How Important is it to Satisfy Gatekeepers in Education?
I’ve criticized Megan McArdle, David Brooks, and William Deresiewicz for criticizing students of ivy league universities for being “perfect avatars of success”, as if success were a bad thing. That said, I do have my own concerns about the system we’ve created and what it rewards.
Why do kids learn the piano? The wrong answer is that their parents want them to be whole, well-rounded people. The right answer is that parents think downstream gatekeepers will reward playing the piano at a high level. If you thought playing the piano was enriching, you’d be playing rather than forcing your kids to do it.
Don’t be too hard on the piano playing though. A lot of what kids do is to impress gatekeepers rather than its intrinsic value. Kids keep up the charade for decades without incident. What I want to investigate in this post, however, is if it can cause problems later in life.
Paul Graham notes that such behavior is everywhere:
Think about what you have to do to get into college, for example. Extracurricular activities, check. Even in college classes most of the work is as artificial as running laps.
I’m not attacking the educational system for being this way. There will always be a certain amount of fakeness in the work you do when you’re being taught something, and if you measure their performance it’s inevitable that people will exploit the difference to the point where much of what you’re measuring is artifacts of the fakeness.
I confess I did it myself in college. I found that in a lot of classes there might only be 20 or 30 ideas that were the right shape to make good exam questions. The way I studied for exams in these classes was not (except incidentally) to master the material taught in the class, but to make a list of potential exam questions and work out the answers in advance. When I walked into the final, the main thing I’d be feeling was curiosity about which of my questions would turn up on the exam. It was like a game.
Let’s say the educational system should produce Quality X in students (e.g. good writing). Measuring X is hard, however, so you can’t really evaluate students on it directly. But you can test for X’ very easily (e.g. multiple choice reading comprehension), and any student who has mastered X will probably be able to show X’. X’ may not have any value outside of academia, but it’s 100% of your grade.
A problem comes about however, when someone can master X’ without knowing much about X. A sufficiently clever student can figure out how to show X’ cheaply with minimal effort without actually going through the trouble of developing X. Even if it isn’t obvious to you how this can be accomplished, don’t underestimate the resourcefulness of those looking for clever shortcuts.
Such shortcuts are a winning strategy as long as you want to get good grades. You might be able to survive indefinitely without your lack of knowledge of X catching up to you.
As a kid, I was the opposite sort of student. I would concentrate on X. If I thought showing X’ was silly, I would put little effort in showing it, even though if it cost me points. I’d have never pulled Paul Graham’s trick of trying to work out the exam questions. I just wanted to learn and hope the exam would take care of itself.
Predictably, this didn’t work out all that well for me. I’ve always gotten worse grades than others who I suspected had an inferior understanding of the material. I look back at that with some regret because when you interview for jobs, they don’t quiz you on how well you understand thermodynamics; they just look at your transcript, which only reports your mastery of X’.
But I’m not sure that’s the right lesson. At some point in life, there needs to be a reward for actually learning X rather than mimicking competence. Someday, you might be called on to deliver the real thing, and the person who cleverly always figured out how to show X’ without learning X won’t be able to.
You could wait a long time for that day though. Gaming the system is possible indefinitely. It works well into middle management in a lot of organizations. Just stay away from sales and engineering and show the correct indicators of success to upper management. If you choose the right career, you might be able to live a lifetime without ever suffering any ill effects.
In academia, the writer who knows how to wrap up a study that pacifies editors and reviewers will always outperform those who actually want to understand the phenomenon they are studying.
Law is an interesting case because it is by design purely about passing gatekeepers. There is no echelon of the practice at which you move beyond convincing gatekeepers that you are correct. Even Supreme Court Justices still have to try to convince each other. With chemistry, there is an objective way to measure the atomic weight of a carbon atom, and it will matter even if you can’t convince anyone else. Political laws, in contrast, mean only what you are able to convince gatekeepers that they mean.
The approach children choose to take is not a trivial one. Teaching kids to appease gatekeepers has been a proven strategy to getting them into good colleges and acceptable jobs thereafter. If you teach them to ignore the gatekeeper, you put that entire path at risk. In following my vaguely “principled” path, I still had plenty of instances of writing down answers I didn’t entirely understand simply to get points for the assignment or convincingly arrange bullshit on an exam in such a way as to maximize my ability to get partial credit.
Still, I cringe at the thought of what this pattern of behavior of satisfying gatekeepers produces in kids. Will any of them be able to switch from satisfying gatekeepers to finding out what is actually true?
I’d settle even for more honesty on behalf of the gatekeepers. If college admissions officers heard a student play piano and actually enjoyed listening to them, giving them preferential admission would seem a selfish, but students would at least be satisfying a real demand for something rather than an imagined demand. Selfishness is at least honest.
Similarly, students learn to follow traffic rules to pass their driving tests, not to avoid killing themselves and others. Students “learn” Mandarin as a credential of cosmopolitanism, not to speak to Chinese people. This is most tragically demonstrated by those who take semester after semester of foreign language instruction seemingly unfazed by their inability to understand what a native speaker might say to them. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t even seem unusual to students or arouse the curiosity of anyone paying the bills. It’s openly understood that no one will really learn. The goal is to deliver foreign language credits (a hard, reportable number), not to become bilingual (which requires another competent speaker to verify and is thus unlikely to be tested and rewarded).
Once this habit of ignoring X has been sufficiently ingrained will students ever be able to escape it?
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