The Handicap Principle As Educational Ethos

The handicap principle, which was first introduced by Amotz Zahavi and worked on later by Alan Grafen and others, essentially attempts to explain how natural selection could produce traits or strategies that counter-intuitively reduced an organisms fitness or ability to survive. The paradigmatic example is the peacock’s beautiful tail display, which though incredibly attractive to mates, makes it much harder for them to get away from predators. Zahavi simply suggested that this was the point! The peacock is displaying how awesomely fit he is, how easily he can survive, despite this enormous impediment or handicap. This idea was then applied to all sorts of human behaviors from buying expensive cars to binge drinking. If one can waste his material assets on a financial liability like a Ferrari, and waste his time, energy, and brain cells on binge drinking, but can nonetheless run a successful company or what have you, then his handicap is all the more proof of his fitness! This same mindset can also form the basis of an attitude towards one’s education, especially if one realizes that a point of diminishing returns exists where a slight increase in grade requires exponentially more work. This line of thinking culminates in the conclusion that one should strive to get the best possible grades while doing the least amount of actual work, thus proving one’s intellectual fitness vis-à-vis his fellow students. This educational ethos is not just implicitly encouraged by our educational system, but is necessitated by it. After all, if good grades and getting into a good school is the criterion of academic success, and if one can get nearly the same grade while doing twenty times less work, then doing so is not simply rational from the standpoint of a cost-benefit analysis, but much more importantly promises the glory of “beating the system” while shouldering a handicap. The top-tier student, in fact, doesn’t have any other option for proving his intellectual superiority, because his grade does not improve based on how quickly the task was done and thus a much less intelligent student can obtain the same grade by simply putting in more hard work. One doesn’t get a better SAT score for completing the test in one hour, nor a better than “A” grade for turning in a PhD level essay to one’s AP teacher. How is a student supposed to prove his superiority, his brilliance when he is not allowed to jump above the bar of standardized expectations? The answer is to adopt the handicap principle as educational ethos. This ethos is further cultivated because our educational system is unintentionally geared towards crushing a students spirit, destroying his passions, and turning him into a good little worker bee rather than cultivating his passion and enlisting his natural curiosity and motivation. Because the bright student is actively punished (in his report card) for following his creativity and passion rather than following the curriculum exactly, he is faced with the impossibility of being an authentic scholar, of connecting his own curiosities, passion projects, and identity with his academic work.

Samuel Johnson once said that “what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.” The bright modern student is never being aloud to use his whole mind! In the modern educational system the very point is to force material down the throats of kids who have no inclination to read it for the express purpose of developing “discipline,” or “will power,” with the unspoken intent of preparing them for the mind-numbing boredom of the cubicle or boardroom. Would it not be far better to heed Johnson’s advice and “let him at first read any English book which happens to engage his attention”? As Johnson explains, “you have done a great deal when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He’ll get better books afterwords.” The emphasis on discipline or “willpower” is entirely misdirected as it fails to make the distinction that Leslie Farber makes between wishing and willing as two distinct parts of the will, the first mostly unconscious and the second mostly conscious, respectively. The student is asked constantly to give up his wishing, his daydreaming, and his mental projects, in favor of gutting it out, of pushing through the discomfort of living someone else’ goals and purposes relying on pure denial and caffeine. “[Rollo] May reminds us that wish is anterior to will, that there can be no meaningful action without a prior wish,” says Irvin Yalom. Yet the “wishing” part of the soul is entirely thwarted and repressed, making all educational performance a meaningless charade. Thus the student is constantly in the position of the rebellious child, always asking “why” when given an order. “Why am I doing this?” When a student asks his algebra teacher, “what is this for? When am I ever going to use this?” he is never really given an adequate answer, but instead treated as a clown or “smart-ass.” If he manages, by sheer willpower, to gut it out through algebra all the way through Calculus, he is still plagued with this question: “why must I learn to do things that my TI83 can do much faster? I can understand learning the concepts, but drilling them over and over again so as to compete with the TI83 seems quite pointless! In any work that I do in the future, I will have a TI83! Is this just an arbitrary test of my will power and obedience?” And there it is; the dirty little secret that every student knows, but rarely admits to himself: It is all an arbitrary test of his will power and obedience! Nietzsche tells us that “man can endure any how, as long as he has a why to live.” That is, we have a virtually unlimited amount of will power to enact a given plan (a “how”) provided we first have a reason to do so (a “why”). And yet that why is never answered, in Algebra, Calculus, or English and US History. There are in fact good answers to these questions, along with adequate  and valid defenses of the liberal arts education. The knowledge stemming from the standard curriculum will be useful for the student in the future. It will allow them to understand and relate to many more people and situations than before this education was crammed down their throats. However, this fact cannot simply be taken on faith, but must be felt or experienced. Students need to experience a connection of the “wishing” and “willing” parts of their own souls. As soon as a teacher connects with a students pride, with their self-interest (or any interest), the student simply doesn’t require all that much willpower to pursue his curiosity–he has no need to spend half of his energy motivating himself to invest the remaining leftovers of his consciousness into a task.

