Monday, February 20, 2017

The Number of the Best

There were a couple of issues I meant to discuss in Saturday's post, but they slipped my mind.  I'll address them here.

One is deBoer's apparent assumption, implicit in passages like "What do we do with differences in academic achievement after they no longer fall along traditional lines of inequality?" that people with less academic talent or achievement aren't fit for anything: only the top of the top, the cream of the crop, will have any kind of future in his Brave New World.  If we eliminate the old forms of discrimination, we can then guiltlessly discriminate against the true unequals.  Chris Hayes said something similar, if more extreme, in his book The Twilight of the Elites: people want the Number One Best in everything, and in the age of the Internet they can have it.
The same goes in a whole host of domains: the best opera soprano can, with the advent of MP3s and the Internet, sell to anyone in the world with an iPod, which spells trouble for the fifth best soprano. If you can buy the best, why settle? [143]
DeBoer tries to demur with his disclaimer that "This condition does not entail some sort of overall difference in the inherent value of different people. There are many more ways to be a good, worthwhile, positive person than simply to fit into our current Procrustean metrics for what makes you a good student."  If he really meant this, there would be no problem, but if he really meant it, why all the handwringing?

The whole "meritocratic" slogan of "the best person for the job" is built on this assumption: somewhere out there is the Best Person, endowed by his or her genes to fit the square hole you want to plug; all you have to do is weed out all the losers, for they are many, put the right peg into that hole, and everything will go perfectly.  Look again at deBoer's remark about "our current Procrustean metrics for what makes you a good student."  The real problem is that schools are torn between education, which is not Procrustean, and institutional demands, which are.  As I wrote before, punctuality, neatness, obedience, willing to think within the box, able to give the answer the teacher expects.

The other issue is interest.  It's well-known that people might want to have a career for which they lack the aptitude; it's less often noticed that someone might have an aptitude for academic skills but no interest in using them to make a living.  You can be tall, yet have no interest in playing basketball; you can have a womb, yet not want to bear children.  There are plenty of anecdotes about people of my generation who grew up in enriched middle-class homes, did well in school, pleased their parents and their teachers, and went into professions or other high-status and high-paid work, only to realize that they hated such work and left it, for carpentry, mechanics, or cabinet-making.  Or perhaps they have a talent but are, for whatever reason, unable to make a living at it, so they moved to another job -- perhaps one of those vacated by former lawyers and MBAs who decided they'd rather run a Bed and Breakfast than a hedge fund.

The person who wants a career for which they lack skills or aptitude is really only a problem if you demand that the Number One person, the Best, should have a job.  Most jobs don't require the Best,  and despite all the metrics, the IQ tests, the aptitude tests, and so on, it doesn't seem to possible to know in advance who will do a job well anyway.  DeBoer may be correct that "human beings are remarkably static in how they are sorted relative to others in all manner of metrics of academic achievement," but (leaving aside the significance of "sorting" people in the first place), people are evidently pretty flexible in situations where they are not being sorted.  When you want someone to cut your hair, say, do you go looking for The Best, or someone who can do it competently?  How would you find The Best Hairstylist anyway?  Even if such a person existed, what would they do when everybody in your city flocked to their salon?  Answer: they'd hire more help, who might be thoroughly good at what they do, but they wouldn't be The Best.

I think that most people, most of the time, don't really care much about The Best; Good Enough is good enough for them.  But we are susceptible to caring about The Best, and this susceptibility is cultivated and exploited by business interests and others who push competitive ranking and the creation of artificial scarcity.  So the commercial media bombard us with rankings, not just of athletes but of best sellers, top-grossing movies, winners and losers.  Once you've accepted the validity of ranking what can be quantified, it's easy to suppose that we should rank what can't be quantified: the value of art, ideas, people.

(Another popular slogan along these lines is that fifty percent of the population is "below average."  This is true by definition, and therefore irrelevant.  The relevant question is, how smart do you have to be to do your job well?)

It seems to me that it's precisely at the stratospheric level of government, corporate, and other elites that competence is a problem, partly because at that level there's no accountability worthy of the name.  CEOs who destroy their companies generally get their bonuses anyway, and move on to destroy other companies.  Whether a President of the United States is competent is of no interest to his fans, as many can see with regard to President Trump but had trouble seeing with regard to President Obama.  What matters is whether the current president is the Greatest President Evar, and partisans are always ready to make that claim for their incumbent.  As for legal accountability when they commit crimes, as they often do, forget it.  Holding them accountable would do irreparable harm to the credibility of the institutions they're busy destroying -- or so the defenders of meritocracy warn us.

Our cultural obsession with ranking -- which is not quite the same as sorting -- would be harmful even if we knew how to rank people accurately and objectively.  As Alfie Kohn wrote, criticizing President Obama's harping on the importance of America's international competitiveness:
You may have noticed the connection between this conception of education and the practice of continually ranking students on the basis of their scores on standardized tests. This is a promising start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Twenty-second-century schooling means that just about everything should be evaluated in terms of who’s beating whom. Thus, newspapers might feature headlines like: “U.S. Schools Now in 4th Place in Number of Hall Monitors” or “Gates Funds $50-Billion Effort to Manufacture World-Class Cafeteria Trays.” Whatever the criterion, our challenge is to make sure that people who don’t live in the United States will always be inferior to us.
But not only "people who don't live in the United States" -- we must also know which people who live in the United States are inferior, and keep them in their natural place.  I think deBoer believes that we can rank people without making invidious judgments about their "inherent value."  I disagree: I believe that ranking people encourages and justifies such judgments.  This is partly because people (even highly trained professionals) find it impossible to distinguish between "inferior" in the sense of lower (the literal meaning of "inferior") on a constructed scale and "inferior" in the sense of having less inherent value.  If ranking people had some positive uses, one might be able to make a case for continuing the practice while trying aggressively to prevent its harmful effects.  But I don't see that ranking has any positive value.