The way we teach literature signals that our society no longer has a coherent story about the purpose of education

Saturday, April 30th, 2022

As I recently mentioned, Marc Andreessen shared a “very interesting piece on the current thing” by James McElroy, and I found it had too many interesting bits for one post:

In an influential essay on how traditions solve questions of truth, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that instrumentalism appears when a tradition can no longer explain its older practices. The way we teach literature signals that our society no longer has a coherent story about the purpose of education. Everyone agrees with practical concerns about reading, writing, and the need for future doctors, but there is no justification for the vestiges of our older tradition. Why teach Shakespeare instead of compilations of top-notch corporate memos? At the high school level there is no answer, and so the way English is taught circumscribes how society views storytelling.

When high school students read novels, they are asked to identify the theme, or moral, of a story. This teaches them to view texts through an instrumental lens. Novelist Robert Olen Butler wrote that we treat artists like idiot savants who “really want to say abstract, theoretical, philosophical things, but somehow they can’t quite make themselves do it.” The purpose of a story becomes the process of translating it into ideas or analysis. This is instrumental reading. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent years meticulously outlining and structuring numerous rewrites of The Great Gatsby, but every year high school students reduce the book to a bumper sticker on the American dream. A story is an experience in and of itself. When you abstract a message, you lose part of that experience. Analysis is not inherently bad; it’s just an ancillary mode that should not define the reader’s disposition.

Propaganda is ubiquitous because we’ve been taught to view it as the final purpose of art. Instrumental reading also causes people to assume overly abstract or obscure works are inherently profound. When the reader’s job is to decode meaning, then the storyteller is judged by the difficulty of that process.


College is characterized in two contradictory ways: it is the only firm path to the upper-middle class, and it is a time of Animal House antics. This is so familiar that we often forget it doesn’t make sense. Want to be a respectable member of the upper class? Quick, bong this beer. Campus decadence is a sorting mechanism that elevates people who pay lip service to permissiveness, but don’t fully participate — a preparatory performance of the fake counterculture.


College has become a reputational Ponzi scheme, and the effects of this can be seen across culture. Upper-class fashion once tied back to luxury activities: sailing, tennis, polo. Now, it’s $300 cotton T-shirts and $400 sweatpants. Status is being a willing patsy.

Abstract categorizers were rare and looked smart

Thursday, April 28th, 2022

If James Flynn (of the Flynn Effect) is right, John Barnes suggests, standardized tests have improved our conceptual sorting skills and atrophied our common sense:

Back around 1900, when Terman, Binet and Spearman were pioneering the IQ concept, talented and developed abstract categorizers were rare and looked smart, so it was a natural mistake to assign the highest scores to people who thought like professors of rhetoric or philology.

As standardized tests became more important, our education system shifted toward emphasizing abstract thinking; as people became better at abstraction, they substituted it for applicational thinking.

High schoolers are taking tougher classes, getting better grades, and know less than students did a decade ago

Thursday, April 14th, 2022

High schoolers are taking tougher classes, getting better grades, and know less than students did a decade ago:

In the four decades since the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education published its landmark report, “A Nation at Risk,” there’s been a sustained effort to push high schoolers to take more rigorous courses, with the sensible expectation that tougher classes will mean more learning. Well, consider that experiment half-successful. According to the recently released 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress High School Transcript Study, students are taking more rigorous classes in science and math and they are getting better grades in those classes. The problem? They actually know less than students did a decade ago.

During the decade between 2009 and 2019, the share of 12th graders who took a rigorous or moderately rigorous slate of courses rose from 60 to 63 percent, and the average GPA of high school graduates climbed from a 3.0 to a 3.11—an all-time high. So far, so good. When we turn to how 12th graders actually fared on NAEP (the “nation’s report card”), though, we see that science scores stayed the same and that math scores actually fell by about 3 percent.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen counterintuitive results like these. In 2009, Mark Schneider, now the commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, found that decades of efforts to boost the number of students taking higher-level math classes had led to the dilution of those very classes. In particular, Schneider noted that, between 1990 and 2005, average math GPAs rose, as did the average number of math credits completed by high-school graduates. Furthermore, while only one-third of students completed algebra II in 1978, more than half did in 2008. And yet, despite all of this, NAEP scores for students in algebra I, geometry, and algebra II declined between 1978 and 2008.

In other words, more students were taking more advanced math and getting better grades—and yet our students knew less in 2008 than they did 30 years earlier. Schneider termed this phenomenon the “delusion of rigor” though it could equally well could be termed the “dilution of rigor.”


