my boys at a competitive sporting event, but this before all the world do I prefer.

Never stop learning like a child

Monday, August 28th, 2017

The idea that the mind fossilises as it ages is culturally entrenched:

One study by Yang Zhang at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis that focused on the acquisition of foreign accents in adults suggests we may simply be suffering from poor tuition. When the researchers gave them recordings that mimicked the exaggerated baby talk of cooing mothers, the adult learners progressed rapidly.

Nor do adults necessarily fumble over the intricate movements that are crucial for music or sport. When volunteers visiting Virginia Penhune’s lab at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, learned to press keys in a certain sequence, at certain times — essentially a boiled-down version of keyboard practice — the adults tended to outshine the younger volunteers.

During a more challenging test of hand-eye coordination, nearly 1000 volunteers of all age groups learned to juggle over a series of six training sessions. As you might expect, the senior citizens aged 60 to 80 began with some hesitation, but they soon caught up with the 30-year-olds and by the end of the trials all the adults were juggling more confidently than the 5 to 10-year-olds.

Old dogs, then, are much more adaptable than folklore would have it — and if we do have deficits, they aren’t insurmountable. The reason that children appear to be better learners may have more to do with their environment, and factors such as physical fitness (see “Faster body, faster mind”).

Indeed, many researchers believe that an adult’s lifestyle may be the biggest obstacle. “A child’s sole occupation is learning to speak and move around,” says Ed Cooke, a cognitive scientist who has won many memory contests. “If an adult had that kind of time to spend on attentive learning, I’d be very disappointed if they didn’t do a good job.”

A glut of free time and a carefree existence are out of reach for most of us, but there are other behaviours that boost children’s learning, and these habits can be easily integrated into even an adult’s schedule. For example, children are continually quizzed on what they know — and for good reason: countless studies have shown that testing doubles long-term recall, outperforming all other memory tactics. Yet most adults attempting to learn new skills will rely more on self-testing which, let’s be honest, happens less often.


Adults can hamper progress with their own perfectionism: whereas children throw themselves into tasks, adults often agonise over the mechanics of the movements, trying to conceptualise exactly what is required. This could be one of our biggest downfalls. “Adults think so much more about what they are doing,” says Gabriele Wulf at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Children just copy what they see.”

Wulf’s work over the past decade shows that you should focus on the outcome of your actions rather than the intricacies of the movements. She applies this finding in her own life: as a keen golfer, she has found it is better to think about the swing of the club, for instance, rather than the position of her hands. “I’m always trying to find where best to focus my attention,” she says. Similarly, if you are learning to sing, then you should concentrate on the tone of the voice, rather than on the larynx or the placement of the tongue. Study after study shows that simply shifting your mindset in this way accelerates your learning – perhaps by encouraging the subconscious, automatic movements that mark proficiency.

Misplaced conscientiousness may also lead adults to rely on overly rigid practice regimes that stifle long-term learning. The adult talent for perseverance, it seems, is not always a virtue. Left to their own devices, most people segment their sessions into separate blocks — when learning basketball, for instance, they may work on each shot in turn, perhaps because they feel a desire to master it. The approach may bring rapid improvements at first, but a host of studies have found that the refined technique is soon forgotten.

Instead, you do better to take a carousel approach, quickly rotating through the different skills to be practised without lingering too long on each one. Although the reason is still unclear, it seems that jumping between skills makes your mind work a little harder when applying what you’ve learned, helping you to retain the knowledge in the long term — a finding that has helped people improve in activities ranging from tennis and kayaking to pistol shooting.

Such an approach might not be to everyone’s taste — with intricate skills, it might feel like you are making no progress. But even if you do revert to stints of lengthy practice, you can still reap some of the same benefits by occasionally trying out your skills in an unfamiliar situation. In tennis, you might move to a different part of the court for a couple of serves before returning to the regular position; while playing scales on a musical instrument, you might switch hands temporarily. According to work by Arnaud Boutin at the Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors in Dortmund, Germany, venturing out of your comfort zone in this way helps to ensure that you improve your overall performance rather than confining your progress to the single task at hand. “Otherwise, the longer you practise, the harder it becomes to transfer the skills that you’ve learned to new situations,” says Boutin.

