GENERAL ARTICLES

The Myth of the Successful Dunce

W. SHERWOOD FOX February 15 1934
GENERAL ARTICLES

The Myth of the Successful Dunce

W. SHERWOOD FOX February 15 1934

The Myth of the Successful Dunce

GENERAL ARTICLES

W. SHERWOOD FOX

THE IDEA that myths belong only to the savage and the peasant is itself a myth. Lamps draw to themselves moths and bats and other weird creatures of the darkness. Perhaps, then, it is quite natural that even intellectual enlightenment gathers about itself a number of strange fictions. One might forgive the atrocious parody: light hath its myths no less renowned than those of darkness. Even education gathers myths about itself. The really strange thing about these myths is not that they exist, but that they are so widely believed when every body is free to,see the truth. To some errors, one may easily be indulgent. We can forgive the yokel who still bases his farming practice on imaginary dry moons and wet moons. Or we can gracefully humor a sailor by postponingour sailing from a Friday to a Saturday. Or we can smilingly conspire with our week-end hostess to defeat the hoodoo of thirteen. But we do find it a terrific strain on our reason and our sense of humor to attempt to understand how certain monstrous myths concerning education ever got into circulation. One of the oddest myths is that in "the world" the most successful p~ople are those whoas students had no more than mediocre academic standing. It has several forms, all of them extreme. One is that mediocrity in itself is a reliable index of success. Another is that the brilliant university student is of necessity useless for business. And another, that the chances of success in later life are very bright for the man who has just "scraped through." Executives, who would not tolerate hasty judgments in their business affairs, have chanted these tidbits of popular jargon as though they were proved dogmas, and have accepted them as the last words of guidance in the selection of recruits from college halls. The really deplorable result of the belief is its effect upon students. Vast numbers of them, believing that they have a simple open sesame to business, deliberately aim at medio crity of academic achievement, or, worse still, even lower, caring only that they "set by." Since the target is near and broad, most of the marksmen score bull's-eyes. I know of an employer who has so piously taken the myth as true gospel that, in seeking a university graduate for a post in his firm, he stated he was going to make his selection from among those who had got through to their degrees by the skin of their teeth. Of course, he got his man, for the name of t~hat man is Legion. And what a man! The hireling lasted only a month or two. But he was not wholly without SUCCeSS, since he exploded one form of the myth and drove

his employer to the other extreme of insisting upon hiring a man from the ranks of the medalists. Scholarship Presages Success S O FAR AS I know, the businessman, up to the present, has had it all his own way regarding this myth in many of its forms. Like a man before marriage, he has not been blessed with a mate who can successfully contradict him. It is about time that the schoolman, who after all is the businessman's all~j, had his say. One who has been engaged in university work for a quarter of a century ought to be able to speak to the point in question. Hun dreds of students have passed through his hands. He has seen them enter the college halls as callow youths, emerge at sundry stages of development, and enter a great variety of occupations. Most university teachers follow the careers of their former students sufficiently well to know whether

they are successful or not. Indeed, teachers of long exper ience are the one class of society who can see the student's whole adult life in a continuous perspective-that is. his college years. followed without interruption by his period of occupational activity. Their appraisal of the relations of academic attainments to life ought to be worth something, then. Now, in substance, this is what they say: After making all possible allowances for that notorious variable, human nature, university teachers agree that in general those who are most successful in college are the most successful after ward. The mathematician would perhaps thus express it. Probability favors the success of the brilliant student in his trade or profession or business. The gambler would say: In the light of past performances, I find the honors man the safest bet. Of course there is an element of uncertainty, and so well do teachers know it that they urge prospective em ployers to base selection of students upon the total of the applicant's qualifications rather than upon his academic rating alone. A registrar's report cannot be, and does not purport to be, a measure of the whole student. If you hear anybody make a statement to the contrary, you may at once be sure he is not a university official. So, from the unpractical halls of the university this prac tical word goes out to the factory and the counting houses: If you desire to employ a university man, secure from the proper authorities a docket composed of confidential reports

upon his four years life in college, each report dealing with every phase of his character and conduct as seen by his professors. Such a docket is most illuminating and instructive. Incidentally, I may add that its use in the past would have kept out of business those brilliant academic ians whom Nature never destined for business, but whose blundering choice of business as a career has probably been the chief cause of a pernicious and misleading myth. Who Wants Matriculation? ANOTHER MYTH is the as sumption that makes the uni versity the chief culprit in the con spiracy that devises high school courses: or. in other words, that the university is the brains behind the

