Saturday, June 25, 2011

All the Men So Good for Nothing, and Hardly Any Women at All

I'm about halfway through Julie Des Jardins' The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science (The Feminist Press, 2010), a fascinating and disturbing book with implications I want to write about more. For now, though, here's something from the beginning of the book that might look like trivia at first.

In 1921 the famous inventor Thomas Alva Edison was looking for a few good men like himself, to "develop technologies in his research facility in West Orange, New Jersey."
Edison wouldn't settle for small-time thinkers: his team of "A-class men" would be drawn from applicants who passed a rigorous test he had devised. But his recruitment efforts proved disappointing. Of the five hundred men who applied for positions, only 6 percent passed his exam. His own son failed to earn a place in his ranks of A-class men. Test-takers grew defensive; they were not common street folk, but graduates of science programs in the most prestigious universities in the country. The problem lay not with them, they claimed, but with Edison's arbitrary criteria for gauging scientific competence in the modern age. Some of the questions on his exam were what they were used to: "What pinch pressure at the driving wheels does a 23-ton locomotive require when drawing a load of 100 tons on level track?" Others, however, seemed highly irregular for testing scientific competence: "Who was Leonides?" "What is the name of a famous violin maker?" "What is felt?" One stumped job applicant wondered, "How many $10,000 annum men ... could have answered 50 percent of these tomfooleryisms." Another dismissed the test as "vulgar," an insult to his educated sensibility. "Who cares who wrote 'Home Sweet Home,'" a college graduate lashed out. "We are in an age of specialization, and men are being trained to do things in certain lines of work that do not allow them to waste time and gray matter on general knowledge that can be had by referring to an encyclopedia."

Not all reactions to Edison's questions were defensive; some thought that the test proved just how "amazingly ignorant" college men had become. "I think that any man who cannot give a prompt answer to 75 percent of the questions at least is lacking in education, and, if a college man, had wasted his time in college," asserted an anonymous reader of the New York Times. ... As erudite as Edison appeared through all this, people seemed to forget that he had become who he was without the assistance of professional degrees of any kind. He never went to college; as a boy he was homeschooled and thrown quickly into business ventures to fend for himself. He observed the world around him and learned through reading and hands-on experimentation. As an established inventor he still boasted a subscription list of sixty-two periodicals, most of them scientific but also economic and legal and others oddly eclectic. Science and technology fascinated him, but so did geography, literature, and music -- realms of knowledge that academic specialists considered "generalized trivia" in the technological age. ...

[Edison] put college men on the defensive at a time when they had sought authoritative status as experts [13-15].
I admit that I have mixed feelings about this episode. First off it's highly entertaining, and says a lot about the limitations of academic training, but making fun of pointy-headed brainiacs who have a lot of book-learning but lack common sense always been an easy endeavor, as far back as Aristophanes' mockery of Socrates in Clouds. I also wonder exactly how Edison "devised" his test; despite his own idiosyncratic success I doubt he knew any better than anyone else what testable knowledge is required for scientific success. At the same time it's funny to see young men who were looking for work with Edison trying to tell him what qualifications he ought to seek in applicants. It was his business, after all.

Ninety years later, this story also has implications for current controversies over education. There was a recent flurry of indignation over the supposedly poor showing of American students in history, in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Although student performance had improved at all grades since 1994, the usual ignorant fussbudgets fumed that American kids were stupid, or American schools were incompetent, or both. The third fussbudget there admits that things used to be worse, because NAEP scores have gone up since 1994, but still, my goodness, these kids aren't "proficient" in US history! In reality that's because the teaching of history is highly contested, a political minefield, so what kids get is neither good history nor good teaching. When they're allowed to study real history instead of the boring propaganda that they're force-fed in school, students do quite well. But what educational "reformers" like President Obama, Michelle Rhee, and Arne Duncan want to impose on the schools will only make things worse; which may be what they want. After all, complaints about the Dumbing Down of America sell.

The anecdote about Edison's "A-class" test is a reminder of the limitations that have always obtained in schooling in the US. If our schools used to be better, as today's alarmists want to imply, then even specialists should have emerged from them with a better grounding in general knowledge. Clearly they didn't in 1921. One of the first things to be learned from history ought to be that some things are the same as ever, that the good old days weren't so good, and that our professional Chicken Littles should always be regarded with a healthy skepticism.