Friday, January 26, 2007

Is some people unsmart?

Disclaimer: I don’t profess to be an expert on education. I know that there are some readers of BFS who are. Feel free to critique my opinions vigorously, but please be kind. I’m just a guy trying to keep his blog from becoming irrelevant. Some of these local bloggers are posting several times a day and I just can’t keep up.

As a society, we tend to lament children who do poorly in school because of their wasted potential. A student who struggles to achieve Cs or settles into a pattern of doing D work is said to be the product of one of many factors: a lack of effort on their part, a lack of involvement from their parent(s), unqualified teachers, under-funded schools, mercury in the drinking water, Pepsi in the vending machines. A recent three-part article in the Wall Street Journal suggests another possibility, however, one that most of us would be uncomfortable in accepting – perhaps the D student simply lacks the intellect to do any better.

It’s easy to reject this theory at hand because it seems to unfairly denigrate a certain segment of the population. And, of course, we’ve all heard stories about how a very gifted teacher, who will later be portrayed on screen by Edward James Olmos or Ashley Judd, has been able to transform a classroom of half-witted layabouts into standardized-test-taking whizzes. So the problem, we presume, isn’t with the children, it’s with society.

But maybe the author of the article, Charles Murray, is on to something. His theory isn’t based on empirical data; he has science to back it up. It involves the general intelligence factor, which is said to be a widely accepted but controversial construct used in the field of psychology. I’m not smart enough to completely understand the precepts behind the construct, I blame my Kindergarten teacher Ms. Blackburn for that, but it’s related to intelligence quotients.

I’m sure there are plenty of researchers chomping at the bit to debunk the author’s conclusions, perhaps some already have, but in the interest of being progressive thinkers open to the challenge of considering unconventional and uncomfortable theories, let’s assume for the moment that some people just don’t have the intellect to perform at the level we think they should at school. What would this mean?

Well, for one, it would mean that No Child Left Behind is futile, something that a lot of people already feel, but for different reasons. But it would also mean that our entire education system is inadequate. Instead of educating children in groups based on age, they should be grouped by cognitive ability. This way, kids with less ability wouldn’t constantly be meeting with failure and those with greater ability would be continually challenged. It seems cruel to segregate children based on intelligence, but it also seems cruel to require kids to perform at a level that they aren’t capable of attaining.

One of the points the author makes in the article is that far too many people are attending college and far too many jobs require a college degree. This, perhaps more than anything else in the article, rang true to me.

Several years ago, the Illinois Department of Revenue made a four-year college degree a prerequisite for being hired as a Revenue Tax Specialist, those useful souls who answer our questions about the arcane system of taxation. But the degree didn’t have to be in finance or accounting, it could be in theology or physical therapy as well.

The department continues to train the specialists as they had in the past, teaching them everything they need to know, but they use the degree requirement as a screening process. The thinking goes, as it does in many organizations, that a person who puts it the commitment to earn a degree can generally be assumed to have a bit more going for them in terms of reliability and intellect than someone who ended their formal education after high school. And there is some truth to this, but only because so many kids today are told they must go to college if they want to get a good job.

But why should a person have to pay $40,000 for a degree that in no way aids them in doing the job they are eventually hired to do? There must be some less expensive way to find employees who possess both the analytical skills and work ethic to succeed in a job that they will be trained to do anyway, regardless of their educational background.

Back to the question of whether some people lack the intellect to do well in school, at least in its current structure, I think that there must be some truth to it. Most of us have no problem admitting that people such as Stephen Hawking are a lot smarter then we are. And even if we’re too humble to say it aloud, we believe that some people just don’t measure up to our own impressive intellect. So why is it so taboo to suggest that the reason Susie does better in school than Johnny is because Susie has a higher functioning brain?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Ad Review: Turning on the Dimmers

If you travel the Stanford overpass heading east, you’ve probably seen this billboard for Zara’s Collision Center: “We’ve replaced more headlights than Pamela Anderson.” Let’s review.

First off, Ms. Anderson-Lee-Rock didn’t replace those headlights* herself; she enlisted the services of a plastic surgeon. So what they mean to say is “We’ve replaced more headlights than Pamela Anderson’s surgeon has replaced on Pamela Anderson.” Not nearly as catchy, but it more clearly communicates what they are trying to say.