It’s actually not that hard to figure out what’s going on: Schools have a lot of incentives to get students into more rigorous-sounding classes. Many states require that more students take such classes; equity-oriented advocates urge schools to enroll more low-income and minority students in advanced-sounding classes; and, perhaps most significantly, parents want schools to ensure that their children can enroll in courses that look good on college applications (this pressure only increases as colleges put less weight on the SAT or ACT). In short, there are lots of reasons why students are taking more high-level courses that have nothing to do with whether students are actually prepared for those courses.

But the problem isn’t just that schools are incentivized to stick students into classes they aren’t ready for. The problem is also that schools are incentivized to make those classes easier. Even as more students take more challenging courses, school and system leaders are under a lot of pressure to ensure that graduation rates keep rising. This puts pressure on schools and teachers to soften classes by simplifying instruction, shortening units, skipping difficult concepts, or just slapping an impressive-sounding name on a class that doesn’t deserve it.

An economy is a system for generating and trading solutions to problems

Sunday, April 10th, 2022

Robin Hanson once wrote about how intelligent people tend to overestimate how smart everyone else is, and Anatoly Karlin elaborates on this, with support from PISA test scores:

Fortunately, the PISA website has sample math questions from the 2012 assessment, corresponding to each of the six different levels of difficulty, as well as statistics on the percentage of 15-16 year old students from each of the participating countries that is capable of correctly answering it.

Here is the sample question from Level 6, the hardest level:

Helen rode her bike from home to the river, which is 4 km away. It took her 9 minutes. She rode home using a shorter route of 3 km. This only took her 6 minutes.

What was Helen’s average speed, in km/h, for the trip to the river and back?

Karlin notes how few people get this right:

This problem requires a multi-step approach, an understanding of rates, and the intelligence to complete it in the correct order.

Though not especially hard, even at this level. I suspect that many of you can do it in your heads within a minute.

But a majority of all the tested teens begged to differ.

OECD average: 3% (!!). Korea: 12%, Japan: 8%, Germany: 5%. The US, Italy, Sweden, and Russia were all at 2%; the Mediterranean was at 1%.

Some countries where a big fat 100% (rounded up) were unable to do this problem: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Qatar, Tunisia, Uruguay.

The number of people at this level, the highest measured by PISA, is dwindling away into insignificance in Latin America and the Middle East.

And yet this only translates to an IQ of 120-125. We’re nowhere even near genius level yet.

This matters:

The classical definition of an economy is a system for the production and exchange of goods and services. However, I will argue that you can view it even more fundamentally as a system for generating and trading solutions to problems.


Some of these problems, such as subsistence farming and trucking, are pretty simple and can be accomplished with reasonable efficiency even by relatively dull workers. This is because problems in this “Foolproof sector” (as Garett Jones calls it) require few steps and have only a minimal threshold difficulty, so production in this sector is governed by the standard Cobb-Douglas equation. More highly skilled workers are only modestly more productive, and are thus awarded with modestly higher salaries. Labor differs by productivity, but is substitutable — one experienced waiter is worth two novice ones.

Other problems are very complex and require teams of competent workers to perform multiple complicated steps to create a successful solution. The best are paired with the best for maximum productivity. Moreover, many O-Ring problems might have a threshold limit for IQ, below which no productive work can be done on them in principle (as per the Ushakov-Kulivets model). To be commercially viable, the risk of failure on any one link of a long production chain needs to be kept low. Examples of these “O-Ring” tasks may include: Aircraft manufacturing; corporate merger planning; computer chip design; machine building; open-heart surgeries.

We’re applying the secret genius sauce solely to the kids who aren’t going to be geniuses

Thursday, March 24th, 2022

Erik Hoel suggests that the most depressing fact about humanity is that during the 2000s most of the world was handed essentially free access to the entirety of knowledge and that didn’t trigger a golden age:

Think about the advent of the internet long enough and it seems impossible to not start throwing away preconceptions about how genius is produced. If genius were just a matter of genetic ability, then in the past century, as the world’s population increased dramatically, and as mass education skyrocketed, and as racial and gender barriers came thundering down across the globe, and particularly in the last few decades as free information saturated our society, we should have seen a genius boom — an efflorescence of the best mathematicians, the greatest scientists, the most awe-inspiring artists.

If a renaissance be too grand for you, will you at least admit we should have expected some sort of a bump?

And yet, this great real-world experiment has seen, not just no effect, but perhaps the exact opposite effect of a decline of genius.


So, where are all the Einsteins?

The answer must lie in education somewhere. And if we look into research on different education strategies and their effectiveness, we do indeed see all sorts of debates about best practices, learning styles, class size, monetary policy, and equality. But mostly we see, actually, that none of it matters much.


For paradoxically there exists an agreed-upon and specific answer to the single best way to educate children, a way that has clear, obvious, and strong effects. The problem is that this answer is unacceptable. The superior method of education is deeply unfair and privileges those at the very top of the socioeconomic ladder. It’s an answer that was well-known historically, and is also observed by education researchers today: tutoring.

