The Giant Talent Filtering Machine

Mean value theorem in integral calculus

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Two of our sons (they happen to be identical twins) went to the University of Kansas in the mid-80’s and majored in accounting.  They and we were somewhat surprised to find a course requirement not present in some other schools’ curricula, namely business calculus.  They both tell me now that it was their hardest course and that a good number of their classmates failed it and dropped out of the curriculum.  But, they persevered and both graduated with honors, calculus being one of the very few courses they didn’t ace.    They tell me they haven’t used calculus since.

Why did KU have calculus in their accountants course?  (Still do, as far as I know.)  One could argue I suppose that it might make economic charts and the like more understandable, but not all colleges think so because not all have that requirement.  My theory is that it was there to filter out the weak.  Weak in ambition, intelligence, work-ethic, maturity – take your pick, or take all of the above.

Having participated in America’s degree system myself with a bachelor’s in engineering and a master’s in management, I have mused on the use of this mechanism by the education establishment.  I believe that Ivy League graduates are worth higher salaries not because they are taught better but because the universities’ prestige allows them to skim the cream of applicants.  The Ivy’s are selling self-processed raw material.  Teaching quality?  Ask any graduate of a top school how many of their classes were taught mainly by Teaching Assistants, or in huge classes, or both.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (July 2, 2008) An upper-class M...

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I also saw the filter system work by the same mechanism but with an added twist, and that was at the U.S. Naval Academy.  My class of 1959 entered with about 1,200 men.  By the end of the first year we were down to just over 800, a 33% attrition on top of rigid entrance requirements!  It was due not only to a tough curriculum (advanced algebra and trig, calculus, chemistry, a foreign language, English literature, mechanical drawing, ordnance and gunnery, etc.) and mandatory sports, but also a solid year of constant hazing.  Are USNA’s graduates good?  You bet.  But how much is due to good teaching and how much to filtering the input is a  valid question.

So, what if I’m right?  What if a college degree is less a function of  instruction quality than of individual potential and hard work?  What if you could get just as good an education without the fraternities, sororities, parties, dorms, campuses, cafeterias and lectures?  What if you could get what you need from home by simple hard work and studying online?

All of this, I suggest, begs the question:  Is a college degree worth the price?  Stay tuned – that will be the subject of an upcoming post.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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7 Responses to The Giant Talent Filtering Machine

  1. I do believe in the past it was a filtering system. As I progressed through my first career in hospital administration I can’t begin to count the number of fellow administrators who weren’t so concerned abut the degree but did the candidate for hire finish to degree status.
    It was (at least then) a sign of ability to follow through.
    BUT, classes were harder then, majors meant something then. Oh sure, there were still some “out there” B.A.’s but not nearly the plethora we see today whose only real use in life is perpetuating the university that offered the ‘degree’ in the first place.
    I too always wondered about Business Calc as it was a requirement for the Health Care Administration degree and yet I admit it was never used again. And to make matters worse, the professor was ‘old school’ and would not allow calculators! All was done with slide-rule, pencil, paper, and some very, very over-taxed brain cells.


  2. Jim Wheeler says:

    Thanks for your comment, Geoff. Your comment on calculus helps confirm what I thought. Slide rule? You must be older than I thought. 😆



  3. Unfortunately yes, BUT young at heart still counts for something right? lol


  4. ansonburlingame says:

    To Both,

    America’s real crisis in education at the college level is few take the really tough majors any more. Too hard and too much work is my guess as the reason. And of course our secondary public education in no way prepares most HS grads for the rigors of engineering and math majors.

    I for one would ban the use of calculators in most HS courses. Students must learn arithmetic and do not so learn it with calculators.

    And I for one cannot understand how a calculator would be of any use in a calculus course. The only numbers I ever saw in calculus was the page numbers in the text book. The rest were Greek letters in equations.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Indeed, Anson, why should anyone work hard when A grades and honor roll placement are so easily obtained in feel-good curricula? The Missouri Southern honor roll just published contained hundreds of names. I wonder what percentage of the class that represents? Does anyone know?

      I agree about the calculators. Punching keys is not learning math. And your point about deficiencies in secondary education is on target as well. The battle for education excellence is lost early on – like a broken chain.

      But I would like to point out the root cause of the crisis you mention, i.e., not taking tough courses. The root cause is a corrupt Education establishment that has abandoned standards and promoted their own enrichment through grade-creep and self-promotion. And I must include businesses in the indictment. They are complicit because they buy into the meme that a piece of paper means more than actual job performance.

      Thanks for commenting.



  5. ansonburlingame says:

    Boy do we agree on that, STANDARDS.

    In a sense, call it VALUES if you will as I have been writing regarding disaster relief. Giving an A to someone that does not earn it goes right back to VALUES at the fundamental level.

    Remember in the Navy when a sailor did not “measure up” to standards set by the skipper? How many good skippers decided it was “too hard” to have a clean ship for example and lowered such standards of cleanliness.

    I could usually judge how a ship would do on a “nuclear exam” by simply touring the engineering space for 15 minutes looking at oil in the bilges, vetigre on valves stems, etc. Not 100% accurate for sure, but it sure gave me a first impression that usually played out in overall performance.

    Go look in any HS classroom and see who is “running the show”. If it is not the teacher, watch out for the lack of knowledge of those students and the subsequent test scorces.



  6. Pingback: Student Loan, Leech on Society? | Still Skeptical After All These Years

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