Tag Archives: education

The gene for hubris


A recent post by Jon Entine on the Forbes website leads with a complimentary citation of my book– and then goes on to undermine its central thesis. He concludes:

Modern eugenic aspirations are not about the draconian top-down measures promoted by the Nazis and their ilk. Instead of being driven by a desire to “improve” the species, new eugenics is driven by our personal desire to be as healthy, intelligent and fit as possible—and for the opportunity of our children to be so as well. And that’s not something that should be dismissed lightly.

Well, first of all, as the recent revelations of coerced sterilization of prisoners in California shows, “draconian, top-down” measures do still occur. Genetics and reproduction are intensely potent, and wherever we find abuse of power we should be alert to the harnessing of biology in the service of tyranny.

Second, there’s more than one kind of tyranny. Besides the tyranny of an absolute ruler, perhaps the two most potent and relevant here are the tyranny of the commons and the tyranny of the marketplace. The fact that they are more subtle makes them in some ways more dangerous. The healthcare industry does much good in the world, but it is naive to treat it as wholly benign.

Further, putting human evolution in the hands of humans, means accepting long-term consequences for short-term goals. The traits we value–health, intelligence, beauty–are the result of the action of many genes interacting with each other and with a dynamic environment. The entire system is contingent, inherently unpredictable. Yet we treat it as simple and deterministic. Until now, technology has been the major obstacle to guiding human evolution. It may be that now the major obstacle is our reasoning ability, our capacity for grasping contingency and probability and change. We’re tinkering with the machinery of a system whose complexity is still unfolding before us. The probability of unforeseen consequences is 100%. The only question is how severe they will be. We will only know in retrospect.

If we now have the tools to meaningfully guide our own evolution–as eugenicists have always wanted to do–we cannot take a blithe and Panglossian attitude. We have to be alert to the risks and take them seriously. That is not traditionally science’s strong suit. The public face of science is sunny, optimistic, fun. It strides boldly into the future, laughing and making striking promises. The industries behind science and health are wealthy and politically powerful. Not everything they do is benign.

To be a critic of that public-relations machine–of hype, in other words–is not to be a critic of health or knowledge or progress. Genetic science has the potential to bring us enormous benefits in health and well-being, and as they do, I stand in line with my fellow humans for my fair share. But that science also carries huge and unforeseeable risks, the root of which, perhaps, is arrogance. It’s one whose consequences are painfully evident in the historical record.

 

Major new cause of achievement discovered: studying

In a breakthrough discovery, researchers have identified a significant causal factor in educational achievement. It involves sitting one’s ass down at a table and opening books.

The problem of the underlying causes of educational achievement have stymied geneticists for years. Back in the Progressive Era, eugenicists attributed most of the variance in IQ, or intelligence quotient–a test designed to measure educational achievement–to a single Mendelian gene. Today, geneticists are just as obsessed with the genetic causes of IQ. After years of study, they have succeeded in spreading the effect out over several genes, while whittling the genetic basis down to under two percent of the variation. A recent study in Science magazine found that all known genetic variations combined explained 1.98% of the variation in achievement; the largest single effect of a genetic variant was 0.02%.

A different approach was taken by a researcher who prefers to be known simply as “Miss Perkins.” With her half-moon glasses, her hair done up in a tidy bun, and her sensible shoes, she is the picture of an elementary school teacher. Which she is. Collecting data over more than 20 years of teaching social studies to 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders at Martin Luther Malcolm Kennedy Roosevelt Elementary and Middle School, in Slippery Rock, Missouri, she has found that studying (STUH-dee-ying) explains a whopping 60% of the variance in educational achievement–no matter whether it is measured in grade-point average, standardized test scores, or subjective evaluations.

Another 30% of the total variation can be attributed to parents teaching their kids to put their butts in the chair and keep them there, without videos, music, or cell phones to distract them. A further 8% was attributed to nutrition.

The results have rocked the biomedical world. “I’m literally stunned,” said Dick Dorkins, of the Society for the Prevention of Intelligent design, Teleology, Or Other Nonsense (SPITOON), a biological think tank in Tumwater, Washington. “I feel exactly like I did last week when I accidentally got TASERED at the end of a bar fight.”

Not all scientists are convinced by the results, which involve 573 children and 1,719,000,000,000 base pairs. Nicholas Spork, a genomicist at Kashkow University, best known for its discovery of the “Republican gene,” said that Perkins’s “one-size fits all” approach was a “pedagogical dinosaur.” He was pioneering a personalized education approach, he said, that would tailor standardized tests to an individual’s genome. He also said he had applied for a federal grant to buy fourteen new high-speed sequencers that would identify 2 trillion base pairs in 93 seconds. “It’s just a hunch of course,” Spork said with a conspiratorial wink, “but I have every confidence that, with enough venture capital, in ten years we can double the amount of variance explained by single-nucleotide polymorphisms” (or “snips”). That would bring the total to around 3 percent.

