Saturday, January 20, 2007

Distribution of Intelligence and Demographics

There is an interesting debate going on right now in the blogosphere over the writings of Charles Murray (famous for writing "The Bell Curve"). It is mentioned in "Confessions of a Community College Dean" (LINK) and in "Uncertain Principles" (Link).

Charles Murray claims the intellectual highground of the objective academic reporting the numerical results and deducing the rational consequences. By design or by mis-chance his writings come across as "stealth racism" and the intuitive hackles of many academics have been raised.

Murray has more recently been writings essays for the New York Times:

Murray Link 1
Murray Link 2
Murray Link 3

There is summary of Murray's position by Eric Johnson in the comments for the post in Uncertain Principles that to my eyes seems a rather dispassionate distillation:

"There is such a thing as absolute, objective, quantifiable intelligence (whether what we call IQ measures it or not, and whether it can even be described by a scalar period)

That intelligence is a relatively fixed quantity in any individual

That the distribution of intelligence is described by a normal distribution curve.

That the current political/cultural climate mandates an egalitarian approach to education that ill-serves all but the 40% or so around the middle of the curve.

That those on the lower end of the intelligence spectrum would be better served by an educational system that was less disparaging of 'practical' (i.e. 'vocational') learning

That the economic, cultural, and intellectual 'health' is in the hands of the relative few in the rightmost tail of the curve and that we should be doing more to ensure the vitality of this population in particular

That an egalitarian approach to choosing what to teach is detrimental. This seems to be a stab at the so-called multi-cultural, morally relativist, academic left's (straw-man) view that diversity is strength"

This is all a long set-up for my comment. The financial and political reality of the modern University is that in order to pay the bills all universities must enroll far more students than they expect to graduate. To my eyes the ratio of students capable of graduation to students that have been mis-lead into hoping to get a university diploma is about 1 : 1. This academic cannon fodder has the important role of keeping the numbers up in the University so that the students capable of graduation do not bear the financial burden alone. Until the system changes (and the only change that would address this issue would be the creation of an intellectual elitist University system where the education was free but the student would have to matriculate in) we have to realize that an important part of our jobs will continue to be:

a) accepting the intellectual tension of having a student body with a wide spectrum of intellectual abilities.
b) accepting the responsibility of respecting the weaker student but faithfully and gently failing them.
c) realizing that the time spent with a student that is failing and may drop your course is not "wasted" or "lost" but showing respect for the money they spent for their education and hoping that some knowledge will remain so that the general population will understand what we do.

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.