Tutoring, one-on-one instruction, dramatically improves student’s abilities and scores.


However, despite its well-known effectiveness, tutoring’s modern incarnation almost universally concerns specific tests: in America the Advanced Placements (AP) tests, the SATs, and the GREs form the holy trinity of private tutoring. Meaning that contemporary tutoring, the most effective method of education, is overwhelmingly targeted at a small set of measurables that look good on a college resume.

This is only a narrow version of the tutoring that was done historically. If we go back in time tutoring had a much broader scope, acting as the main method of early education, at least for the elite.

Let us call this past form aristocratic tutoring, to distinguish it from a tutor you meet in a coffeeshop to go over SAT math problems while the clock ticks down. It’s also different than “tiger parenting,” which is specifically focused around the resume padding that’s needed for kids to meet the impossible requirements for high-tier colleges. Aristocratic tutoring was not focused on measurables. Historically, it usually involved a paid adult tutor, who was an expert in the field, spending significant time with a young child or teenager, instructing them but also engaging them in discussions, often in a live-in capacity, fostering both knowledge but also engagement with intellectual subjects and fields. As the name suggests it was something reserved mostly for aristocrats, which means, no way around it, it was deeply inequitable.


Spanning kingdoms and continents aristocratic tutoring had a several-millennia long run. If we fast forward almost 2,000 years we can find Bertrand Russell, one of the undeniable geniuses of the 20th century, who was a classic case of aristocratic tutoring — raised by his rich grandparents, he didn’t even attend school until he was 16, and had a revolving door of tutors to equal Marcus’s. Many of whom were impressive scientists and intellectuals in their own right, e.g., J. Stuart, one of Russell’s tutors, had himself been a student of Lord Kelvin (that “Kelvin”).


The same sort of idyllic learning situation was true for Russell’s famous compatriot, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was privately tutored at home until he was 14. Name a genius and find a tutor: the governesses of John von Neumann taught him languages, and he had other later tutors as well. Even in the cases where the children weren’t entirely homeschooled, up until the latter half of the 20th century aristocratic tutors were a casual and constant supplement to traditional education.


When you go back further, into the 1600s and 1700s, aristocratic tutors are the norm, often members of the aristocracy themselves. Voltaire’s tutor when he was young was the educated and worldly abbe de Chateauneuf, who was also his godfather. In turn, Voltaire was tutor to Émilie du Châtelet, an early female scientist and mathematician (notorious for her harsh demands of her tutors). Ada Lovelace, inventor of the first algorithm, was tutored as a youth by Mary Somerville, another early female scientist (indeed, the term “scientist” was coined specifically to refer to Somerville in a gender-neutral way, rather than the previously-used “man of science”).


Perhaps the clearest example in history of a genius constructed by tutoring comes from the case of John Stuart Mill: philosopher, economist, politician, early feminist, and all-around Renaissance man. His father, already a famous intellectual, raised John explicitly to be a genius capable of carrying on the cause of philosophical utilitarianism, purposefully keeping the young John away from children his own age.


Karl Marx’s father (who was rich enough to own vineyards) privately tutored him up to the age of 12, his official schooling starting only after. Or consider the later case of Hannah Arendt, a titan of 20th century philosophy; raised upper-middle class and Jewish in Germany during the rise of Hitler, she was no aristocrat, but she received independent tutoring from rabbis and professors at various points in her young life, and, perhaps far more relevantly, her own mother acted in the role of a classic aristocratic tutor.


Well, it turns out most of the school stuff is exaggerated or apocryphal, and Einstein had multiple tutors growing up in subjects like mathematics and philosophy, such as his uncle, Jakob Einstein, who taught him algebra. In fact, there was a family tutor of the Einsteins who went by the name Max Talmud (possibly the best name of a tutor ever), and it was indeed Max Talmud who introduced the young 12-year-old Albert to geometry, prefacing young Albert’s eventual transformation of our understanding of space and time into something geometric. Maybe we don’t make Einsteins anymore because we don’t make Max Talmuds anymore.


Today, tutoring is seen mostly as a corrective to failures within the bureaucratic structures of eduction, like an intervention to help out a course, grade, or test. In general, those doing well in school don’t get tutoring — it’s like we’re applying the secret genius sauce solely to the kids who aren’t going to be geniuses.

He annotated with passion and vigour

Saturday, March 12th, 2022

In 1899, a promising young poet and would-be revolutionary dropped out of the theological seminary in Tbilisi, Georgia:

He took with him 18 library books, for which the monks demanded payment of 18 roubles and 15 kopeks. When, 54 years later, the same voracious bookworm died, he had 72 unreturned volumes from the Lenin Library in Moscow on his packed shelves. At the time, the librarians probably had too many other issues with Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, aka Stalin, to worry about collecting his unpaid fines.

