Friday, 31 December 2010

A Brighter People, or a More Heavily Certificated Society?

People in Jersey are getting 'brighter', according to the findings of the 2010 Social Survey. The survey's results show that more people are going on to further education, but, the island still lags behind the UK. More than a quarter of islanders of working age have 'higher level qualifications' - mostly degrees and that a further 50 percent have 'secondary qualifications' - that's GCSEs, GNVQs, A-levels, or O-Levels. Only a fifth have no formal academic qualifications, now that's mainly older islander who fall into this group, but the statistics do reflect better access to further education. Back in 2001 a mere 12 % of islanders had a higher level qualification, that's now more than doubled to 29 percent. Nine years ago, 34 percent had no qualification, that's now dropped to 14. That downward trend clearly reflecting a better educated population, one that's likely to continue. (1)

But is it "brighter", or a more heavily certificated world? I am reminded of the Isaac Asimov story "Profession" (2), in which there are "Education tapes" which put knowledge into people's heads:

"The turning point came when the mechanics of the storage of knowledge within the brain was worked out. Once that had been done, it became possible to devise Educational tapes that would modify the mechanics in such a way as to place within the mind a body of knowledge ready-made so to speak. But you know about that. Once that was done, trained men could be turned out by the thousands and millions, and we could begin what someone has since called the 'Filling of the Universe.' There are now fifteen hundred inhabited planets in the Galaxy and there is no end in sight."

In Asimov's vision, of course, the tape process is relatively painless and quick, and it leads to a society where profession is flaunted by certification. George Platten, the protagonist of the story, has parents with registered professions, as do most of the population.

"Let's see, George. It says here on your card that your father is named Peter and that he's a Registered Pipe Fitter and your mother is named Amy and is a Registered Home Technician. Is that right?"

But it still leads to problems of supply and demand. I have seen this most clearly with nursery schools training in the late 1990s, when Highlands College was busy providing NVCQs in Early Leaning and Childhood, but not matching this to the demand. As a result, over a relatively few years, the qualification required rose from NVCQ grade 2 to grade 3, to whittle down the numbers required. An increasingly certificate driven society will do this, however good the certificates, because the number of certificates does not directly match the employment prospects. An education course is useful for someone retraining, trying to change direction to improve employment prospects, but on its own, it can lead to crowding out of the marketplace:

George had argued with Stubby Trevelyan about that constantly. As best friends, their arguments had to be constant and vitriolic and, of course, neither ever persuaded or was persuaded. But then Trevelyan had had a father who was a Registered Metallurgist and had actually served on one of the Outworlds, and a grandfather who had also been a Registered Metallurgist. He himself was intent on becoming a Registered Metallurgist almost as a matter of family right and was firmly convinced that any other profession was a shade less than respectable. "There'll always be metal, he said, "and there's an accomplishment in molding alloys to specification and watching structures grow. Now what's a Programmer going to be doing? Sitting at a coder all day long, feeding some fool mile-long machine."

Even at sixteen, George had learned to be practical. He said simply, "There'll be a million Metallurgists put out along with you."
"Because it's good. A good profession. The best."
"But you get crowded out, Stubby. You can be way back in line. Any world can tape out its own Metallurgists, and the market for advanced Earth models isn't so big. And it's mostly the small worlds that want them. You know what per cent of the turn-out of Registered Metallurgists get tabbed for worlds with a Grade A rating. I looked it up. It's just 13.3 per cent. That means you'll have seven chances in eight of being stuck in some world that just about has running water. You may even be stuck on Earth; 2.3 per cent are."

On education day, George goes with his classmates to receive the education tapes, and discovers to his horror that he can't be taped. He is an outcast in a society where everyone is registered:

He was led by a red-uniformed guide along the busy corridors lined with separate rooms each containing its groups, here two, there five: the Motor Mechanics, the Construction Engineers, the Agronomists - There were hundreds of specialized Professions and most of them would be represented in this small town by one or two anyway. He hated them all just then: the Statisticians, the Accountants, the lesser breeds and the higher. He hated them because they owned their smug knowledge now, knew their fate, while he himself empty still' had to face some kind of further red tape.