If none of that helps you learn like a child, simply adopting the arrogance of youth may do no harm. “As we get older, we lose our confidence, and I’m convinced that has a big impact on performance,” says Wulf. To test the assumption, she recently trained a small group of people to pitch a ball. While half were given no encouragement, she offered the others a sham test, rigged to demonstrate that their abilities were above average. They learned to pitch on target with much greater accuracy than those who didn’t get an ego boost.

The Dan Plan failed

Sunday, August 27th, 2017

I first heard about the Dan Plan — in which Dan McLaughlin decided to put aside everything else to put in 10,000 hours of deliberate golf practice and become an adult prodigy — six years ago. It didn’t work out:

Enlisting a coach, McLaughlin collected data on his performance and sent it to Ericsson, who plotted his improvement. McLaughlin built his game from the hole out. For months, all he did was putt. Gradually, he moved farther from the flag, adding clubs. Eighteen months in, he played his first full round. At peak practice, he was putting in four hours on the practice green and driving range and playing 18 holes daily. He was stingy in tallying hours toward the 10,000 mark, only counting concentrated practice.

Barely over halfway through, he’d pared his handicap to an all-time low of 2.6 — a mark achieved by fewer than 6 percent of golfers.


As he progressed, McLaughlin found that many of our instincts turn out to be self-defeating. “People’s intuitions about practice are nowhere near optimal,” says Robert Bjork, a professor in cognitive psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose research has demonstrated the effectiveness of introducing “deliberate difficulty” into practice — for instance, constant variety, “interleaving” between different skills and “spacing” study to force students to retrieve, and embed, new knowledge between sessions.

“You want to increase arousal so [the brain encodes] information at a deeper level,’” says Mark Guadagnoli, a professor of neuroscience and neurology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Medicine. “It’s [like] using a laser to engrave something versus a ballpoint pen.”

With advice from Bjork, Ericsson, Guadagnoli, and others, McLaughlin incorporated these principles. But only after he’d burned months drilling single skills like putting — intuitively the best way to practice, but actually the least effective.


According to the PGA, for every one of the 245 spots on the PGA Tour, there are 326,000 active golfers worldwide. Bjork got a look at McLaughlin’s game in 2014. “I could watch him and think it was remarkable for someone who hadn’t played before,” Bjork recounts. “Or, I could look at him … and say the whole idea of [making] the pro tour was unrealistic.”

McLaughlin stuck to his task for years, but 6,003 hours in, his back would no longer comply. “I couldn’t swing a club for six months,” he says. Today, he’s fine — as long as he doesn’t try to play golf every day. And the Dan Plan is a digital ruin, trailing off mid-stream amid the plaintive questions of diehard fans: “What’s the latest Dan?”

Where did summer vacation come from?

Monday, August 14th, 2017

Where did summer vacation come from?

In 1869, a charismatic preacher named William H. H. Murray published a guide to the rugged Adirondacks of upstate New York, extolling them as an antidote to the enervating effects of modern life. He wrote of his desire to “encourage manly exercise in the open air, and familiarity with Nature in her wildest and grandest aspects.”  Murray spoke of how city dwellers weighed down by work emerged from the northern woods revived and bursting with health.

The book was an immediate bestseller, going through numerous printings. In 1869, hordes of tourists dubbed “Murray’s Fools” arrived in the Adirondacks via a new railway line, only to find themselves beset by flies, alarmed by deer tracks, and otherwise flummoxed by life in the great outdoors. The press had a field day with Murray, but the good preacher persisted, and each year, more and more Americans arrived in the mountains.

The massive expansion of railroads opened this and many other locales to white-collar workers seeking a place to spend some time away from the stress of modern life, even if they sometimes made leisure a form of work. Many of today’s favorite summer destinations – the Great Lakes, the White Mountains, the Jersey Shore, the coast of Maine – all began as vacation meccas at this time.

