Tag Archives: The American Scholar

The Hick Factor: The Root Causes

Yesterday, inspired by a reading of one of David Brooks’s recent columns, I raised concerns that America was dealing with a growing national ambivalence about, if not disdain for, practical, as opposed to more abstract, forms of knowledge.

No doubt, the roots of this problem are complex.  While I’m not a social scientist, I suspect they stem from a combination of global economic factors as well as cultural and social trends unfolding in the United States.

Based on my own limited reading, I don’t think this problem will be addressed easily.  As a matter of fact, I think it will present an extraordinarily difficult challenge, not only for those of us in Cooperative Extension and other facets of the land-grant system but also for policymakers, entrepreneurs and other others who have a stake in preserving this nation’s longstanding emphasis on practical knowledge.

Perhaps the most telling example of this challenge in all of its complexity was shared recently by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who reported how these divisions were being played out in many of this nation’s leading college campuses.

Douthat cited a study by Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford of admissions policies at eight highly selective colleges and universities.

…while most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances.

Of course, I’m not implying that this admissions trend reflects some conspiracy among elite colleges to undermine the value Americans have historically placed on practical knowledge.

Even so, if the products of two of this nation’s premier purveyors of practical knowledge, 4-H and FFA, are being denied admission to this nation’s leading colleges and universities and, ultimately, to the leading circles of influence and decision-making, what does this say about our prospects for restoring practical knowledge to a significant standing in American life?

Could this devaluing of practical knowledge also stem from the way elite colleges select applicants?

Writing in the June 1, 2008 issue of The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz, a product of Ivy League schooling, contends that elite universities are now selecting solely for analytical intelligence.   Yet, it seems to me — and I think David Brooks would agree — that practical knowledge, as an attempt to derive practical benefit from scientific discovery, requires as much creative as it does analytical intelligence and, consequently, tends to draw from both hemispheres of the brain.

Simply put, practical knowledge involves a combination of many different kinds of intelligence, with analytical intelligence occupying a prominent place within that combination.

Deresiewicz makes a similar observation.

The existence of multiple forms of intelligence has become a commonplace, but however much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic….But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite. The “best” are the brightest only in one narrow sense. One needs to wander away from the educational elite to begin to discover this.

Granted, many of the points I’ve outlined above amount to questions — and possibly ill-informed, baseless ones at that.

Even so, I discern an opportunity for groups such as 4-H and FFA, despite the bias directed at them in some elite quarters — an opportunity to rekindle an interest in, if not an enduring passion for, practical knowledge among our young people.

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