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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 09-03-2019 03:55

Maybe people really are different

The notion that any difference in outcomes is due to some social evil that must be stamped out has greatly influenced the recent development of Western educational systems.

People come in many shapes, sizes, and colours. Some are “pinko-grey” as E.M. Forster put it in A Passage to India, others are almost ebony black, or a shade of chocolate brown, or faintly yellow-ish, or something in between. Some can run fast, others can only waddle along. There are those who are devoted to work, and many others who much prefer to while away their time basking in the sun. They also differ when it comes to temperament. All this is taken for granted, but in most progressive circles, it is now agreed that – since nature is a fervent egalitarian who, in her wisdom, endowed all human beings with the same talents – any disparity between the achievements of members of one particular group and another must be due to poverty, class prejudice, racism or something equally bad.

In some places, suggesting otherwise is more than enough to get you shunned by polite society. In academe it could cost you your job. Anyone who thinks the academic success of people of East Asian origin may have something to do with their genetic heritage and not, say, be the result of nothing more than the lasting influence of Confucianism plus the constant nagging of those notorious “tiger mothers,” will be accused of pandering to believers in racial hierarchies.

Trying to make things better by pointing out that there are plenty of whites, blacks and browns who do better than most East Asian kids at school or university will get you nowhere.

It is also forbidden to surmise that one reason why kids from poor families do less well in school than their better-off coevals is that, by and large and with many exceptions, they tend to be thicker. Even if intelligence tests show this to be the case, their problems must be blamed on malnutrition, the lack of books in their homes, or something else which can be pinned on society.

After all, everybody knows that intelligence testing is reactionary because it discriminates between those who have started life with unfair advantages and the rest of us.

This no doubt is why the results of all educational surveys in Argentina are taken to be proof that the country’s social structures make it all but impossible for many children of the poor to become genuinely literate or numerate. Reminding the social justice warriors that, when incomes in East Asian countries such as Japan or South Korea were even lower than they now are in Argentina, hard-up youngsters there were already learning just as much as the offspring of well-heeled Europeans and North Americans, is not regarded as helpful.

The notion that any difference in outcomes is due to some social evil that must be stamped out has greatly influenced the recent development of Western educational systems. Having established that all children are, or should be, equally capable of mastering subjects considered difficult, such as nuclear physics or classical languages, hundreds of new universities were set up and even some old ones opened their doors to allow in as students kids who could barely scrape through secondary school or its equivalent. When it was discovered that few of them could make head or tail of whatever they were supposed to learn, special courses were invented, often with the word “studies” attached to them, which most, but not all, found were easy enough. That presumably is why, in southern Europe, the “best educated generation in history” suffers from a sky-high unemployment rate, while in the United States large numbers of university graduates end up working in hamburger joints.

In the US, affirmative action became institutionalised, with the scions of rich black families getting into the top universities despite their academic shortcomings, while high-scoring Asians with poverty-stricken parents found themselves excluded in the name of diversity, the excuse being that they were not very likeable, a situation that brings to mind the infamous quotas once used to keep out Jews. On account of this, Harvard University has been facing a lawsuit; the judge’s ruling, which could come at any time, seems sure to have widespread implications for academe.

All this has come about because of an ideologically-driven refusal to recognise that, while few may be academically gifted in the old-fashioned sense, most of the others have worthwhile abilities and can be taught a trade that, as well as allowing them to make the most of what talents they have, could help them find work when the time comes. That, by and large, is what happens in Germany, where vocational schools which concentrate on craftsmanship have always abounded and are well-respected.

The campaign against inequality of any conceivable kind is not limited to education. Once it became common knowledge that just about all differences that arose could be blamed on the wickedness of those who had long dominated the Western world, feminists, ethnic lobbyists and others entered the fray and began demanding special allowances for their own particular group, or for one they adopted to show they too were on the side of social justice in the long war against the many who refused to admit they enjoyed unwarranted privileges.

For example, devout feminists – who in addition to attacking the media for paying far more attention to what men do on the football field, boxing ring or in the Tour de France than to the allegedly equally important feats of their sisters – say it is utterly wrong to insist that most engineers or physicists are male because women are prone to take less interest in mathematical abstractions or gadgetry than they do in people, which is why more of them choose the social sciences and related disciplines. In the feminist view, the current state of affairs is due to men desperately wanting to keep the “hard sciences” a male preserve. To the bemusement of the Chinese, who take a practical view of strategic matters, many Western governments and big high-tech firms say they are determined to do away with the outrageous gender gap that has lately been brought to their notice by giving women more key jobs at the expense of qualified males.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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