But when parents contemplated bringing the kids, they immediately ran into a serious problem. At this time, schools followed one of two calendars, neither of which was compatible with the idea of summer vacation.  In rural areas, schools opened their doors in the winter and the summer, but closed their doors in the spring and fall, when parents needed children to help out on farms with planting and harvesting. Cities, by contrast, remained open all year. Neither system was conducive to bringing the kids on summer vacation.

But it was precisely this same era that school reformers began voicing the same concerns about “brain work” that doctors had raised about adults. Horace Mann, arguably the most influential school reformer of the 19th century, wrote with conviction that “health itself is destroyed by overstimulating the mind.” Likewise, the Pennsylvania School Journal voiced anxiety that because children spent too much time in school, they were “growing up puny, lank, pallid, emaciated, round-shouldered [and] thin-breasted, all because they were kept at study too long.”

In cities, this argument had particular resonance, no doubt because poorly ventilated, sweltering classrooms were miserable for students and teachers alike. In rural areas studied by Kenneth Gold, a historian at the City University of New York, education reformers began pushing to revamp the school calendar, as well, creating the now standard school calendar.

In truth, much of the impetus for the shift likely came from the teachers themselves, who had by this time organized themselves.  They pushed for summer vacation because, well, they wanted a break. As one reformer arguing against year-round schooling noted: “Teachers need a summer vacation more than bad boys need a whipping.”

Environment is both feeble and overwhelmingly potent

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

Psychologists have been plagued by a paradox that suggests that environment is both feeble and overwhelmingly potent:

The paradox emerged from a debate about race. US whites outscore US blacks on IQ tests by 15 points. Does that gap have environmental causes or is it partially due to genes? In 1973, Arthur Jensen constructed a model that applied kinship data to group differences in IQ. Evidence from kinship studies showed identical twins separated at birth and raised in different homes grow up with very similar IQs. The fact that they have identical genes provides an obvious explanation. Jensen argued that fully 75 percent of IQ variance between individuals was due to genetic differences (a value which sits in the middle of the range recently endorsed by a select committee of the American Psychological Association for adult IQ). Jensen’s model showed that a purely environmental explanation of the black/white IQ gap meant that the environment of the average US black must be as unfavorable for the development of IQ as the lowest one percent of white environments measured in terms of their effects on IQ. That simply did not seem possible.

Jensen’s model seemed to preclude a purely environmental explanation for any large IQ gap between groups. Then, in 1987, Flynn showed that in nation after nation, the current generation outscores the last generation by some 9 to 20 IQ points. The gains are greatest on those tests often called the best measures of intelligence. Their size and speed dictate an environmental explanation. Flynn applied Jensen’s model. An environmental explanation meant putting the current generation within the top one-tenth of one percent of the last generation in terms of environmental quality. What was known to be true was shown to be impossible.

How could solid evidence show both that environment was so feeble (kinship studies) and yet so potent (IQ gains over time)?

Dickens has proposed a model that we believe solves the paradox. It assumes that people who have an advantage for a particular trait will become matched with superior environments for that trait; and that genes can derive a great advantage from this because genetic differences are persistent. A genetic advantage remains with you throughout life, while environmental differences tend to come and go, unless sustained by the steady pressure of genes.

Take those born with genes that make them a bit taller and quicker than average. When they start school, they are likely to be a bit better at basketball. The advantage may be modest but then reciprocal causation between the talent advantage and environment kicks in. Because you are better at basketball, you are likely to enjoy it more and play it more than someone who is bit slow or short or overweight. That makes you better still. Your genetic advantage is upgrading your environment, the amount of time you play and practice, and your enhanced environment in turn upgrades your skill. You are more likely to be picked for your school team and to get professional coaching.

Thanks to genes capitalizing on the powerful multiplying effects of the feedback between talent and environment, a modest genetic advantage has turned into a huge performance advantage. Just as small genetic differences match people with very different environments, so identical genes tend to produce very similar environments—even when children are raised in separate homes.