plot. If the university is actually a great factor in the con struction of the whole secondary school curriculum, it is such not by design but rather through the accident of its existence in the educational system. The Sahara Desert is not the cause of sand storms; rather, sand storms take place there because of the abundance of sand. True, a great many students in our high schools desire to enter university and hence choose the courses that lead thither, but that is no reason why all or most of the students who do not plan to enter university should take courses that proceed to that end. Yet most of them do. And there's the rub. But it cannot be said too loudly or too emphatically, that the universities neither desire nor demand the condition. For ages the door into the universities has been matriculation, but they neither believe nor ask that this should of necessity be the door leading to other folds. Who, then, does ask it? The answer is like the end of a good detective story. The culprit nearly always turns out to be the one least suspected; often the one who has been the most critical of the chief suspect. The answer to our question may be deduced from a little scene that is enacted in principle many times daily in office, warehouse and factory. A bright-looking young man of eighteen or thereabouts enters the office of a businessman. He states his case timidly and respectfully. "I would like to enter your employ, sir. Have you a place for me?" "Have you had any business experience yet?" "No, sir. But I am willing to go in at the bottom, work hard and learn the business patiently." "Have you attended high school?" "Yes, sir. I graduated last spring." "Well, that's one point in your favor. Did you get a good standing at matriculation?" "I am sorry to say, sir, I didn't take the matriculation examination. You see, I have never intended going to uni versity, so I took a course that would be a good general foundation for life." "That's too bad for you, my lad, for we can't even con sider you unless you can present a satisfactory matriculation certificate. We wish you the best of luck, but you are of no use to us." The Right Qualifications T0W, THIS SCENE is no myth. It takes place in brief or extended form every day in real life. And it always contains U~e same absurdity. What necessary connection is there between a qualification for entrance into university

and for entrance into occupational life? A connection of some kind is quite conceivable, I admit, but surely it is not inevitable. For the vast majority of the population, the two goals are different. Why, then, should two different approaches not be possible? They should be, of course. But the myth has it that it is the despotic will of the uniiiersities that there should be only one. The myth is untrue, woefully untrue, and that's why it is such a bad myth. The truth is that for many years the universities have urged the, estab lishment in the secondary schools of courses, complete in themselves, which would terminate in a distinct ive high school graduation, and provide a less technical and more Continued on page 45

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satisfactory approach to the type of life and of occupational activity that is common to the vast majority of our people. School boards and secondary school administrations are in full agreement with this contention, but find their desires blocked by the pupils’ knowledge that nine times out of ten a prospective employer will demand a matriculation certificate as an indispensable qualification. The meaning of all this is plain. Employers—that is, business em-

ployers, if you will—must be persuaded to accept a certificate of high school graduation instead of, or as well as, a certificate of university entrance.

But this, while the worst part of the story, is not the whole of it. Transferring from school to business, the young man, bewildered by the dark uncertainties of the future and of his own talents, wants to be in a position that will permit him to proceed later on to university if circumstances make it necessary or wise. Sometimes a youth who lias entered business finds that he is by nature ill-suited to it. Another may be of the type that develops executive qualities late and that finds the university a good place in which to foster that development for a few years longer. There are enough of these canny young people to be an important factor in giving the matriculation certificate an undue prominence. They wish to be able, if necessary, to shift back from business life to the scholastic life without having to lose time and money in returning to school to secure entrance qualifications.

In their cautiousness they remind me of a character in a musical comedy I saw

many years ago—“The %Iidnight Sons.” At a post-midnight dinner, one of the four brothers who made up this family of the dark hours was observed to tie a string to a radish. “What are you doing that for, Charley?” asked one of his brothers. “Why, you see,” said Charley, “I might not like it.” In military language, we should call this a refusal to bum bridges. Who can justly censure such caution? The class which exercises it is a large one and one which, like the poor, we shall always have with us. We cannot escape, therefore, making due and proper allowance for it in our educational scheme.

But what’s the moral of this? A very simple one. The universities have another j word to say: Let the great host of employers bear in mind that the universities are with j them and not against them in the conviction j that, for the great number of young persons j who do not wish or plan to go on to university, there be provided in the secondary schools courses, or groups of courses, which are complete in themselves and which afford a considerably broader approach to the life of the average citizen than that afforded by the necessarily technical approach known as matriculation.

If university, employer and secondary school-teacher proclaim in concert often enough and loudly enough that graduation from high school via this course is just as honorable and valid as the route via university entrance, the objective they all desire is more than half won. But the first step is ¡ to banish the myth that the universities are deliberately blocking the way.