Meanwhile, Miss Perkins continues her study—and her students continue their studying. She teaches about 60 students a year, in two classes. Her most high-tech tools are a globe, in the corner, a whiteboard (without a projector), and a terrific set of dry-erase markers, ranging from deepest violet through the spectrum to cherry red. But that’s not all. “Over the summer, a parent donated me a set of grays and blacks,” she said proudly during a quiet moment in class. “They were expensive, but oh, this will help a great deal. Nothing’s too good for my kids. Derek! What do you think you’re doing? Sit down and be quiet this instant, or you’ll have extra homework!”

MMMOOOOCS!

 

 

Kashkow logo3lgKashkow University announced today the initiation of an innovative new program of online education that it says will create an “unprecedented revenue stream for non-profit institutions of higher learning,” while streamlining the university staff.

The Kashkow scheme is called Massive Money-Making Opportunity: Opting Out Of Courses! (MMMOOOOC!). Under MMMOOOOC! PROGRAM, Kashkow would eliminate all classes. Instead, it would offer college credits and diplomas through a subscription service similar to the online movie and television service Netflix. The caliber of the degree purchased would be tied to the subscription level. For $29.99 per month, for example, one can receive credit for a full load of coursework that is “equivalent to a Duke University or Washington University in St. Louis,” according to the university. Johns Hopkins or Wesleyan-level coursework costs $69.99 per month, while a Premium membership (Harvard, Princeton, or Yale) can be purchased for $99.99 monthly. There is a three-month minimum contract, which enables one to purchase a complete course; an automatic renewal system allows one to “drop out” of taking the spring semester. The university will also offer a “Basic” membership: for $9.99 a month, students can pursue coursework toward the equivalent of a philosophy degree from the Delaware College of Textiles and Mines.

The new MMMOOOOCs! would be packed with information and essentially content-free. Subscribers would receive a full set of lecture notes, digests of reading materials, complete term papers (with bibliographies), and exam keys—everything needed to pass a course with a grade of A+ or higher. All exams and essays will of course be open-book, and students are encouraged to cut and paste from lecture materials in order to save time. This greatly increases the efficiency of the learning process, university spokesmen say.

Think of education like filling a bucket, said the former Kashkow Dean of Students, Prof. Tweed Pantsuit. In conventional teaching, the faucet is an old fashioned pump handle and the bucket is full of holes. The massively online course movement is a firehose that the student can turn on and off at will, while holding the bucket herself. The result is much more water hitting the bucket in less time—and as we learned in quantum mechanics (wasn’t it?) time is money. Prof. Pantsuit said more about the bucket model, but frankly it wasn’t printable.

The streamlining of courses into “courseware” will have a big impact on the university’s bottom line, according to a Kashkow spokeman. It will enable the university to trim the faculty salary and benefits budget from $75 million to $342.50, according to official university documents we obtained. The bold new plan would reduce the current faculty of 225 full-time professors down to two part-time adjuncts: one for “arts” and one for “sciences.” The medical and engineering faculty would be spun off into for-profit companies, “Kashkow Medicine Dot Edu” and “Kashkow Engineering Dot Edu Dot Com,” respectively.

MMMOOOOCs! will “revolutionize higher education,” said to university president Dieter Geld. “By concentrating on what we do best,” said Geld, “We will be able to better serve our stakeholders.” Pressed on what it was that Kashkow did best, Geld said, “Serving our stakeholders!”

Further aiding the bottom line is the fact that Mr. Aristotle Spinoza, MA, the Professor of Arts, will be on leave next year, serving steakholders at a local “Surf-n-Turf” dining establishment. Raising profits while cutting costs is a “win-win” for education, Geld says.

Such a massive transformation of the university structure will not happen overnight, Geld noted; nor will it happen on its own. “To facilitate the reallocation of resources,” he said, “we are pleased to announce the appointment of a crack team of administrators.” Kashkow will be hiring six new deans and associate deans. Horatio S. O. B. Functionary, former Provost of Gouger Administrators’ College in Shillings-upon-Quid, U.K., will be the new Dean of Profiteering and will oversee the university’s money laundering program. Reed M. N. Weap, a freelance card sharp with over 20 years’ experience in money management, will be the new Dean of Accumulation. And John “Bud” Balls, formerly the football coach at Bigten University, will serve as Associate Dean of Associate Deans and will manage the university’s burgeoning roster of high-level administrators. (Balls will also head up the new varsity intramural sexual predator squad, The Fighting Flashers.) The Office of Public Relations will be split into three, each with its own associate dean: the Office of Stakeholder Relations, the Office of Trustee Relations, and the Office of Dean Relations. The new administrators will make an average of $550,000 per year salary, plus an average of nearly $4,000,000 per year in benefits.

When asked about the wisdom of adding high-paid staff as a cost-cutting measure, Geld replied, “It takes a crack team to bring out real educational change. When it comes to sparing expense, we spare no expense!”