Monday, January 9, 2023

Temple Grandin on Neurodivergence and Education

Temple Grandin is America's most famous high-functioning autist, leading a very successful life and even being the subject of a biopic while being utterly weird and unable to master many ordinary skills. As you might imagine, she did not like school, and thinks our schools are set up to fail people like her whose strengths are not in language or abstraction (NY Times):

I often get asked what I would do to improve both elementary and high school. The first step would be to put more of an emphasis on hands-on classes such as art, music, sewing, woodworking, cooking, theater, auto mechanics and welding. I would have hated school if the hands-on classes had been removed, as so many have been today. These classes also expose students — especially neurodivergent students — to skills that could become a career. Exposure is key. Too many students are growing up who have never used a tool. They are completely removed from the world of the practical.

Despite my accomplishments, if I were a young person today, I would have difficulty graduating from high school because I could not pass algebra. It was too abstract, with no visual correlations. This is true for many of today’s students who get labeled as bad at math, students who might otherwise pass alternative math courses such as statistics that would also apply to real-life work situations. There is too much emphasis in school on testing and not enough on career outcomes. The fact that I failed the SAT in math prohibited me from getting into veterinary school, but today I am a university professor in animal sciences and I am invited to speak to groups of veterinarians to advise them on their work. The true measure of an education isn’t what grades a student gets today, but where they are 10 years later.
After noting how many of the high-tech products used in the US are built elsewhere, she writes:
The reason this equipment is coming from outside the United States can be traced in part to differences in educational systems. In Italy and the Netherlands, for instance, a student at about age 14 decides whether to go the university route or the vocational route. The vocational route is not looked down on or regarded as a lesser form of intelligence. And that’s how it should be everywhere, because the skill sets of visual thinkers are essential to finding real-world solutions to society’s many problems.

I agree with all of this. I cannot see what good it does us to try to make every high school graduate "college ready," nor why we would want a society where millions of adults have never held a screwdriver or a chopping knife. I liked something Tyler Cowen once said about education, that the model should be more like the Boy Scouts than an assembly line.

Grandin seems to have gone full into the language of "neurodivergence," which I think has become an excuse for a lot of people to be shiftless and randomly nonconformist. But it is true that we are neurodiverse. There are many, many people in the world who can fix a car but not write a paragraph, who communicate more fluently in C++ than English, who can't do algebra but can intuit what people want and help them get it.

It would be very difficult to set up an educational system that helps all young people develop their talents, rather than forcing them through a rigid curriculum that causes many of them great pain. But we should try.


G. Verloren said...

I agree with all of this. I cannot see what good it does us to try to make every high school graduate "college ready," nor why we would want a society where millions of adults have never held a screwdriver or a chopping knife.

It does our for-profit degree-mill of a college/university system tons of good; and it gives career stability to people working for collections agencies and debt consolidation programs.

It also appeals to America's long and glorious tradition of rampant, hypocritical classism.

We HATE people who know how to use tools. Americans look down on 'the working class' as lesser, and always have - even the majority who are, themelves, working class individuals. As John Steinbeck put it, in America "the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires".

The secret dream of most Americans is to win the lottery or otherwise get rich quick, and then never hold a tool in their hand ever again - paying someone else to come cook their food, wash their laundry, make their bed, scrub their toilets, do their shopping, and everything else.

Americans loathe the basic tasks of everyday life, which is why so much of our economy and marketing is wrapped up in 'convenience' and services: selling microwaveable junk-foods which are ready in "three microwave minutes!"; pushing 'miracle-diets' which promise you'll lose ten pounds in two weeks (which would be unbelievably unhealthy if it worked); and the recent obsession with 'smart-devices' which allow you to turn your coffee maker on while sitting on the toilet, because heaven forbid you have to walk into the kitchen and flip a switch like some peasant.

It's baked into our language on a level so deep we don't even recognize it. We call people whose behavior we disapprove of "mean", "rude", "base", "vulgar", "boorish", "petty", "ignoble", et cetera - all words which ultimately derive from the implication that one is acting like a commoner. In our literature we talk about antagonists as "vile" "villains" - or in their original meanings, low or poor rent-payers. Art we don't like is "pedestrian", the sort of thing a person who has to walk places would make; or it is "hackneyed", akin to a common horse for hire; or it is "cheap", from the Latin 'caupo', referring to an innkeeper or a petty merchant. We chastise people for putting their elbows on the table as they eat, because that's something a sailor would do.

And of all this ultimately ties back into education, in the form of college previously being the pursuit of the wealthy elites, and only in the past seventy five years or so opening up to masses. Culturally, we push so hard for everyone to go to college (even when they shouldn't), because a college degree has long been the de facto dividing line between being a 'somebody' and a 'nobody'. And so today, we see young people taking on debt that will take half a lifetime to pay off in order to obtain degrees which honestly aren't worth a fraction of what it cost to obtain them, because we've let our education system devolve into a predatory mess which exploits our cultural obsession with class markers to milk people dry selling them things they don't need.

In short, modern college degrees are the equivalent of knock-off Gucci bags.

Susi said...

Here in mid-Virginia, USA, with 2 colleges close by, my neighbors and the academics I know don’t look down on skilled workers. I know a Doctor’s son who chose to be an electrician, a Plumber’s child who is and academic. Skills are valued, teaching skills as well as physical ones. Many Academics around here make much less than the Tradesmen.

G. Verloren said...


Do keep in mind that individual personal experiences are not automatically representative of the broader national character.

Virginia comprises only 2.6% of the US population, and "mid-Virginia" (depending on what precisely you consider "mid-Virginia" - I'm assuming the Piedmont?) is comparatively less urban, lower in population, and more conservative than along the coast, where the bulk of the population actually lives.

Virginia also suffers comparatively less income inequality than much of the country, meaning there is far less material and economic difference between those who learn a trade and those who go to college. A "doctor's son" in Virginia can indeed choose to be an electrician without sacrificing nearly as much wealth and status as they would elsewhere.

Virginia is also the oldest state in the country, and is fairly homogeneous in terms of demographics. Classism tends to be sharply amplified when disparities of wealth also match up with differences of ethnicity, culture, and recency of immigration.

Virginia also ranks rather high in terms of overall wealth, scoring 10th in the nation for average per capita income, further bolstered by regional overlap with very close neighbors who are similarly wealthy - Washington D.C. ranks 1st, Maryland ranks 2nd, Massachusetts ranks 3rd, New Jersey ranks 4th, Connecticut ranks 6th, et cetera (all rather substantially above the national average).

Compare to New York, with a much larger population, much worse income inequality, and a much more heterogeneous demographic makeup - there, you will quite readily find fairly stark cultural dividing lines between college educated elites and "working class Joes", particularly along racial lines. The same is true in many other parts of the country, particularly in the most populous states - the big three being California, Texas, and Florida, accounting for almost a third of the national population by themselves.

It may not have as much presence in Virginia specifically, but there is absolutely a powerful strain of classism running through this country, and there always has been.

Susi said...

Speaking only for Farmville, VA, Prince Edward County, which was the center of “Massive Resistance” home of Robert RUSA Motion and Barbara Johns, location of Hampden Sydney College and Longwood University. This area faces its past in many complicated ways.