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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Idiocracy and Jaywalking at Work

In my day job, I do psychological assessments of employment candidates for corporations and public safety agencies. I test and interview a variety of candidates for jobs ranging from president and chief financial officer to salesman and firefighter/paramedic. By far, I have seen more candidates for police officer positions than for any other. I’ve actually assessed over 9,000 candidates for employment as police officers over the last 30 years. As the years have passed, changes in candidates have become obvious. For example, more of them have trouble with basic arithmetic, writing skills, and focused work habits. I imagine that these changes are related to changes in society’s norms, candidate demographics, and changes in candidates' educational experiences.

Police officer candidates are typically quite young, with most being 19 to 25 years of age. Yet, we expect these young people to have the common sense, judgment, initiative, and restraint to appropriately use their authority to detain, use force, and arrest. Because of the unusual amount of power afforded police officers, psychologists are given a lot more latitude to question candidates about personal matters than what may normally be asked in most job interviews. So, I do ask about marital status, children, health, finances, substance abuse, personal attitudes and opinions, etc.

Just recently, I had a police officer candidate in my office who was unforgettable. She was a 23 year-old woman who had already completed a 40-page long application and had passed through a police department’s group interview (called an “oral board”), thorough background investigation, and polygraph test. She was a graduate of both a local inner city public high school and the for-profit, on-line Kaplan University. Early in her interview:

I asked: Do you have any scars that are bigger than an inch?

She replied: What do you mean by ‘an inch’?

Me: Are you asking what the word ‘inch’ means?

She: Yes, what’s ‘inch’?

Me: An inch is a unit of measurement. Do you know how big that is?

She: Is it like this? (She gestured by holding her hands about 10 to 12 inches apart.)

Me: No, it’s like this. (I gestured by holding my thumb and forefinger one inch apart.)

She: Yes, I have a surgery scar bigger than that.

Now, in all my years of interviewing people, I’ve never met one who admitted that he/she didn’t know what the word ‘inch’ means. How does an English speaking person of normal intelligence (her tests placed her in the normal range, although a little below average), grow up in our country, graduate from high school, graduate from college with a 4-year degree, and not know what an inch is? Of course, if you’ve been reading this blog, then you know as well as I how this happens, but this example is one of the most extreme and dispiriting I have seen. Although she was evaluated as psychologically unsuitable for work as a police officer, it’s interesting that a person with such limited knowledge, which became very apparent in many other ways as I spoke with her, was considered a viable candidate for a job that starts at about $50K per year, has great benefits, and involves very serious responsibilities.

More observations next time.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Decline of the American Empire

Empires rise and fall. The ancient ones maintained their power for many centuries while the more recent empires, now called "superpowers", have reigned for briefer periods. Empires have declined due to gradual cultural, political, and economic transformations. In most cases, the people became complacent with their power, became lazy, and seem to forget the societal values that brought them to power. When these things occur, once-powerful empires become ripe for conquest.

The USA has been a major world power since our victory in the Spanish-American War around 1900, and now there are signs of decline. Recent events (over the last half century) have knocked us down several pegs and our status has become more precarious. Our investment of lives, money, and world image in Viet Nam was a major example. Of course, we lost both at home (cultural and political dissent) and on the battlefield. Another major example was the 9/11/01 attacks by terrorists. We all learned quickly about the power of terror, about Islam and its extreme elements, about airport security, and about how vulnerable we are to those who possess far less military force, especially if they are willing to sacrifice their lives to get to paradise. Even though President Bush vowed that we would not allow 9/11 to change our way of life, it has. Our military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been yet another sentinel of American decline. We haven’t captured or killed Osama, we haven’t stopped the threat of terrorist attacks on our homeland, and we seemed to have kicked the hornets’ nest, making Muslim extremists even angrier about our attitude and way of life.

The latest threats to our status as a superpower are economic ruin and cyber attack. China, with its population of 1.3 billion, has become a major player in changing the balance of economic power at a time when we have weakened ourselves by the greed of Wall Street and naïve home buyers, continuing dependence on fossil fuels, escalating health care costs, and the failure to make major adjustments to protect our planet. We now hear that countries such as North Korea and China, and some terrorist groups, have been developing the technology to damage our power grid, our banking system, and our military security through cyber attack. In view of the American mentality to meet force with greater force, we would not even know who attacked us, thereby making it impossible to counterattack.

Here is my list of the top 6 signs that America is on the decline as a world power:

1. Anti-intellectualism, anti-elitism and an overall decline in respect for knowledge. After all, as Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Knowledge is power”. The “dumbing-down” of our schools and universities is a major indicator. The election of an anti-intellectual such as George W. Bush and his re-election after we observed how limited he was, demonstrated that large segments of our population don’t mind being led by an ignorant, inarticulate, uninqiring person. The considerable support received by a severely unqualified Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate is yet another recent example. The fact that I have to be careful about writing this paragraph because many would consider this to be politically incorrect, is a trend that has severely limited the public exchange of ideas and debate.

2. Declining standards in schools and universities. The need for basic scholastic skills testing in most states because our schools aren’t getting the job done and they need to be monitored. Grade inflation and the growth of for-profit universities are especially noteworthy because they show that the tail is wagging the dog. As long as students are viewed as customers, they will have an inordinate impact on what is taught and how it is taught. The shortage of people entering the “STEM” courses (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) means that we are losing our competitiveness in the world economy. It is unsettling that we increasingly need to import our best STEM students and workers from other countries, primarily Asian, making our strength and security more precarious.