In other words, kinship studies of basketball, no matter whether they involved people with identical genes or different genes, would underestimate the potency of environmental factors. Playing, practicing, being on a team, coaching, all of these would be credited to genes—simply because differences in them tend to accompany genetic differences between individuals. Genes might seem to account for as much as 75 percent of variance across individuals in basketball performance. If someone showed that the present generation was far more skilled at basketball than the last (as indeed they are), Jensen’s math would prove that it was impossible. It would show that those aspects of environment that are not correlated with genes (which is all that environment gets credit for in kinship studies) were very feeble. So feeble that the present generation would have to be within the top one percent of the last in terms of quality of environment for basketball.

The cognitive ability differences measured by IQ tests may have the same dynamics. People whose genes send them into life with a small advantage for these abilities start with a modest performance advantage. Then genes begin to drive the powerful engine of reciprocal causation between ability and environment. You begin by being a bit better at school and are encouraged by this, while others who are a bit ‘slow’ get discouraged. You study more, which upgrades your cognitive performance, earn praise for your grades, start haunting the library, get into a top stream. Another child finds that sport is his or her strong suit, does the minimum, does not read for pleasure, and gets into a lower stream. Both of you may go to the same school but the environments you make for yourselves within that school will be radically different. The modest initial cognitive advantage conferred by genes becomes enormously multiplied.

The split at the heart of Chinese America

Sunday, August 6th, 2017

The split at the heart of Chinese America isn’t surprising:

For years in America, Sean lived the life of a striving and successful Chinese immigrant. He paid attention to politics — partly because of his deepening appreciation of the American system and his concern for his children’s future — but he never got involved. Until 2014.

That year, a California state senator named Edward Hernandez introduced a bill to amend the state constitution and lift the 1996 ban on the use of race in admissions at California’s public universities. State Constitutional Amendment 5, or SCA-5, sailed through the state senate in January 2014 and looked set to pass the assembly soon thereafter.

Sean and hundreds of other Chinese Americans like him saw SCA-5 as a direct attack on the educational prospects of their children. Since California had become the first state to do away with affirmative action in state college admissions in 1996, the prospects for Asian-American applicants at California’s best colleges had brightened. Since 1996, the entering class at California’s best state college, the University of California, Berkeley, has averaged above 40 percent Asian American while more than 35 percent of the UCLA undergraduate student body has been Asian American, too. Both of these are more than double the 15 percent share that Asian Americans comprise of California’s population. And now, Sean worried, an amendment to California’s constitution was going to reinsert race into state college admissions and take that all away.

Sean and his friends began organizing. They had an uphill fight. Practically all of the Asian-American politicians in California, members of a Democratic majority, had come out in favor of the constitutional change.

Sean and hundreds of Chinese immigrants held noisy protests; they surrounded the offices of one Chinese-American assemblyman until he emerged and renounced his support of the bill. Their agitation forced three Chinese-American state senators who had voted for the bill to switch their positions. Many of the protesters made campaign donations for the first time. Sean gave about $1,000 to a variety of candidates. Breaking with decades of Asian-American tradition, they began supporting Republicans.


The Chinese-American community began to swing toward the Democratic Party in the 1960s as thousands of highly educated Chinese immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong and Taiwan, a trend accelerated by the landmark 1965 Immigration Act, passed by a Democratic Party majority and signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, also a Democrat. That law changed the nature of Chinatowns throughout America. In the 1930s, more than 60 percent of the Chinese in America worked as cooks, waiters, domestics, and laundrymen, and fewer than 2 percent had a college degree. By the 1960s, three out of four Chinese had white-collar jobs. In 1966, U.S. News & World Report hailed the Chinese as a “model minority” capable of “winning wealth and respect by dint of its own hard work.”

