Toby and Tony were the sons of a farmer. They lived in a small town near the mountain. Only one village lay closer to the mountain and it was about 20 miles away down a long straight road. Toby had a sports car and would demonstrate its speed driving down the road to the mountain at 130 mph (when the speed traps allowed). Tony drove the farm tractor, a respectable 25 mph on a good day. Toby, of course, did not take his car onto the fields.
One day the mountain, a long dormant volcano, began to stir. The rumblings were small at first, but a cataclysmic eruption was expected soon. The people in the town began to pack their belongings and Toby and Tony prepared to leave. Cars and trucks from the small village passed through telling of the acrid smell of sulphur and boiling water courses nearer the mountain. Then came stragglers on foot who hadn't been able to fit aboard the crammed vehicles. And they told the story of an old man left behind who had missed the last truck, but was too sick to walk.
There was little time left. Toby took some friends in his car and sped to safety, but Tony turned his tractor around and drove towards the mountain. History does not relate whether Tony reached the village or whether he and his passenger survived.
We'll leave the moral till the end, but first an apology that I was late getting the additional web links online for the May column they are now there. I try not to put them up too soon, so I don't 'give away' the plot of the coming column, but sometimes wait too long! I'll try and get it right this time.
I recently returned from speaking at a large convention of educators at Singapore
web above for more info). At one point, and with great trepidation,
I talked about cultural differences between 'east' and 'west' and
how they interacted with education and creativity. I need not have
worried as Singapore is a society where the strengths and difficulties
of cultural diversity are common topics. Just as I found in South
Africa last year, many important areas of life are openly discussed
that would be considered dangerously not 'PC' in the UK and I'm
sure the US too.
A year or two back I recall the stunned silence when I said to some colleagues
that I'd be amazed in view of the significant physiological differences
between genders and ethnic groups that there were not also, on
average, cognitive differences. My psychologist friends instantly
put me right cognition is fundamentally different from physiology
and so, they say, subject to less systematic variation. Much as
though I respect their opinion, I strongly suspect that this is
not a scientific judgement, but based more on the fact that it is
not politically correct to admit that there could be differences.
We run into dire danger in secular societies of attempting to
derive ethics from science and then trying to make the science fit
the ethics we want to derive. But this is a morally dangerous route.
We do not treat people the same because they are identical, but
because they are people. When we have laws forbidding discrimination
based on gender or race, it is not because we believe there are
no differences, it is because we believe it is wrong.
In fact, for a combination of cultural and innate reasons, gender
is a good predictor of linguistic ability. But when we are assessing
candidates for a job or university course, we choose not
to use gender and instead look for other predictors, such as examination
results, SAT scores, portfolios of work, or how the candidate 'comes
across' at an interview.
Of course, these predictors are themselves not neutral. In UK schools, boys used to outperform girls at age 16 (and beyond), now the opposite is true. This may be due to differences in expectation, society and educational style, but not least there has been a significant move from exam to coursework. You may recall my objection (in the January column) to the implicit assumption that educational achievement at 18 is in some way a measure of innate ability or educational potential. It is perhaps the best we have and we must use it, but education systems that permanently lock-out people based on their past performance are intrinsically sexist, racist and socially elitist.
I was recently examining a PhD about experiments using IT in primary maths education in Libya. One of the results seemed to suggest that although the IT support was helping them all, the more able students were making more effective use. In other words the IT support served to amplify existing differences in achievement. If larger studies bore this out what would this mean? Don't use IT because it is divisive? Focus use of IT on less able students to help them? Focus use of IT on more able students who can use it better and thus free teachers' time for the less able?
Science is not neutral, the studies we choose to do are related to the uses we expect. But neither is education pre-determined, the interpretation of results in praxis transcends the facts.
Well, back to the moral of the story of Toby and Tony. First we may have innate or acquired abilities, but it is societies and structures, including education systems, that turn ability into success or failure cars aren't fast, cars on roads are. But far more important whether through breeding, upbringing, nutrition, education or sheer luck you find you have abilities of a particular kind in a particular society and particular situation what really matters is not what you've got, but what you do with it.