I can remember one very vivid fact from 10th grade Chemistry class. The Cinchona tree native to the Philippines and South America, among other places, is the only natural source of the malaria drug quinine. I only remember this fact because it was accompanied by an interesting train of thought and then a shocking realization. The substitute teacher had just put on a video to pacify the restless throng and I began musing to myself about how easy it was to remember facts, and how it is all just a matter of choosing to remember something, by whatever means you can muster, be it sub-vocalizing a sentence over and over again, or mnemonic devices, or whatever. At that moment I decided to commit to memory the next fact that bellowed from the TV speakers. Afterward, it struck me that I could choose to hold on to this memory as long as I lived, and that I could make a hundred such choices a day if I were so inclined. It was all a matter of mental effort, which actually wasn’t that hard to invest at all. So why was I not inclined to do this? A realization then dawned on me with a sense of wry humor: that I actually spend more energy rebelling from the system by purposefully failing to commit things to memory or purposefully ignoring the teacher’s lecture than I would spend being attentive. I realized that I was either spending most of my mental powers trying not to learn something, or spending them trying to motivate myself to read things for which I had inclination. Why didn’t I simply comply? Well, complicity is not an easy thing to ask of human nature, especially at this rebellious age when the desire to be free from the arbitrary mandates of others is most powerful. This very fact about human nature gave birth to our educational system as a way of hammering that rebelliousness out of students so that they can better function in society. However, it has created an environment where a significant portion of our smart students would rather get whatever grades they get on their terms, despite the extra hassle of having to grapple with problems alone because they refused to listen in class or do the reading, than comply with the arbitrary will of their “superiors.” No positive, intrinsic motives are ever appealed to, but are instead replaced with the negative, extrinsic motivations of fear: fear of not seeing one’s friends if one gets kicked out of school, fear of damage to one’s permanent academic record, fear of not being able to get a good job, and fear of looking stupid with respect to the rest of the class. The system has designated learning as “work,” which alienates the part of the teenager that is trying to stay a child, while completely squelching all urges for independence and adulthood by requiring that personal curiosity is forgone in favor of remembering idle facts about the origins of quinine and such things. Robert Cialdini explains why extrinsic motivation and censure are doomed strategies. His research, along with Jonathan Freedman’s and many others,  “suggest[] that we should never heavily bribe or threaten our children to do the things we want them truly to believe in. Such pressure will probably produce temporary compliance with our wishes. However, if we want more than just that, if we want the children to believe in the correctness of what they have done, if we want them to continue to perform the desired behavior when we are not present to apply those outside pressures, then we must somehow arrange for them to accept inner responsibility for the actions we want them to take.” My experience in Chemistry class was one of accepting inner responsibility for the contents of my memory, but really only stuck because this occurred in a disaffected daydream that sprung from a wish to understand myself. It is a teachers job to connect this wish to the cinchona tree, not to do whatever is necessary to make sure that the cinchona tree shows up in the right blank on the next exam.