Chinese Americans started embracing typically liberal causes. One such cause was affirmative action. Activists such as Lily Lee Chen, who left Taiwan to be educated in America in the 1950s, led a campaign to convince Chinese immigrants to avail themselves of government services. “It was difficult in the beginning because so many Chinese Americans didn’t trust governments,” she recalled. But over time, Chen and others like her changed people’s minds. “We were just as needy a group as the Native Americans, Blacks, and Hispanics,” said Chen. “We’re the fourth minority.” Chen became the first Chinese-American mayor in the United States, elected in 1983 as the mayor of Monterey Park in eastern Los Angeles County. Support for affirmative action remained strong throughout the 1990s. In 1996, when voters in California did away with affirmative action in admissions to California’s state colleges, nearly 70 percent of Asian-American voters opposed the measure.

Starting with President Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, Chinese from mainland China began immigrating to the United States. The Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 created a massive intellectual windfall for the United States when President George H. W. Bush issued an executive order allowing all the Chinese students in America to stay. Bush’s order gave more than 70,000 highly educated Chinese the right to work in America. Most of them became citizens. Throughout the 1990s, more than three-quarters of mainland Chinese studying in the U.S. opted to remain after graduation. For several years, almost every physics major from Tsinghua University moved to America. Rich Chinese also decamped to the U.S. by the thousands. In 2012, Chinese nationals earned 1,675 of the 10,000 EB-5 visas issued annually by the U.S. government to foreigners who invest $1 million and employ at least 10 people in the United States. Two years later, Chinese obtained 8,308 of those 10,000 slots.

Today, immigrants from mainland China make up close to half of the 5 million Chinese in America, according to Haipei Shue, the Chinese-American organizer. On the streets of Chinatowns old and new, Mandarin Chinese has pushed out Cantonese, Hokkien, and other southern dialects that older immigrant communities spoke. But the change has not only been linguistic. Chinese Americans began turning away from liberal causes such as affirmative action, bolstered by studies such as a 2009 Princeton report in which social scientist Thomas Espenshade suggested that a hypothetical Asian-American student would require an extra 140 points on the SAT to achieve the same probability of admission as a white peer, and an extra 450 points to achieve the same probability of admission as a black peer. Shue estimates that as many as half of first-generation Chinese immigrants now support Republican candidates. Many new Chinese immigrants approved of U.S. President Donald Trump’s tirades against affirmative action and illegal immigration. “There’s a split at the heart of Chinese America,” Shue said.


For their part, newer immigrants from China — with their advanced degrees and financial resources — sneer at what many of them call “Chinatown Chinese.” They view attempts by liberal Chinese organizations to support affirmative action and other progressive causes as little more than currying favor with white liberals. “I feel like these organizations took these stances so they could get a seat at the table. They are being progressive simply to be progressive, not to solve anything,” said Linlin Chen, a first-generation immigrant who blogs frequently on the issue. “They have become divorced from the community because the community is changing.”

We never really wanted this

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones — who is half-black — tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that when it comes to school segregation, separate is never truly equal:

“There’s never been a moment in the history of this country where black people who have been isolated from white people have gotten the same resources,” Hannah-Jones says. “They often don’t have the same level of instruction. They often don’t have strong principals. They often don’t have the same technology.”

I believe a quick look at the data demonstrates that many majority-black schools get more resources than the average school. And yet they don’t have the same level of instruction. It’s as if the two aren’t strongly linked.

Still, when it was time for Hannah-Jones’ daughter, Najya, to attend kindergarten, the journalist chose the public school near their home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, even though its students were almost all poor and black or Latino. Hannah-Jones later wrote about that decision in The New York Times Magazine.

For Hannah-Jones, sending Najya to the neighborhood school was a moral issue. “It is important to understand that the inequality we see, school segregation, is both structural, it is systemic, but it’s also upheld by individual choices,” she says. “As long as individual parents continue to make choices that only benefit their own children … we’re not going to see a change.”

If good students lifted up poor students’ performance, this might make sense, but we see far more of the opposite: disruptive students can bring down an otherwise good school.

Hannah-Jones adds that her daughter is thriving at school. “I know she’s learning a lot,” she says. “I think it is making her a good citizen. … It is teaching her that children who have less resources than her are not any less intelligent than her or not any less worthy than her.”

Taking resources away doesn’t make students any less intelligent, and giving them resources doesn’t make them any more intelligent — but poor families aren’t simply rich families without resources. The “children who have less [sic] resources” are generally less intelligent, by any reasonable metric.

