Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently re-reading Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Chapters 7 and 8: A muddle

If the basic idea to take away from chapter 7 is that effort matters, improvement is possible, people are not fixed quantities, and those who start "from behind" can grow, then I completely agree with chapter 7.  I just disagree with her view that this required 27 pages to state.

If the specifics of chapter 7 are to have any significance on their own, then chapter 7 is a muddle. For instance, on pages 101-102, Prof. Guinier says "Being able to half-decipher the meaning of an arcane word or to eliminate one or two wrong math answers and thereby improve one's ability to guess--without knowing how one has arrived at the right answer--these are the skills that our culture prizes."  First, I'm not sure that "our culture" is all that monolithic on the question of what sorts of abilities or attitudes are prized.  Second, I agree with her that multiple-choice tests are hardly the be-all and end-all of learning.  (Interestingly, the person I know who is most likely to agree with every word in this book is also the person who is most reliant on multiple-choice tests for certain classes...)  I certainly don't make much use of multiple-choice in my teaching.  That said, sometimes narrowing things down is an absolutely crucial skill.  Guessing is the wrong way to finalize a decision, but eliminating a few wrong answers is EXACTLY the right way to start a decision.  In some sense, decision-making meetings at work are multiple-choice tests, whereby a group starts with a few options on the table, one or two ideas get eliminated early, and then the group has to sort out the rest.

None of this should be read as a defense of basing one's future on multiple-choice tests.  However, if the specifics of chapter 7 are to mean anything, then her breezy dismissal of certain strategies of thought is disconcerting.  But, as I said, the real point of chapter 7 is summarized in the first paragraph of this post.

As to chapter 8, she makes a powerful case that teamwork and character matter at least as much as book smarts.  I don't disagree.  Again, my question is simple:  Prof. Guinier wants to democratize higher education,  some institutions will confer degrees seen as having more value than others (indeed, if we take her case for character and teamwork as a given, perhaps it will be the institutions that do the most to build character and hone students' skill at working in teams), and if there are more applicants than positions in those institutions then we will need selection criteria for those positions.  She can implement any admissions criteria that she wishes, but it will be the privileged students who will have access to better interview coaches, who will have the resources to develop better portfolios of projects, and who will have the parental support to develop better extracurricular resumes with group activities.  How does this democratize access?

If you want to make sure that you have a more diverse student body, you should make a point of admitting a diverse range of students.  If you want to make sure that you admit the under-privileged, then you should admit the under-privileged.  If you want group work in classes then you should design group assignments.  If you want to do something you should do it, not do something that you hope is maybe a proxy for it, because people will always try to game whatever proxy you come up with.

And that's all I have to say about that book.

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