Our current educational system simply fails to reward actual intellectual merit, which forces the brightest kids to distinguish themselves from their peers by other means. The system implicitly admonishes hard work over talent, honesty and perseverance over cleverness and guile, safe replies over bold, creative assertions, and always seems to advocate getting everyone up to a certain basic level instead of propelling the most talented to reach their ultimate potential. Realizing that talent and superiority are not valued, a natural attitude develops among the smartest of a given class: the attitude of the powerless and thus vengeful slave. The system forces the brightest kids to perform a “re-valuation” of these values, turning them precisely on their head, much akin to Niezsche’s explanation of the development of “slave morality.” This “re-sentiment” is the only way for really smart students to assert their power and demonstrate their “fitness” or superiority. The straight-A student is thus dethroned and looked at as the most cowardly of all students. At least the burnouts have the balls to tell the system to go to hell! It is the valedictorian that takes the easy road, as it is far harder and takes much more talent to get nearly the same grades while claiming never to study. It is a giant peacock feather in one’s graduation cap! One can then look on the valedictorian with a contemptuous superiority for not only being a slave to the system, but also for being a “sucker” who wasn’t smart enough to find any alternative to capitulation. They could perhaps brag about their dedication and perseverance, but the smart-ass could always remind them of Michel de Montaigne’s famous saying, “an unchased woman cannot vaunt of her chastity.” These people were not forgoing any partying, as they were not being invited in the first place. The mandated ethos of hard work, perseverance, and submission is subjected to a complete and annihilating “re-sentiment” which offers the autonomy of rebellion with the benefits of conformity (nearly perfect grades that is). After all, if he can get away with cheating, slacking, procrastinating, or generally being the antithesis of this system, then he must be superior to the system and its champions. Unfortunately this rebellion also fosters horrible study habits, an unnecessary drain on his energy, a purposeful stunting of his education, and an insecure arrogance in his intellectual prowess while alienating him from the positive aspects of the virtues he has rejected, such as honesty, perseverance and so forth. William James tells us that “if any organism fails to fulfill its potentialities, it becomes sick.” This is precisely what the handicap principle as educational ethos is: a sickness born of unfulfilled potential. What we must realize is that the alternative grants them even less fulfillment, leading to even worse ailments.

It is truly sad when our system of education is actually quite strong and provides its students with all of the tools necessary to become good scholars, with the single exception of fomenting their inclination or will to do so–or should I say, actively squandering their will to do so. School becomes quite literally a “concentration camp,” where students are taught how to sit down and be quiet, do their work, and use their powers of concentration to overcome their disinclination towards the material. At best, this system produces stunning test takers who can cram massive amounts of information into their temporary memory, only to dump the contents of their memory soon after the exam. After all, what else were they learning that material for but the test? They were given no personal stake in it, no explanation of its relevance to their life, and given no chance to shine above all whom they could outshine. At its worst, this system completely alienates those who would otherwise be stalwart scholars and brilliant thinkers. The elephant in the classroom is this understanding that the “concentration camp” will never end, but simply culminate in a job as pointless and boring as their homework–that this is precisely its function! The point was never to fuel individual interests and passions, but rather to prepare someone for the corporate world. There are really no grounds for denying this. The point is domestication of a certain form. Exhibit A: every kid has to become his own marketing team by the age of 16 and start competing for spots in the top schools. Exhibit B: higher education is the single hurdle between an 18-year-old high school graduate and a good job; a choice imposed by the job market or corporate world, as they ultimately choose who they will accept and thus set the bar for the pointless marathon of academic achievement that then ensues. The prosecution rests.

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3 Responses to The Handicap Principle As Educational Ethos

  1. Jk says:

    Really interesting article. Good job!

  2. Jacob says:

    This is great. I’ve been working on building custom gradebooks with my teachers and have found this principle is greatly needed. One of our instructors (he teaches electrical systems – at a vocational school) applies what he calls a “multiplier” to every task. After 15 years of teaching he knows exactly how long a unit should take to complete. If the student completes within 85% of the time frame given, their grade on the work is multiplied by 100% (so it stays the same). If it is between 60 and 84%, the grade is multiplied by 90%. And the scale moves downward. He said he immediately saw two results the year he implemented it. 1.) students had a very clear understanding that even though they could work at their own pace, there wasn’t any time to mess around, students stopped falling behind and he didn’t see any student really be penalized for not working hard enough. 2.) The students started competing with each other, creating a game out of it, and memorizing each other’s scores. Now, 99% of his students are male, so that’s a factor with competition, but he has noticed no real negative affects of them competing amongst themselves. And competition is another trait of evolution.

    I’m pushing for the cosmetology program to use it. I’ll be interested to see if competition factors in, or if they start working together to help each other move faster.

  3. Pingback: Beyond the “31-Flavors” Approach To Education « Think On These Things

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