Apr 16th, 2006 by ravi
A bicycle is not enough


I was re-reading Philip Kitcher’s comprehensive critique of SocioBiology over the weekend. Titled "Vaulting Ambition" its a serious and detailed work that  works through the arguments and the models. The book has the convincing mathematics inside; I will stop at posting the more simple and emotional appeal in the introduction:

 A Bicycle Is Not Enough

When I was growing up on the South Coast of England in the 1950s, I was haunted by a vision of judgement. […] Those of us whose families were not rich enough to sidestep the state educational system knew that judgement awaited us at age eleven. An examination would separate the academic sheep from the academic goats. We did not want to find ourselves among the goats.

For those who failed the famous British eleven-plus — about fifty percent — judgement was virtually final. Institutions suited to their perceived abilities awaited them. These establishments tried, usually unsuccessfully, to combine sound discipline with the inculcation of mechanical skills. Once committed to them, few of my contemporaries would return to the company of the educational elect.


[Kitcher goes on to list the now famous statistical fabrications of Sir Cyril Burt in order to advance his perverse theories of intelligence, and derives a caution from such episodes in science on how we evaluate current attempts at quantifying or describing human capabilities. He then ends:]

In the early 1970s, on a visit to England, I went to see a distant cousin. One of her children had just failed the eleven-plus — the old system of final judgement lingered on in the bastion of Conservatism in which I spent much of my youth and in which my cousin lives. Like many children before her, the girl had been promised a new bicycle if she passed the eleven-plus. Like many parents before them, her mother and father had given her the bicycle anyway. The daughter was visibly depressed. She felt that she had failed her parents, and she was not looking forward to the beginning of the school year when she, together with the other "failures", would transfer to a new school. Still, the bicycle was there, a small consolation to her and a token of parents’ continued support. As she wobbled down the sidewalk (the bicycle was somewhat too big for her), pride in her new possession temporarily overcame her sense of inadequacy. As I watched her, I remembered many of the children I had known, and the ways in which the educational system had narrowed their horizons at an early age. Those whose asprations have been mangled and whose lives have been reduced through the application of misguided sicence direct us to lok closely at any theorizing that lead us to further mistakes. Their descendants deserve better. A bicycle is not enough.


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