He is told the shocking truth:

The man said, "Good evening, George. Our own sector has only one of you this time, I see."
"Only one?" said George blankly.
"Thousands over the Earth, of course. Thousands. You're not alone."
George felt exasperated. He said, "I don't understand, sir. What's my classification? What's happening?"
"Easy, son. You're all right. It could happen to anyone. He held out his hand and George took it mechanically. It was warm and it pressed George's hand firmly. "Sit down, son. I'm Sam Ellenford."
George nodded impatiently. "I want to know what's going on, sir."
"Of course. To begin with, you can't be a Computer Programmer, George. You've guessed that I think."
"Yes, I have,' said George bitterly. "What will I be, then?"
"That's the hard part to explain, George." He paused, then said with careful distinctness, "Nothing."
"What!"
"Nothing!"
"But what does that mean? Why can't you assign me a profession?"
"We have no choice in the matter, George. It's the structure of your mind that decides that."
George went a sallow yellow. His eyes bulged. "There's something wrong with my mind?"
"There's something about it. As far as professional classification is concerned, I suppose you can call it wrong."
"But why?"
Ellenford shrugged. "I'm sure you know how Earth runs its Educational program, George. Practically any human being can absorb practically any body of knowledge, but each individual brain pattern is better suited to receiving some types of knowledge than others. We try to match mind to knowledge as well as we can within the limits of the quota requirements for each profession."
George nodded. "Yes, I know."
"Every once in a while, George, we come up against a young man whose mind is not suited to receiving a superimposed knowledge of any sort."
"You mean I can't be Educated?"
"That is what I mean."
"But that's crazy. I'm intelligent. I can understand - " He looked helplessly about as though trying to find some way of proving that he had a functioning brain.
"Don't misunderstand me, please," said Ellenford gravely. " You're intelligent. There's no question about that. You're even above average in intelligence. Unfortunately that has nothing to do with whether the mind ought to be allowed to accept superimposed knowledge or not. In fact, it is almost always the intelligent person who comes here."

George becomes a "ward of the planet" and is sent to a "house of the feeble minded" where he can learn from books if he so chooses, but there is no certification process. He decides to leave and attend the "Olympics" a competition not of physical sport, but where different professions can compete in a series of tests for the marketplace; those succeeding well being snapped up by the rich and prosperous outer worlds:

He had expected to be stopped before leaving the grounds. He wasn't. He had stopped at an all-night diner to ask directions to an air terminal and expected the proprietor to call the police. That didn't happen. He summoned a skimmer to take him to the airport and the driver asked no questions. Yet he felt no lift at that. He arrived at the airport sick at heart. He had not realized how the outer world would be. He was surrounded by professionals. The diner's proprietor had had his name inscribed on the plastic shell over the cash register. So and so, Registered Cook. The man in the skimmer had his license up, Registered Chauffeur. George felt the bareness of his name and experienced a kind of nakedness because of it worse, he felt skinned. But no one challenged him. No one studied him suspiciously and demanded proof of professional rating. George thought bitterly: Who would imagine any human being without one?

At the Olympics, he sees his old friend Trevelyan who takes part, but fails, in part because he has used older tapes, and there are better, more advanced educational tapes.

