I noticed an article in Physics Today, about educational techniques in physics. A couple of psychologists from Stanford were working with Carl Wieman, talking about how to improve physics achievement in historically under-represented groups. Seldom have have I seen such bullshit. They explain that intelligence isn’t a fixed quantity – people aren’t ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’. But if your teacher thinks that intelligence is ‘fixed’, or if you do, you’ll do badly – but not if you’re a white or Asian male , who are somehow immune to these effects. As an instructor, you have to careful not to let the under-represented know that you’re making special efforts on their behalf, because then they’ll think that you’re doing it because they’re dumb – and then they’ll be dumb, presumably because that collapses the wavefunction. Somehow these educational techniques only work if the practitioners believe in them (really, REALLY believe in them). Unlike penicillin or machine guns.
Carl Wieman is a smart guy, but on this subject, he’s pathetic. I have to wonder about how how wide his slice of life has been. Has he never watched someone break his heart trying and failing to master some subject that others sailed through without breaking a sweat? Has he ever actually known someone dumb? Even someone of average intelligence? Talked to them? Listened to them? Has he ever read a single book on psychometrics? (that’s asking a lot, but after all, he IS a Nobelist.)
I am reminded of a couple of anecdotes concerning Richard Feynman. When his son was young, Feynman told him complicated stories that, when finally understood, were set in some odd bur physically real environment – say in the microworld. Those giant trees in the cavern were actually nose hairs, etc. He tried this with his daughter, but she didn’t like it. She wanted him to read the stories in the book, over and over, just as they were written. He decided that people were just different – which is true. It is even more true when the son is the offspring of one of the smartest guys in the United States and the daughter adopted, and thus almost certainly NOT the biological offspring of one of the smartest people in the United States.
Brazil is another example. Feynman visited and taught in Brazil. The girls on the beach seemed right, but something else seemed wrong: ” So I tell them that one of the first things to strike me when I came to Brazil was to see elementary school kids in bookstores, buying physics books. There are so many kids learning physics in Brazil, beginning much earlier than kids do in the United States, that it’s amazing you don’t find many physicists in Brazil – why is that? So many kids are working so hard, and nothing comes of it.” I don’t believe that a huge fraction of Brazilian kids were studying physics, or for that matter a higher fraction than in the US at the time. But I do believe that the average IQ in Brazil at that time was a good deal lower than in the US, because that’s what every test (and life itself) shows. And maybe that had something to do with Feynman’s observations.