I’d be willing to accept the slightly misleading statement for the sake of a punchy headline, but only if it were actually saying something that would make me want to go to Zara’s for my next headlight replacement. Claiming that they’ve replaced more headlights than Pamela doesn’t really speak well to Zara’s experience because what they’re saying is that they’ve replaced more than two (or four, if you count her breast reduction surgery as another set of replacements.) So in their quest to be clever, they’ve unintentionally sent out the erroneous message that they may be novices.

My third quibble is this, and it’s a big one. Actually, it’s two big ones.

The only reason to include Pamela Anderson in an advertising campaign is because she can be expected to show up at the photo shoot with her, well, her headlights. She isn’t prized as an endorser because she is a savvy consumer or a trusted public figure. PETA doesn’t use her in ads because is able to effectively articulate that the cruelties being inflicted upon animals is a pox on our humanity. No, they hire her in hopes that people who are drawn to gaze at her breasts will divert their eyes just long enough to read whatever words are floating around beside them. Passing on the photo shoot and merely printing her name on a billboard doesn’t produce the same effect.

Having said all that, I’m sure there is no shortage of people who will get a chuckle out of the billboards. For some, that chuckle will erupt into a guffaw and perhaps they will crash into the car in front of them. And who would a person like that call to have their headlights and bumper replaced? Probably a plastic surgeon.

*I'm assuming that they are using this as a euphemism for breasts. If they're not, no need to read any further.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Instant Camaraderie's Gonna Get You

There’s an interesting dialogue on race going on in the comments section of the previous post. Since things are going quite nicely without my input there, I thought I’d offer something new here.

I’ve recently been contemplating a concept that I like to call instant camaraderie, or IC.

IC occurs naturally in most humans, I would imagine. It manifests itself when we discover something about another person that instantly raises their worth in our eyes. This discovery might be made when you meet someone for the first time, which can lead to the phenomena known as becoming “fast friends.” Or it might be after you’ve seemingly gotten to know someone well, in which case the discovery is even more profound and satisfying.

And what is the substance of such a discovery? Allow me to explain by way of example.

On New Year’s Eve last, my wife and I decided to bridge the gap between a quiet evening at home and a raucous night on the town. We invited over two couples and their children for a light social gathering replete with tasty appetizers and tastier ales, except not for the kids who were furnished with hot dogs and juice boxes.

One of the couples, let’s call them the B.s, we came to know because their children go to school and play soccer with some of our own. We aren’t by any means close friends, but have passed the stage of being mere acquaintances. They’re nice people and good company, however, and this is important, they didn’t seem to be of the same crowd that we would normally hang out with. Little did we know.

The first instance of IC occurred that evening when my wife learned that the B.s are euchre enthusiasts, an affinity that instantly placed them in the upper echelon of all people she has ever met, perhaps even above her own children who haven’t yet learned the hearts-like card game. Imagine the joy that a young Hebrew gentleman living in New Berlin would feel upon meeting a nice Jewish girl at the weekly Lenten fish fry, and you’ll get some idea of the rapture that embraces my wife’s soul when meeting a fellow euchre aficionado. Her excitement was palpable as she immediately began preparing a deck of cards for play.

While engaged in a round of euchre, a second instance of IC transpired. My iPod shuffled through a party mix, landing on “Little Mascara” by the Replacements. After picking up trump, Mrs. B. said the words that will forever guarantee her a place in my heart, “Oh, are you a Westerberg (Paul: singer, songwriter, guitarist) fan?”

I would have never in a million years pegged her for a Replacements fan, yet there she sat, all along a comrade in the indie rock war against stadium acts and radio-friendly popsters.

From there we began to share stories of our affinity for one of the greatest and least appreciated rock bands of all time. We compared discographies, right down to solo efforts and soundtrack contributions. We each shared our one experience seeing the Mighty Mats live. It was if I had found a new best friend. This was clearly a case of instant camaraderie.

In my experiences, IC is most commonly induced when I find out that someone shares the love that I have for a relatively obscure, at least in these parts, band, movie or author. Unless you’re extremely wanton and morally suspect, IC will occur only rarely, on those occasions when someone connects with something that you treasure but that the general populace just doesn’t get.