Those squirrelled library loans formed a tiny part of a vast collection amassed by the Soviet dictator, estimated by historian Geoffrey Roberts at 25,000 items. Joseph Stalin’s books, as Roberts recounts in his new study Stalin’s Library, belonged to “a serious intellectual who valued ideas as much as power”. He spent a lifetime as a “highly active, engaged and methodical reader”. His tastes and interests spanned not only politics, economics and history but literature of many kinds. The book-loving shoemaker’s son from Georgia grew into an absolute ruler who deployed his library not as a prestige adornment but a “working archive”. Its bulging shelves stretched across his Kremlin offices and quarters, and around his dachas outside central Moscow.

Stalin not only read, quickly and hungrily: he claimed to devour 500 pages each day and, in the Twenties, ordered 500 new titles every year — not to mention the piles of works submitted to him by hopeful or fearful authors. He annotated with passion and vigour. Hundreds of volumes crawl with his distinctive markings and marginalia (the so-called pometki), their pages festooned with emphatic interjections: “ha ha”, “gibberish”, “rubbish”, “fool”, “scumbag”; and, more rarely, “agreed”, “spot on”, or the noncommittal doubt conveyed by the Russian “m-da”.

Stalin also drafted, wrote, and re-wrote, keenly and tirelessly — everything from Communist Party propaganda to Soviet legal edicts and textbooks in history, Marxist-Leninist philosophy and economics. He loved to edit and, as Roberts shows, he did it very well, slicing through the verbiage of sycophants to achieve greater “clarity and accuracy”. Although not an original thinker, “his intellectual hallmark was that of a brilliant simplifier, clarifier and populariser”. Robert Service, in his biography, calls the dictator “an accumulator and regurgitator” of ideas.

Most professors are bored and lonely

Friday, March 11th, 2022

Once you’re on campus, you might as well make the most of it:

1. Read teaching reviews before you pick your classes. Teaching ability varies widely, so even though the average is low, you rarely need to suffer with a mediocre teacher.

2. Always sit in the front row. Ask questions. Talk to the professor before and after class. Even if they seem like crazy ideologues, you can learn a lot by asking thoughtful questions. If only at the meta level.

3. Type your professors’ names into Google Scholar to see what they’ve been doing with their lives. Then go to office hours and talk to them about their work. Come with questions that clearly won’t be on the test.

4. Crucial: Start doing this when you’re a freshman! At that stage, no one will wonder if you’re just trying to suck up for a future letter of recommendation.

5. Go to the Faculty webpage for every major you’re seriously considering. Look at everyone’s research specialties. If you think there’s a 5% or greater chance that you would find a professor interesting, type his name into Google Scholar. If you still think there’s a 5% chance you would find the professor interesting, go to their office hours and ask him some questions about his work.

6. Don’t be shy. Most professors are bored and lonely. Even at top schools, they almost never meet anyone who knows and cares about their work. They want you to show up… even if they don’t know it yet.

7. If you and a professor hit it off, keep reading their work and keep visiting their office. Ask them to lunch. Becoming a professor’s favorite student is easy, because the competition is weak.

8. Be extremely friendly to everyone. Always give a good hello to everyone in your dorm every time you see them. “Good hello” equals eye contact + smile + audible.

9. Never eat alone! If you don’t know anyone in the cafeteria, find a small group of students that looks promising and politely ask to join them. Almost everyone will say yes.

10. See if your school has an Effective Altruism club. If it does, attend regularly. Even if you have zero interest in philanthropy, EA is a beacon of thoughtful curiosity.

11. Be a friendly heretic. Openly regard official brainwashing with bemusement. This will generate propitious selection: Many students are as skeptical of the orthodoxy as you. If you’re good-natured about it, they will reveal themselves to you.

12. During Covid, live your life as normally as possible. Bend every rule you can, and associate with the most non-compliant students you can find. Because your school is trying to dehumanize you, you must strive to retain your humanity.

13. Avoid drunken parties. They really are grossly overrated. Just counting hangovers and accidents, the expected value is probably negative. Strive to be uninhibited without artificial assistance. And remember: The people who really enjoy alcohol are also the people most likely to ruin their lives with alcohol.

14. While you’re avoiding drunken parties, try to find true love. Despite the Orwellian propaganda, you are extremely unlikely to be persecuted just for asking someone out on a date. Remember: You will never again have such an easily-accessible candidate pool. In the modern world, dating co-workers is dead, but dating co-students lives. For now.

Working in business is the activity most likely to achieve positive social change

Monday, February 28th, 2022

It is tempting to think that working at a think tank is a way to encourage possible social change, but Arnold Kling found that working in business is the activity most likely to achieve positive social change:

In 1980, I completed my Ph.D dissertation. My goal was to solve a theoretical problem in Keynesian economics, hoping to steer the profession away from the “rational expectations neoclassical” macroeconomics that was all the rage within top economics departments. The idea was to explain price stickiness as based on information problems.

