On Monday, June 25, the Wall Street Journal had a special section on education. A debate featured the argument that too many people are going to college, that the Academy is not an experience for all people as it seems to be today, and that many people don’t have the intelligence to benefit from an academic experience. All true. Yet, the real failure of higher education lies in another direction.
Intelligence is not a perfect predictor of success. It is good, but not as strong as one would think if it were the biggest factor. In fact, the college experience fails many students because it does not teach the kinds of skills that are really predictive of success, skills of courage, compassion, optimism, and connection.
We now know that talent and intelligence are not good predictors of success, but we also know that focused practice, informed by excellent coaching, is. Students who were to learn to practice and work hard, who were to learn how to learn from mentors and coaches would succeed far beyond what would be predicted by their IQ scores. Personality factors of persistence and diligence, of social connection, compassion, and caring about others, habits of thinking optimistically about the future, these will be much more helpful than solving quadratic equations or grasping the thrust of western civilization. They will be infinitely more helpful than classes on diversity. Yet the latter are required and the former are left untouched.
That means something basic and true, that each individual, regardless of “talent” or “intelligence” is completely in charge of her or his education. It means that education is for character, and the notion that somehow a liberal arts education of history, philosophy, and science will somehow convey character is utterly false. It has been known to be false for many years, ever since Paul Johnson began piercing those bubbles, and notwithstanding the Academy’s stubborn loyalty to it, continues to be a dead end.
The good news is that researchers like K. Anders Eriksen and Marty Seligman are showing the power of character and defining it as a learnable set of skills. While one might say it is time academic education changed to conform, it will not happen. Instead, we outside of education can teach this to our children and grandchildren. The bad news, that college doesn’t prepare one for success, is complimented by the good news that parents can master the components of success and teach them to their children.
Here are specific tools that one can teach the children. First, learn to disagree intelligently, learnt to test basic assumptions, and learn to direct emotion from the intellect. The frontal lobes much dominate the limbic system.
Second, people matter, and children are quite capable of learning compassion and empathy for others and practicing it under difficult circumstances, that is, when others don’t deserve empathy.
Third, hope matters. The habit of seeing the future as full of potential and success is one that will keep our children moving forward when external circumstances tell them to give up and be passive.
Academics will scoff at these simple observations because they sound trite and old-fashioned. Don’t they seem rather like the faith, hope and charity enjoined by biblical teachings? Yes, they are very much like ancient wisdom, and because of that, they are time-tested and sturdy. The fact that contemporary psychological research supports them simply means it took contemporary psychological research a good deal of time to come to its senses.