3. The decline in critical thinking skills as indicated by the epistemological equivalence of faith and science for large numbers people who pit “Evolution” against “Creationism”. As a corollary, the inclusion of “Creationism” or “Intelligent Design” in science textbooks casts doubt on education administrators’ and citizens’ critical thinking skills.

4. The bankruptcy of newspapers and decline in ratings of TV newscasts. It seems that fewer people have interest in national and world events, thereby making them less informed as activists and voters in a participative democracy. The internet, in which anybody, including me, can write whatever they wish, has some advantages. However, the internet does not appear to replace well-trained, ethical journalists who understand their role as a check and balance on the power of corporations and government.

5. The obesity and diabetes epidemic involving sedentary people and bad diet. The excessive use of cosmetic surgery, useless supplements, medications, and other medical interventions in a superficial attempt to counteract poor lifestyle choices and unwillingness to exercise a modicum of self-discipline. I don’t know for sure, but I worry that this weakens our society.

6. The decline in the traditional nuclear family. High divorce rates, high cohabitation rates, and rapidly increasing single parenthood rates all contribute to children being raised by one parent. Such parents are often poor, uneducated and ill-prepared to guide their children’s moral development, keep their children healthy and safe, maximize their children’s educational and vocational potentials, and help their children make the most effective life choices.

Register your vote regarding America’s decline in the world community in the poll, located above and to the right.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Obviously a "D" in English

The formula in years gone by
was hard study and brains equals “A”.
Entitled students plus rated teachers
is the equation for inflated grades today.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Fair or Unfair?

Thinking back on it, most of my teachers seemed to make a sincere effort to apply the same standards to every student in the class, and that satisfied me. What bothered me was when a teacher seemed to be impulsive or biased or inconsistent, leaving me and most classmates wondering exactly how our grades were determined and if, indeed, a student or two were teacher’s pets. As a teacher, I am always amazed when a student accuses me of unfair grading because I really do try to keep it fair. Here are a few situations I’ve either experienced or heard about, and I’m wondering what you think is fair.

1. Two students in the same undergrad class wrote the assigned research paper. Student X met every requirement spelled out in the assignment, made no substantive errors, but demonstrated only a superficial understanding of the topic. Student Y also did everything required, but cited many more good references and displayed an in-depth understanding of the topic. The professor reasoned that since both X and Y did everything required of them, they both got the same grade, an “A”. FAIR or UNFAIR?

2. A Mexican-American student at the local community college took an essay exam in his history class. Upon reading the student’s essay answers, the professor found that his vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure were so weak that it was impossible to evaluate the substance of the answers. He was about to assign a grade of “D” but, instead, asked to meet with the student to discuss the matter. The student explained that he was born in Mexico, lived there until the age of 10 when his family came to America, and then grew up in a home and neighborhood where Spanish was the primary language. In addition, he is the only one in his family to ever graduate from high school or attend college. After learning about the student’s background, the professor suggested that the student take a remedial class to improve his writing. He also decided to change the student’s grade to “B” so as not to harm his chances of bettering himself. FAIR or UNFAIR?

3. A first-year medical student arrived 30 minutes late to the first two meetings of the required seminar: “clinical interviewing”. The professor spoke privately with her, telling her that it is unacceptable and unprofessional to miss time and disrupt the seminar with her late arrival. She explained that she is a single mother and has many more responsibilities than her classmates, and she asked for the professor’s understanding and patience. The professor told her that if she is not ready to give her full attention to her medical studies, she should postpone the course until she is ready. Despite the warning, the student continued to be late for subsequent classes and the professor reduced her grade from the “B” she earned on exams and graded activities to a “C”. FAIR or UNFAIR?

4. (a) An undergraduate student missed an “A” in a history course by a few points. After receiving her grade report for the semester, she explained to the professor that she had big problems with her boyfriend during the semester which distracted her from her best effort and that she really needed an “A” to get into graduate school. She asked for an extra credit assignment to raise her grade from “B” to “A”. The professor agreed to give her a chance, changed her grade to “Incomplete,” and assigned a 10-page research paper with a 30-day due date. The grade for the paper would then be averaged equally with all her other exam and paper grades in the course. It was determined that if she earned an “A” on the extra paper, then her course grade would be changed from “B” to “A”. Is this arrangement FAIR or UNFAIR?

4. (b) Continuing with situation 4 (a), the student turned in the research paper within the time limit, but it was obvious that she invested very little effort, perhaps assuming a tacit agreement that any paper would be given an “A”. The professor graded the paper an “F”. FAIR or UNFAIR?

4. (c) Continuing with situation 4 (b), per the agreement with the student,
the professor, computed the student’s new grade with the extra credit research paper included, and lowered the student’s grade from the original “B” to “C”.

4. (d) After discussion with the professor who refused to change the grade
back to the original “B”, the student took the matter to the university’s grade appeal process. The provost heard both sides of the case and told the professor to give the student another chance to write a similar research paper, grade the paper, substitute whatever grade is earned for the “F”, and then recalculate the student’s final course grade. FAIR or UNFAIR?

All of these situations have actually occurred, although some minor facts were changed to protect the guilty. It’s obvious that people don’t all agree on what is fair and unfair. I’d love to read your comments regarding this issue.