Trying to solve an important theoretical problem is a terrible strategy for a dissertation. Instead, you should figure out what the departments that are hiring are looking for. What they were looking for at the time were dissertations that were based on the rational expectations approach.

For me, the result was particularly bad. A professor who interviewed me on the job market stole my idea and published it before I did, without acknowledgment. The idea had no impact on the profession. In fact, it has been periodically rediscovered since (with no credit either to me or to the man who stole it), but again with no impact. This experience has left me less than excited about the academic research process in economics as a way to generate social change through ideas.

My first job out of grad school was at the Fed. I do not recall coming up with any significant ideas when I was there.

In 1986, I started working at Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant. At the time, I thought of it as a profit-seeking enterprise, albeit with some peculiar features. One feature was that it was supposed to “serve” upward mobility in the housing market.

Another feature was that with its government guarantee, its debt costs were low, and this gave it an advantage in undertaking certain forms of financial arbitrage. I was appalled when an economist told me excitedly about an anomaly in the Eurodollar market that he thought that Freddie could and should exploit. To me, that seemed like an abuse of Freddie’s Congressional charter.

In the 2000s, long after I had left, Freddie and Fannie took on riskier borrowers in a (misguided) attempt to serve upward mobility in the housing market. They also engaged in more of what I thought of as abuses of their low-cost debt status. I ended up happy to see them shut down during the financial crisis of 2008. I think that profit-seeking and a tight relationship with the government were ultimately a bad combination.

But working at Freddie gave me the best opportunity I have ever had to produce social change. My most significant idea there was to change the underwriting process to reduce judgment and rely more on data. Instead of trying to use AI to imitate human underwriters, I pushed for using credit scores. I also promoted using the Case-Shiller method for estimating home prices in an attempt to reduce the reliance on appraisals. The goal was to reduce the cost of obtaining a mortgage loan, to reject fewer good loans, and to accept fewer bad loans.

Freddie Mac adopted the credit scoring approach in 1994. For me personally, this was more bitter than sweet. Just as the idea I was pushing for was adopted, I was treated to a humiliating demotion, and I soon left the company.

As far as social change is concerned, the move toward credit scoring dramatically changed the mortgage industry. Yes, underwriting costs fell, and decisions became more accurate, with fewer good borrowers turned down and fewer bad borrowers accepted. But it also allowed new players to enter the mortgage lending market. Some of these players developed the so-called subprime mortgage market, with mortgage securities provided by Wall Street. These new players were central actors in the financial crisis of 2008.

I am not saying that I personally brought down mortgage lending costs, or that I personally caused the financial crisis. My guess is that the move toward credit scoring was going to happen at some point, anyway, and so that my efforts accelerated the process by at most a few years. And the financial crisis had many causal elements, mostly involving the political economy of mortgage lending in the U.S. I still think that introducing credit scoring into mortgage lending was socially beneficial, at least directly. But in a complicated world, the indirect effects of actions are difficult to assess.

When I left Freddie Mac in April of 1994, I created The Homebuyer’s Fair, one of the first commercial sites on the World Wide Web. The goal was to use the Internet to disintermediate in real estate and mortgage lending. For me personally, it worked out well. But apart from any role that the site played in stimulating interest in the Web (we got tons of press in 1994-1997), I would not say that it came anywhere close to achieving any major social goals. As any number of people who have tried to get rid of the excessive costs in real estate can tell you, institutional resistance to change is strong. In principle, the Internet could have eliminated real estate commissions 25 years ago. In practice, not so much. In principle, a digital property database could eliminate the title insurance industry. In practice, the title industry’s grip on Congress is too strong.

After our web site was sold in 1999 (to a subsidiary of the National Association of Realtors(tm), ironically enough), I “retired” to a career of teaching and writing. I taught on a volunteer basis for 15 years at a local high school. I mostly taught AP economics and AP statistics. I hated the AP econ curriculum, because my experience in business had led me to believe that a lot of mainstream economics is poorly conceived. I really liked the statistics curriculum, although one of my students, an autodidact who was a follower of the rationalist community, chided me for teaching a “frequentist” rather than a Bayesian approach.

My goal was to have some long-run influence with at least a few students. I think I was somewhat successful, although by 2015 or so I was struggling with what appeared to me to be the reduced maturity of the students.

I also taught for a few years at George Mason University, at the ridiculous adjunct salary of about $1500 for a class of 100 students. And, as my wife is fond of pointing out, GMU even made me pay for parking. Again, I would have been happy to reach a small number of students with a long-term impact, but I don’t think that I did.

