August 28, 2008

The Myth of Equal Ability in Academia

One of my many responsibilities at work involves providing academic advising to undergraduate students. For many, it is as simple as recommending electives or providing information about how to strengthen one's application to graduate school. For others, it is an emotionally charged experience of explaining bad news about academic probation, the odds of graduating when the student had hoped, and the like. It has become increasingly due to the widely accepted myth of equal ability.

In the United States, we pay a great deal of lip service to the notion of equality. We repeat the mantra, "All men are created equal," seemingly without realizing that we are born rather than created, that we have never been very good at treated supposedly equal people in an equal manner, and that the idea that we are equal in any way at birth is a destructive myth. Much like religious belief, it makes us feel good while concealing the truth.

At the genetic level, we do not come into the world equally equipped to face the demands of life. And it is obvious to any reasonable person that the environments in which we are raised are far to variable to be equivalent in any way. We differ from birth, are raised in a wide range of environments, and unequal on virtually every attribute which can be measured.

When we say that all people are created equal, we are trying to say something about what should be - about how people should be treated - rather than about what is. This ideal is a fundamental part of our democracy. Noble as it may be, it can create problems when we pretend that the ideal is the actual.

During the course of working with a variety of college students, I have repeatedly been faced with the undeniable truth that not every student in college has the requisite ability, interest, and/or motivation to succeed. I suspect that this statement may strike most of you as fairly obvious. It is not always so obvious for the affected student. I have heard the following from students about to flunk out of the university on more occasions than I care to count:
  • But I need a diploma to get a job.
  • But my professors don't like me.
  • But my parents say I have to finish college.
  • But my tuition pays your salary.
Again and again, I face the student who never should have graduated from high school, the student with a D average who insists that they are planning to go to medical school, the student who believes that they are owed a diploma for effort. But we aren't supposed to assign grades based on effort of award diplomas for fear of inconveniencing someone.

The common thread connecting these students is often one of entitlement. They believe they are owed something. Why? Because they have been convinced that all people have the ability to succeed in college. This simply is not the case. There are plenty of students on our nations campuses who lack the requisite ability to succeed regardless of interest or motivation. It is a sad truth which makes us uncomfortable to acknowledge, but it remains true nevertheless.

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