The Cult of Confucius

New thoughts about an ancient people, by Wayne Deeker.

Book extract 8: GPAs and the myth of the A-student

Extract from Mythbusting the Cult of Confucius, here.

It can be true that a certain type of Chinese student gets good grades. In their system, this only means memorisation, which for our purposes is worthless and must be discounted as discussed. More puzzlingly, visiting Chinese students sometimes get good grades in our systems too, but as Natalie Wang explained, for each that do fifty others slack off and barely pass. Instances of individual Chinese students getting good marks has no general significance except to show how exceptional these cases really are. Even then, memorisation would still explain most of those results.

More commonly, in some western communities there is a growing view that second-generation children of migrant Asian families consistently get better grades than local kids. Most people would assume this means they are good students, given that we’re meant to believe high grades correspond to intelligence or at least ability. Our whole educational and employment edifice is based on that myth. From these positions, teachers project onto these students everything else we believe “good student” means, including love of learning and the subject. However, in reality these traits are very seldom there. The context of these students usually reflects more about their parents’ attitudes to study than anything important: attitudes which give kids supremely unbalanced and unhealthy lives, while also being motivated mainly by greed. Western teachers praising their Asian students for their grades fail to understand the true cost of those grades. At the same time, many western families’ (and societies’) attitudes to study and study habits are truly pathetic, and the problem is getting worse. Comparing typical Asian students against typical western students is comparing two extremes.

In any case, none of this matters; getting good grades mostly means that kids know how to get good grades, which of itself has no larger meaning. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are good students and has no direct relation to intelligence.

Here’s how it works. Some part of students’ grades may come from standardised tests. These generally entirely involve objective “right answers”, and for marking convenience, they are often multiple-choice format. In both these ways, such tests reward conformity and discriminate against those who can see new possibilities. The remainder of the grade, or often all of it, comes from subjective assessment; consciously or not, for that teachers nearly always give the best marks to their favourite students, meaning those who most closely resemble themselves. Generally these are the students who can fully regurgitate the teaching while also most closely matching the teacher’s values (imitated, perhaps). In effect, the highest marks usually go to students closest to the teacher’s own intellectual place. That’s fine when it’s a quality school and a first-rate educator: such people will often be at quite high levels and students could well get the grades they deserve. Otherwise — these days, most of the time — let us frankly acknowledge that the teachers’ levels may not be very high. When a student demonstrates through their work that they may be smarter or more knowledgeable than the teacher, this can be a real problem. While it must be acknowledged that a few teachers may reward this, and grade accordingly, it’s far more likely that a mediocre teacher will award lower grades to insightful work reflecting sophisticated views they either do not understand or dislike. A graph of student grades would show a clear relationship with intelligence, but only up to the teacher’s level where there will be a sharp cutoff. Beyond that, there will be no relationship; very intelligent students could get anything: certainly less than they deserve, sometimes perhaps even failing. More often than not, the supremely intelligent and critical students miss out on the highest grades (especially since they may be too bored in school to work hard anyway), whereas those who get them are probably only as smart as the average teacher. This puts the paradox of the Asian A-student into proper context.

Such students, if they grew up to become scientists for argument’s sake, would be what I earlier called type-I scientists (see Case study 2). Chinese, if they get there, are invariably of this type, but so are most other “good” students. Though universities’ guidelines usually explicitly state that to receive highest marks requires demonstration of critical thinking which synthesises new knowledge, often this is not observed in practice. As in schools, the highest university marks could, and often do, represent imitation and/or unanalytical description; the students who get them demonstrate trained mastery of the conventions of paper-writing, and correct interpretation of the assigned material, but with limited real insight. Actually, at many universities it’s possible to get perfect marks without having any original thoughts whatsoever. It is from this pool that we get most of our professionals and lecturers; their academic achievements, though perhaps quite sophisticated, represent a deeply unimaginative and timid conformity.

Genuinely good students make trouble and upset people. They’re dangerous. Given an essay, what they submit might as well say, “the question is stupid”, and they will prove why. These people cut through assumptions, bringing radical new insights into the world. This was once the highest goal of education; now, when we find people who actually do it, we rarely value or reward them.

Good GPAs may well indicate advanced intellectual accomplishment, but more often they indicate trained mimicry and lack of thought. Since we cannot tell which, this renders the whole concept of GPAs irrelevant as a measure of student quality.

Despite the occasional high grades of some very exceptional Chinese students, with a deeper understanding of what a good student should be, we can see that they do not live up to these expectations, nor do most A-students. This situation really reflects the mediocrity and false purposes of our system rather than excellence on the part of the students teachers conventionally value. As usual, our value is misplaced.

[PS: see also, “Why IQ scores are baloney”, here.]

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Other extracts from Mythbusting the Cult of Confucius.

Categories: Book extracts

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