It was like you have this house on fire, and they’re basically painting the front door

Wednesday, February 16th, 2022

Board of Education President Gabriela López, Vice President Faauuga Moliga, and controversial former vice president Alison Collins were sent packing by margins of more than 44 percentage points each, Matt Welch of Reason reports:

The recall had its roots in a series of decisions that the SFUSD did and did not make in January and February 2021. The Board of Education had, the previous fall, set January 25, 2021 as the day to finally reopen a school system that had been fully closed since March 2020. But it then failed to hammer out a reopening agreement with the local teachers union (which, like teachers unions in many Democrat-dominated cities and states, persistently used its considerable local political leverage to delay school reopening long after most Republican-governed polities had gotten back to normal).

It was against this backdrop, with anguished public school parents pulling their hair out over the personal disruption, learning loss, and social dysfunction that comes with extended remote learning, that the SFUSD board made the fateful decision to rename 44 of its schools that still weren’t open, on the ground that those names—including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, John Muir, Paul Revere, and Dianne Feinstein—were too culturally insensitive and/or unrepresentative.

“It was like you have this house on fire, and they’re basically painting the front door,” Looijen told me Monday.

A statewide public pre-K program, taught by licensed teachers, housed in public schools, had a measurable and statistically significant negative effect

Tuesday, February 15th, 2022

Dale Farran has been studying early childhood education for half a century, but her most recent study has her questioning everything she thought she knew:

“It really has required a lot of soul-searching, a lot of reading of the literature to try to think of what were plausible reasons that might account for this.”

And by “this,” she means the outcome of a study that lasted more than a decade. It included 2,990 low-income children in Tennessee who applied to free, public prekindergarten programs. Some were admitted by lottery, and the others were rejected, creating the closest thing you can get in the real world to a randomized, controlled trial — the gold standard in showing causality in science.

Farran and her co-authors at Vanderbilt University followed both groups of children all the way through sixth grade. At the end of their first year, the kids who went to pre-K scored higher on school readiness — as expected.

But after third grade, they were doing worse than the control group. And at the end of sixth grade, they were doing even worse. They had lower test scores, were more likely to be in special education, and were more likely to get into trouble in school, including serious trouble like suspensions.


That’s right. A statewide public pre-K program, taught by licensed teachers, housed in public schools, had a measurable and statistically significant negative effect on the children in this study.


To put it crudely, policymakers and experts have touted for decades now that if you give a 4-year-old who is growing up in poverty a good dose of story time and block play, they’ll be more likely to grow up to become a high-earning, productive citizen.


Farran points out that families of means tend to choose play-based preschool programs with art, movement, music and nature. Children are asked open-ended questions, and they are listened to.

This is not what Farran is seeing in classrooms full of kids in poverty, where “teachers talk a lot, but they seldom listen to children.”

The cognitive stratification of American society was not a problem 100 years ago

Friday, February 4th, 2022

Back in 1961, the SAT helped get Charles Murray into Harvard from a small Iowa town by giving him a way to show that he could compete with applicants from Exeter and Andover:

Ever since, I have seen the SAT as the friend of the little guy, just as James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard, said it would be when he urged the SAT upon the nation in the 1940s.

Conant’s cause was as unambiguously liberal in the 1940s as income redistribution is today. Then, America’s elite colleges drew most of their students from a small set of elite secondary schools, concentrated in the northeastern United States, to which America’s wealthy sent their children. The mission of the SAT was to identify intellectual talent regardless of race, color, creed, money, or geography, and give that talent a chance to blossom.


It makes no difference, however, that the charges about coaching are wrong, just as it makes no difference that the whole idea that rich parents can buy their children high SAT scores is wrong. One part of the indictment is true, and that one part overrides everything else: the children of the affluent and well educated really do get most of the top scores. For example, who gets the coveted scores of 700 and higher, putting them in the top half-dozen percentiles of SAT test-takers? Extrapolating from the 2006 data on means and standard deviations reported by the College Board, about half of the 700+ scores went to students from families making more than $100,000 per year. But the truly consequential statistics are these: Approximately 90 percent of the students with 700+ scores had at least one parent with a college degree. Over half had a parent with a graduate degree.

In that glaring relationship of high test scores to advanced parental education, which in turn means high parental IQ, lies the reason that the College Board, politically correct even unto self-destruction, cannot bring itself to declare the truth: the test isn’t the problem. The children of the well educated and affluent get most of the top scores because they constitute most of the smartest kids. They are smart because their parents are smart. The parents have passed their smartness along through parenting practices that are largely independent of education and affluence, and through genes that are completely independent of them.

The cognitive stratification of American society — for that’s what we’re talking about — was not a problem 100 years ago. Many affluent people were smart in 1907, but there were not enough jobs in which high intellectual ability brought high incomes or status to affect more than a fraction of really smart people, and most of the really smart people were prevented from getting those jobs anyway by economic and social circumstances (consider that in 1907 roughly half the adults with high intelligence were housewives).

