Older Then, Younger Now

by John Derbyshire (Sept. 2007)


Steve Sailer had a note on his blog the other day, an email he’d received from a schoolteacher:  “At my professional development class for math teachers, I’m starting to hear the term ‘low confidence learners’ as a euphemism for the d*mb kids.  I think this is great!  Having a euphemism for the single biggest reality that we teachers wrestle with everyday—i.e. some kids are smarter than others—means that at least the concept is officially thinkable. Before we had a euphemism, we had to pretend that everybody was equal in their math capabilities, which was hugely dysfunctional from a teaching standpoint in all sorts of ways, as you can easily imagine.”

In England a half-century ago the educational authorities had a more straightforward attitude.  Everyone took an
IQ test the spring after their 11th birthday.  Those who did well were assigned to academically intensive (“grammar”) schools; those who did less well, to “technical” schools, with a more vocational ethos; the bottom group to “secondary modern” schools, where they were taught basic life skills and expected to leave at age 15.

The system of sorting went on within schools, too.  Kids were tested frequently on the material they had learned.  Those who did well on tests were assigned to faster and more academic classes.  In my secondary school—one of the academic ones—the smarter kids were even split, after the first year, into an “arts” stream and a “science” stream.  The “arts” crowd got to take Greek as well as Latin, and their modern language was French.  (They also, for reasons I have never fathomed, were allowed Economics as an elective.)  We science geeks got extra math, and our foreign language was German.

It all worked pretty well.  Your doctor had attended a top-level “grammar” school, the structural engineer who inspected your house had been to “technical” school, and your auto mechanic was a “secondary modern” grad.  Nor was the system as inflexible as the Wikipedia article makes out.  I attended college with a girl who had been assigned to a secondary modern, and had late-bloomed her way out of it.  The older brother of one of my friends won a place in a top-level school, but turned it down and went to “technical” school instead because, he said, he didn’t see any point wasting his time with “stuff like Latin and History.”  (He later emigrated to the U.S.A., became a research biologist, and made a ton of money.)  Any sensible social policy must allow for the contrariety and unpredictability of human nature, and that one did.

Then, in the 1960s, lefty sociologists began to grumble that it was all a racket to perpetuate the class system.  SES (that is, socio-economic status) Cs and Ds were way over-represented in the lowest-level schools, Bs and lower-end As in the highest-level, with a corresponding mix in the “technical.”  (High-end As sent their kids to “public”—that is, expensive boarding—schools, which were mostly non-selective IQ-wise and therefore were, and still are, hors de meritocratic combat.)

If you said “class” to a 1960s English politician, he jumped a yard in the air, the way his current U.S. counterpart—or current English counterpart, for that matter—does when you say “race.”  Things were done.  The System was changed.  IQ tests were abolished.  England is now wellnigh
uninhabitable; and if the destruction of the old, sensible education system was not the cause, it was, as we say, “a contributing factor.”


*    *    *    *

A few days ago I had a conversation with a very learned and quite distinguished person (not a National Review writer) who made something of a stir in the recent fight over the Senate immigration bill.  He was on the right side of that argument, so far as I and you are concerned—he helped kill the bill, in fact.  Well, there we were having an informal conversation—informal and, on my side, not totally coherent, as this was at the end of an evening that had included a very good dinner with a generous supply of table wine.

I asked him why, in his opinion, Mexico was such a mess, government-wise, by comparison with the other two North American nations.  He: “Oh, that’s just culture, you know.”

Me (irritated past some last-straw point at hearing “culture” trotted out as an all-purpose no-further-inquiry-needed explanation for human group differences):  “What does that mean?  What is ‘culture’?  What are the upstream variables here?  Isn’t ‘culture’ just the sum of a lot of behaviors?  Which are themselves the products of a lot of brains?  Each of which has a phylogeny and an ontogeny?  If some group of people breed mostly among themselves—as most nation-sized groups always do, and always have—for a few dozen generations, won’t they, and their bodies, including their brains, and therefore their behaviors, including their social behaviors, develop some distinguishing characteristics?”

He (laughing, but a bit uneasily):  “You know, everybody thought that way up till 1939.”

Me:  “Perhaps the reason everybody thought that way was, it’s transparently true and dazzlingly obvious.  Perhaps we’ve exchanged truth for falsehood with all this multiculturalism cr*p.”


*    *    *    *    *

A few days before that, I was reading about Robert Putnam’s reluctantly-released research on diversity:  “The greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings...”  etc., etc.  Discussing the topic with a friend, my friend reminded me of Kipling’s poem  “The Stranger”:


The stranger within my gate,

    He may be true or kind,

But he does not talk my talk—

    I cannot feel his mind.

I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,

    But not the soul behind....


Could it be, could it possibly be (the terrible, disgraceful thought occurred to me), could it be that Professor Putnam, with all the resources of Harvard University behind him, with all his massed banks of computers and his battalions of research assistants, their Blackberries clicking and tweeping away, with his piles of questionnaires and his multivariate analyses and his yardsticks and control groups and coefficients of regression—could it be that he has discovered something that ol’ Rudyard knew all along, a hundred years ago?  That when strangers come among us (or for that matter, when we go among them), we find it hard to fathom or to trust them?

If so, then it might also be true that (gasp!) smart kids need to be educated separately from dumb kids (who actually exist!) 

It might even be true (oh no!), as was once the universal belief, that mostly-inbred human groups develop group characteristics—of behavior, and attitude, and socializability, as well as of mere appearance.  Come to think of it, why would this not have been a universal belief?  Matters of breeding and inheritance are, after all, the most ancient human studies—think of all those “begats” in the Old Testament, medieval lineage obsessions, and characters in Victorian novels saying “His family are nobodies, you know.”  With the publicity over recent events like the sequencing of a human genome and the fuss about genetically-modified crops, we have somehow got the impression that the inheritance and propagation of characteristics is a new topic.  In fact it is the oldest of all:  Human beings have been accumulating knowledge about it since animals were first domesticated back in the Neolithic. 

At about the time that horrid, elitist, class-ridden old English educational system was being dismantled, Bobby Dylan was singing:  “Oh but I was so much older then.  I’m younger than that now...”  He also sang a song titled “The Times They Are A-Changin’.

Yes they were.  So far as our understanding of human nature was concerned, we ourselves were a-changin’—from thoughtful adults to peevish, taboo-addled children.  Go back to Kipling’s time, and the impression is hard to resist:  We were so much older then.  We’re younger than that now. 


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