On why she chose to send her young daughter to the public school in her neighborhood

One of the things I’ve done in my work is kind of show the hypocrisy of progressive people who say they believe in inequality, but when it comes to their individual choices about where they’re going to live and where they’re going to send their children, they make very different decisions, and I just didn’t want to do that. So for me it was a matter of needing to live my values, and not being someone who contributed to the inequality that I write about.

She’s completely right about the hypocrisy of progressive parents, of course. All of our hip, progressive friends and colleagues moved to the “right” suburbs with the “best” schools — and tend to be remarkably proud of their choice of a public school.

On the importance of having students from different races and income levels in the public schools

The original mission of public schools … is this understanding that no matter where you come from, you will go into the doors of a school and every child will receive the same education.

I find it odd that we would want every child to receive the same education, since children aren’t identical and don’t want or need the same things.

On the history of school desegregation since the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education

Brown v. Board happens, and the way that we’re taught it or the myth about it is immediately our nation repented and went into an integrated future together. That’s not what happened. There was massive resistance, and we don’t see real desegregation occurring in this country until 1964, and really most rapidly from 1968 on. …

Then you see pretty rapid desegregation particularly in the South, but then that changes, and in 1988 we start to go backwards. So we reach kind of the peak of schools integrating, of black students attending majority white schools at the highest rates that they ever have in the country, and then we start to see school districts re-segregating, which means black students are starting to go to schools that are more and more segregated. And school districts that had had a degree of integration are losing that integration. …

I can’t imagine why.

On American resistance to desegregating schools and housing

When I started what I kind of call the segregation beat about five years ago … I think we had stopped talking about this as a problem. If you look at No Child Left Behind, which comes out of the Bush administration, that was all about giving up on integration in schools and just saying, “We’re going to make these poor black and Latino schools equal to white schools by testing and accountability.”

If we assume the problem with poor black and Latino schools is the schools, then testing and accountability make sense, right?

So no one was discussing integration anymore. I think it’s because … we never really wanted this. … It’s always had to be forced, and as soon as … our elected officials and our courts lost the will to force it, most white Americans were just fine with that. …

One of the things that I really try to do with my work is show how racial segregation and racial inequality was intentionally created with a ton of resources. From the federal government, to the state, to city governments, to private citizens, we put so much effort into creating this segregation and inequality, and we’re willing to put almost no effort in fixing it, and that’s the problem.

I’m having trouble seeing how it took “a ton of resources” to create the situation that came naturally, once “our elected officials and our courts lost the will to force it.”

Boys are treated like defective girls

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

We see a continuing pattern in schools, where the simple urges and fascinations of boyhood are considered too dangerous to be allowed:

Boys fantasize of conflict, they love to test their strength against their fathers in mock fights, they’re aggressive, and daydream about battle. Many of the games they prefer involve death and destruction. While this may seem like a horrible thing, this is actually a positive.

Boys need to learn to be dangerous. In fact, they need to be encouraged to be so. It should be understood that being dangerous is not a bad thing. The bad comes when the boy has not properly been taught how to utilize the dangerous aspects of his nature for good. When he has been taught to embrace the dangerous parts of himself, he becomes the man society relies upon to uphold it.

He will go on to become a good protector of his family, a police officer, or a soldier. These dangerous aspects also help him to become more confident in himself. He doesn’t back down from conflict, be it in the office, or in the home. He is the good, dangerous man, and he is a pillar of society.

But it starts with the early years, when the boy is naturally starting to discover this dangerous side of himself. Sadly, we are teaching boys that they are somehow dysfunctional for doing what comes naturally.

As Christina Hoff Sommers goes over in her “War on Boys” video for Prager U, “girl behavior is the gold standard in schools. Boys are treated like defective girls.” We medicate boys when they become too kinetic for schools to tolerate, drugging them into sitting quietly.


As “Wild at Heart” author John Eldredge so eloquently summarizes the good, dangerous man, “Yes, a man is a dangerous thing. So is a scalpel.”