From 1907 to 2007, the correlation between intellectual ability and socioeconomic status (SES) increased dramatically. The socioeconomic elite and the cognitive elite are increasingly one. If you want the details about how this process worked and how it is transforming America’s class structure, I refer you to The Bell Curve (1994), the book I wrote with the late Richard Herrnstein. For now, here’s the point: Imagine that, miraculously, every child in the country were to receive education of equal quality. Imagine that a completely fair and accurate measure of intellectual ability were to be developed. In that utopia, a fair admissions process based on intellectual ability would fill the incoming classes of the elite colleges predominantly with children of upper-middle-class parents.

In other words, such a perfect system would produce an outcome very much like the one we see now. Harvard offers an easy way to summarize the revolution that accelerated after World War II. As late as 1952, the mean SAT Verbal score of the incoming freshman class was just 583. By 1960, the mean had jumped to 678. In eight years, Harvard transformed itself from a college with a moderately talented student body to a place where the average freshman was intellectually in the top fraction of 1 percent of the national population. But this change did not mean that Harvard became more socioeconomically diverse. On the contrary, it became more homogeneous. In the old days, Harvard had admitted a substantial number of Boston students from modest backgrounds who commuted to classes, and also a substantial number of rich students with average intelligence. In the new era, when Harvard’s students were much more rigorously screened for intellectual ability, the numbers of students from the very top and bottom of the socioeconomic ladder were reduced, and the proportion coming from upper-middle-class backgrounds increased.

You need to learn to walk before you can run

Tuesday, January 25th, 2022

You need to learn to walk before you can run, but getting better at walking doesn’t always help you get better at running:

A similar thing can happen in music too. For instance, have you ever encountered a speed plateau in a piece you’re working on? A section that you can play perfectly at about 80-90% of the final tempo, but no matter how hard you try, you keep hitting a wall, and can’t seem to get over the hump?


Back in the 1950’s, a psychologist named Paul Fitts wrote an influential paper about the relationship between speed and accuracy. Namely, that there seemed to be a proportional relationship between the two. Want to move faster? No problem, but your movements will be less accurate. Want to be more accurate? Ok, but you will need to sacrifice speed.


But going back to the walking vs. running analogy, is it possible that we could be developing bad habits by trying to learn a tricky passage too slowly as well?


In one study (Belkin & Eliot, 1997), a team of researchers recruited 16 children aged 6-11 to learn some basic hockey skills (none had any previous organized hockey experience).

The kids were randomly assigned to two different groups, and given some basic instructions on how to hold a hockey stick and how to stand. Then they were placed 25 feet away from the gym wall, and instructed to hit a street hockey ball at the wall — but each group had a slightly different objective.

One group hit against a wall which had a vertical line of masking tape placed on the wall. This was their “target” which they were instructed to aim for. After each shot, they were given their accuracy score, and encouraged to improve their score on the next shot. This was the accuracy group.

The other group of kids was simply asked to shoot the ball as hard as they could. Their wall was totally bare, with no target to aim for. So they basically couldn’t miss — they just had to hit the ball against the wall with maximum velocity. These kids also received feedback after each shot, but theirs was given in miles per hour — the speed of their shot as measured by a radar gun. After each shot, they were encouraged to shoot even harder. This was the speed group.

Over the course of two days, both groups improved. The accuracy group improved their accuracy scores by about 34% — from 95.975 cm on Day 1 to 65.375 cm on Day 2 (lower scores is better, indicating that they hit the ball closer to the target).

And the speed group improved their speed scores, going from from 18.275 mph to 21.188 mph (an increase of about 16%).

Neither of which is especially surprising, of course. And then Day 3 happened.

On Day 3, everyone was tested on both speed and accuracy. Unlike the previous day’s tests where each group was asked to focus on either speed or accuracy, this time both groups were being scored on their ability to shoot as accurately and as fast as possible. They were told that one wasn’t more important than the other, and that they both mattered equally.

As you can imagine, the speed group hit the ball significantly faster than the accuracy group — more than twice as fast, in fact (21.725 mph vs. 10.063 mph). And when it came to accuracy, the groups were no different. If anything, the speed group was even more accurate than the accuracy group (56.588 cm vs. 66.300 cm — though this difference was not statistically significant).

So after the same exact amount of practice, the group which was instructed to focus on speed (and where accuracy was de-emphasized), ended up performing substantially better than the group whose initial focus was on maximizing accuracy.

The researchers note that even over a very brief 2-day period of practice, the two groups developed very different shot mechanics. The accuracy group seemed to shoot with a tighter, more constrained set of motions. Their shot loosely resembled a putting stroke in golf.

