Saturday, August 28, 2010

"I Had to Get Through School by Going Through the Back Door": Temple Grandin on Gatekeeping in Higher Education

Here's an excerpt from Temple Grandin's book Thinking in Pictures, about how educational institutions tend to keep bright but unconventional thinkers out of science, engineering and academia, rather than steering them toward these professions:
There are few Einsteins today. Maybe they all flunk the Graduate Record Exam or get poor grades. I had to get through school by going through the back door, because I failed the math part of the Graduate Record Exam. My grades in high school were poor until I became motivated in my senior year. In college I did well in biology and psychology but had great difficulty with French and math. Most of the great geniuses have had very uneven skills. They are usually terrible in one subject and brilliant in their special area. Richard Feynman had very low scores on the Graduate Record Exam in English and history. His physics score was perfect, but his art score was in the seventh percentile.

Even Einstein, after graduating from the Zurich Federal Institute of Technology, was not able to obtain an academic appointment. He annoyed big important professors when he told them that their theories were wrong. He had to take a job at the Swiss patent office. While he was a patent clerk, he wrote his famous theory of relativity and got it published in a physics journal. Today it would be extremely difficult for a patent clerk to get a paper published in a physics journal. If Einstein had lived today, his paper probably would have been rejected and he would have stayed in the patent office.

There are many examples of great scientists, artists, and writers who were poor students. Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, was not able to master a foreign language. When he left school, he was considered only an ordinary student. Darwin wrote in his autobiography, Life and Letters, which was edited by his son Francis, "I was considered by all my masters and by my father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect." He found life at Cambridge University dull and did poorly in mathemathics. Darwin's saving grace was his passion for collecting. This provided the motivation to go on his famous voyage on the Beagle, where he first formulated the theory of evolution.

Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, was unable to pass the exam to get a high school teaching license, according to Guinagh Kevin in his book Inspired Amateurs. He conducted his classic experiments in the corner of a monastery garden with pea plants. When he presented the results at his university thesis defense, he failed to get his degree. Nobody paid any attention to his wild theories, but fortunately 120 copies of his paper survived and were recognized as the works of genius that they are after his death. Today his principles are taught in every high school science class.

During my career, I have met many brilliant visual thinkers working in the maintenance departments of meat plants. Some of these people are great designers and invent all kinds of innovative equipment, but they were disillusioned and frustrated at school. Our educational system weeds these people out of the system instead of turning them into world-class scientists.
Anemone has also covered this issue in some depth: her essays about struggling to find a niche in both the academic and work worlds deal as much with the difficulties of gifted (but not necessarily autistic) people as with those of autistic people (who may or may not also be gifted).

Anemone also has some very similar thoughts about the generalist bias in education and how that puts autistic students at a particular disadvantage:

[Tyler Cowen, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education] suggests that academia is a favourable environment to the autistic adult, because it allows for specialization in great detail. Personally I found that even an undergraduate education was too generalized for me, and while I did enjoy grad school much more, it was too little too late, and I lacked sufficient training to get into a PhD. Maybe it depends on which department you're in, or maybe it depends on what you look like. Or maybe you need to get into a field where you hit it off with your instructors, so you can tap into the informal half of your education, something I did not do.

I suspect that both science and the arts are favourable to autistic people, precisely because they do allow a person to focus on one thing to the point of excellence. I have pointed out before that this desire to focus on one thing in detail is characteristic of both gifted/successful people and autistic people. I suspect that it is also true of athletes, since a great deal of successful athleticism comes from the brain, too.

I wonder what would happen if all people with specialist brains were put on a different track by high school, on the basis of how their brains worked rather than their interests, with fewer, more concentrated courses each year, so that the generalists could continue to generalize, but the specialists could commit to excellence. As it is now, it's on the basis of whether you're interested or not (at least in North America), and some of us specialists are unable to get into specialized programs because we get elbowed out of the way, or don't know how to make the transition, or don't even know we're allowed to. I wanted to switch to a fine arts high school as a teenager, but I thought you could only switch at the beginning of grade 9, plus I thought you had to be some sort of super-genius, with a portfolio that would knock over God. All without any help from anyone.
I also think a generalist bias might prevent some children who are gifted in one area from being recognized as gifted at all --- with our educational system's focus on grade point averages and standardized test scores (which measure, and average, a person's ability across a wide range of cognitive skills --- sometimes with very different skills lumped together in the same category, like including geometry and algebra questions in a single math category, when geometry and algebra use different kinds of reasoning, and many people find they are good at one and poor at the other), a child who scores very high in some areas and very low in others averages out to be merely mediocre.

I also think it's important to point out that neither Anemone nor Temple Grandin is talking about only autistic people in their discussion of gifted people with wildly uneven abilities; both concede that this sort of cognitive profile is a common one in autistic people, but Anemone stresses that it is also very common among intellectually gifted folks, most of whom are not autistic. Grandin believes that a lot of the same cognitive traits underlie autism, certain mental illnesses and exceptional creativity, and that the balance between giftedness and disability depends on how extremely one manifests a particular trait. A little bit of hyperfocus can enable you to become an expert on something; too much, and you're stuck with unproductive, debilitating obsessions.


Leah Jane said...

This definitely has been my experience as an undergrad student. I ended up giving up on my dream university when I was in high school, because my grades in mathematics were so poor that I could not possibly be considered. On the other hand, my scores in subjects that heavily involved reading, writing, and languages broke several records at my high school, and I got near perfect scores in them.
I have some concerns about over-specialization, and do believe it is important to have an appreciation for many different fields of knowledge, but it is worrisome that so many talented people end up losing out because of this bias.

Lindsay said...

Yeah, I also think overspecialization can be a problem, too --- having studied both a science *and* a humanities subject, I really think people need both, and it makes me sad to see people deprecate the humanities because they don't usually lead directly to any lucrative career.

But I don't think it's at all helpful to demand people keep taking --- and taking tests in --- subjects that they've already demonstrated that they're not interested in or good at.

I guess I'd like to see, instead of the current path (elementary, middle, then high school, all with people the same age as you, doing a mixture of reading, writing, math and, if you're lucky, art and science, then four-year-college, if you apply/get in), a more flexible, individualized way of doing education that has more to do with each student's needs, talents and goals than with trying to get all the students to jump successfully through x number of hoops.

Lindsay said...

Also, this actually wasn't my experience of school; I seem to be one of those rare autistic/gifted people who do equally well in all sorts of academic subjects.

Like you, I tended to stand out most in reading, writing and foreign language; I just was also really intuitive about math, which enabled me to coast through high school math without thinking much about it (algebra, geometry, trig --- I was good at all these, but none of them ever captured my imagination) until calculus, when I discovered math could be fun. I also loved biology, and enjoyed the problem-solving aspects of physics and chemistry.

But middle and high school were kind of weird for me, since nobody knew I was gifted (I moved to a different state in fifth grade; where I had lived, I was in both gifted *and* special-ed programs; in the new state, I was only in special ed) --- I only took the normal, default classes in English and science (though I was accelerated in math and social studies) until sophomore year in high school, when I decided to take honors biology. It seems to me that the older you are when your talent is detected, the harder it is for you to get into the accelerated classes you need.