"Didn't do so well did I?" Stubby dropped his cigarette and stepped on it, staring off to the street, where the emerging crowd was slowly eddying and finding its way into skimmers, while new lines were forming for the next scheduled Olympics. Trevelyan said heavily, "So what? It's only the second time I missed. Novia can go shove after the deal I got today. There are planets that would jump at me fast enough - But, listen, I haven't seen you since Education Day. Where did you go? Your folks said you were on special assignment but gave no details and you never wrote. You might have written."
"I should have," said George uneasily. "Anyway, I came to say I was sorry the way things went just now."
"Don't be," said Trevelyan. "I told you. Novia can go shove - At that I should have known. They've been saying for weeks that the Beeman machine would be used. All the wise money was on Beeman machines. The damned Education tapes they ran through me were for Henslers and who uses Henslers? The worlds in the Goman Cluster if you want to call them worlds. Wasn't that a nice deal they gave me?"

Trevelyan is wedded to the idea of a society in which knowledge is designated by certification status. He cannot think outside that box. Because his education has only taken him so far, he is unable to come out with any original thought beyond his training, and this is the reason why he has failed:

"Sure, but I lost time wondering if I could be right in my diagnosis when I noticed there wasn't any clamp depressor in the parts they had supplied. They don't deduct for that. If it had been a Hensler, I would have known I was right. How could I match up then? The top winner was a San Franciscan. So were three of the next four. And the fifth guy was from Los Angeles. They get big-city Educational tapes. The best available. Beeman spectrographs and all. How do I compete with them? I came all the way out here just to get a chance at a Novian-sponsored Olympics in my classification and I might just as well have stayed home. I knew it, I tell you, and that settles it. Of all the damned -"

I'm not going to reveal the twist which comes later in the story, but it makes some clear points during its course.

1) A certificate based society, in which everyone has qualifications, becomes overcrowded, and the qualifications lose their value. This was well known when Parkinson wrote his books. By all means, improve employment prospects with courses, but those of skilled professions must be matched to the demands of society.

2) A society which only understands knowledge in terms of certified qualifications is a society which is only half a society; it is a society that will stagnate because in the pursuit of certain knowledge, it has turned away from the kind of open ended problems that occur in the real world, which cannot all be enumerated, and require problem solving thinking, which is a quite different kind of skill. The benefits of time spent not gaining qualifications, but gaining real workplace experience are being downgraded as a result.

This also brings us back to the idea of "brighter". Under the baneful influence of the IQ test, many people have come to believe that intelligence can be measured by means of a closed, fixed option, series of puzzles, which as far as testing knowledge is concerned, are little more than a sterile backwater.(3)

So is Jersey "getting brighter"? I would say not.

Postscript:

Here is an interesting puzzle which requires thought for its solution. It is not a multiple choice test, but it could be seen as a "theory of mind" test.

A striking feature of many of El Greco's pictures is the way figures and faces often appear to be excessively elongated . In trying to account for this idiosyncratic style, an ophthalmologist proposed in 1913 that El Greco may have had a form of astigmatism, which distorted his vision and led to elongated images forming on his retina (Trevor-Roper, 1970). Although such an explanation may initially seem reasonable, it does not stand up to logical scrutiny. Why?

Links
(1) http://www.channelonline.tv/channelonline_jerseynews/DisplayArticle.asp?ID=492343
(2) http://www.abelard.org/asimov.php
(3) http://www.mathmojo.com/chronicles/2009/02/08/iq-test-answer/

3 comments:

st-ouennais said...

Arrgh you beat me to it Tony. I too was struck by the peculiar presentation of the education 'stats'. I have a suspicion it also reflects on the credentials of immigrants.

As to the astigmatism of El Greco. I guess the elongated faces would have appeared even more elongated to the painter. Hence not a satisfying explanation, unless perhaps he painted sideways!

TonyTheProf said...

No, you have to put yourself in El Grecos eyes.

Assume he had an eye defect that made the world look elongated.

Assume he painted naturalistic pictures of the world as he saw it, so that the pictures - to him - looked elongated.

But how would they look to someone else?

Anonymous said...

"People in Jersey are getting 'brighter'"

Astounding. It was only a couple of years ago that Highlands College were complaining about the large number of teenagers arriving at the school lacking basic English and Maths skills....