The speed group, on the other hand, swung much more freely — with a longer backswing and follow through. A much more efficient and effective motion which was a closer approximation of what the shot should actually look like.

In other words, the stroke mechanics that were developed to maximize accuracy, worked ok for accurate shooting. But the same movements were no longer effective when speed was also important. Conversely, the mechanics that were developed to maximize speed, not only worked well for maximizing speed, but were much more easily adapted to successfully account for accuracy too, when that became an important factor.

Another study (Engelhorn, 1997), conducted over a 6-week period with 10 and 11-year old fast-pitch softball players, found that excessive focus on accuracy in the early stages led to the development of poor throwing mechanics, which ended up impeding overall development.

That could be the beginning of a whole generation of students rethinking the value of college itself

Monday, January 24th, 2022

More than 1 million fewer students are enrolled in college now than before the pandemic began:

Compared with the fall of 2019, the last fall semester before the coronavirus pandemic, undergraduate enrollment has fallen a total of 6.6%. That represents the largest two-year decrease in more than 50 years, Shapiro says.

The nation’s community colleges are continuing to feel the bulk of the decline, with a 13% enrollment drop over the course of the pandemic. But the fall 2021 numbers show that bachelor’s degree-seeking students at four-year colleges are making up about half of the shrinkage in undergraduate students, a big shift from the fall of 2020, when the vast majority of the declines were among associate degree seekers.

“The phenomenon of students sitting out of college seems to be more widespread. It’s not just the community colleges anymore,” says Shapiro. “That could be the beginning of a whole generation of students rethinking the value of college itself. I think if that were the case, this is much more serious than just a temporary pandemic-related disruption.”


“The easiest assumption is that they’re out there working,” says Shapiro. “Unemployment is down. The labor market is good. Wages are rising for workers in low-skilled jobs. So if you have a high school diploma, this seems like a pretty good time to be out there making some money.”

Children influence their parents

Wednesday, January 12th, 2022

Children influence their parents, as well as the other way around, a phenomenon called “bidirectional parenting“:

One large study looking at bidirectional parenting and featuring over 1,000 children and their parents, concluded that the child’s behaviour had a much stronger influence on their parents’ behaviour than the other way around. Parents and their children were interviewed at age eight and again over the subsequent five years. Parental control, the study found, did not change a child’s behaviour, but a child’s behavioural problems led to less parental warmth and more control.

Research also shows that when children demonstrate challenging behaviour, parents may withdraw or use a more authoritarian (strict and cold) parenting style.

Similarly, parents of adolescents with behavioural issues act with less warmth and more hostility. The opposite occurs for adolescents who show good behaviour: their parents behave with more warmth over time. This reveals that it’s not harsh parenting that predicts behavioural problems, says Shaffer, but rather, “children who act out, who are oppositional, who are defiant, have parents who respond by increasing the harshness of their parenting”.


“Genetic influence affects virtually every measurable trait,” explains Nancy Segal who specialises in twin studies at California State University, Fullerton and is author of Deliberately Divided. For instance, a 2015 meta-analysis (a study of studies) looking at a combined total of 14 million twin pairs, either growing up together or raised apart, found that identical twins raised apart were more alike than fraternal twins raised in the same home.

This confirmed what Segal had long noticed among twins she had met — that “shared environments do not make family members alike”, she says. It’s why she often says that parents of one child are environmentalists, whilst parents of two are geneticists, because the latter quickly realise that two children raised in the same home can behave in completely different ways.

They would find something else to be hysterical about

Friday, December 31st, 2021

In Arnold Kling’s theory of the rot in education institutions, the true motive of social justice activists is to wrench status away from Boomers and others who compete in a search for objective truth. In Richard Hanania’s theory, the true motive is to deal with personal mental illness:

Wokeness to a large extent involves submitting to the noisiest and most disturbed activists, or even adopting their views as one’s own, which people high on conformity are more likely to do.… By drawing in a large share of both conformists and mentally ill activists, colleges are breeding grounds for hysteria and submission to it.


If I’m right, then if somehow you cured the universities of wokeness, they would find something else to be hysterical about, because they happen to be places where you get a large collection of unhappy and disturbed people — emboldened by a false sense of superiority and a lot of time on their hands — living at taxpayer expense free from the responsibilities that result from responding to market pressures or facing any other tangible forms of accountability. Public schools have a different dynamic, where it is the teacher’s unions and education bureaucracy that are composed of and influenced by the same kind of activists that play a prominent role on university campuses. If it wasn’t for wokeness, the people who determine policy in public schools and universities would still need somewhere to direct their energies. One can imagine them turning in a more committed direction towards socialism or extreme forms of environmentalism hostile to economic growth, which would probably be worse for humanity.


[O]ne should focus less on curing them of bad ideas, and more on decreasing the influence of universities by getting fewer people to go to college in the first place and lowering the status of these institutions.