So perhaps you would like to share what the one thing is that you can discover about a person, even if initially he seems a scoundrel or she a ne’er-do-well, that will immediately and unquestionably make them aces in your book.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Get Ready to Rumble

As mentioned in my last posting, I’ve been neglecting This Old Blog while I try to land more writing assignments of the paying variety (not that writing for you good people isn’t rewarding, it just doesn’t pay my kids’ tuition.) I did, in fact, receive a paying assignment yesterday, along with one from my daughter’s school that I’m doing for free. Add this to my regular gig for the SJ-R and guess where BFS lands on the list of priorities. I still have no plans to close up shop here, but my visits will be brief for the time being.

Anyway, I do miss the passionate debate in the comment’s section, so, just to stir the pot a bit, here’s my no-punches-pulled, albeit abbreviated, take on today’s hot issues. Don't be afraid to fire back with your opinions.

Boy, that whole Kerosotes thing is a hornet’s nest.

How about those homeless people showing up at Alderman Bartolomucci’s fundraiser! Did that ever make a poignant statement. Or were the homeless exploited for political gain? Hmmm.

Those Christians and Agnostics are at each other’s throats in the letters-to-the-editor page again. Will they ever learn?

They may do away with the psychological assessment portion of the police and firemen’s test. That could be good, or bad.

The weather’s been pretty nice, but it’s starting to get worse. Which only goes to prove that . . . well, you know what that means.

Another bar closed it’s doors this week. The smoking ban went into effect last fall. Correlation? Causation? Coincidence? Go ahead, prove me wrong.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A halfhearted attempt to keep this blog updated

Even by my own lax standards, blogging has been light here at BFS. The holidays and the quest for more paying writing assignments are to blame. When I have the time, I will continue to post the type of thoughtful discourses on the important local issues of the day that you’ve come to expect. Until then, you’re stuck with this bloggy tripe.

Daniel Pike wrote about American Movie in today’s SJ-R. If you haven’t already, you really should see this movie. It’s a documentary, although some insisted that it had to be one of those Guestian mockumentaries because the characters and the comedy are just too perfect. I haven’t seen it in about eight years, but it was one of the first movies I searched for when I signed up for Netflix last week, so I experienced a déjà vu-like feeling when I opened to Pike’s article this morning.

My latest musical find is the Ditty Bops, two sweet-voiced ladies who play music with roots that extend into various decades of the twentieth century. I’ve heard them compared to the Andrew Sisters and I could agree with that had Maxene, LaVerne, and Patty been a bit more randy. Their music is really quite mesmerizing. I’m introducing them a song at a time into my collection and I’m currently up to three MP3s and one video, which has my two-year-old son fascinated (“Let’s do that again!”). The Ditty Bops played in Springfield last summer but I missed them, a mistake I will not repeat should they pedal their way back here.

On the literary front, I just finished a very interesting book on race relations, titled “White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.” It was written by Shelby Steele, who sounds like the author of bodice-ripping romance novels. But as the colon in the book’s title indicates, this is a scholarly work and Steele is an intellectual of some renown. He’s a black conservative, which is rare in itself, but one of the reasons I bought the book is because I read many positive things about it from columnists of the liberal persuasion. Such crossover praise is even more rare and to me, quite persuading. No matter if you agree with Steele’s theories on race relations or not, you’re sure to find them thought provoking.

I’m following-up with another non-fiction selection. It’s a book called “Looming Tower” that examines the 9/11 plot. I’ve yet to read a negative review on it, although I’m sure some exist, and it’s shaping up to be a very interesting read.

I traditionally only devote time to one primetime television show each week. This demands that I exercise great discernment and thus my viewership should be considered more valuable than an Emmy. Today - following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Hill Street Blues, Seinfeld, the Simpsons and Arrested Development - my current show of choice is The Office. Steve Carell is a very talented comedic actor with some of the best facial expressions going. Although some of the other characters have a limited bag of tricks from which to elicit laughs, it is a large enough ensemble that, for now anyway, no one has gotten stale. And Pam couldn’t be any more adorable.

Well, that’s it. That’s how I’ve been spending my downtime. Aren’t you glad you stopped by?