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Are All People "College Material"?

Updated on May 19, 2011

My Childhood Dreams vs. My Real Potential

When I was a kid, I used to dream about growing up to be a famous NBA basketball player. During the basketball season, I would spend hours on my driveway dribbling and shooting away as I hit shot after shot in a game running in my head. To this day, I can still go out and string together a bunch of long-range jump shots in a row. But when basketball season ended, I would drift off to play other sports, only to return a few months later when the next season began. And even though I was always one of the best players in my schools, I never really played any serious, organized basketball.

Looking back, I often wonder how good I could have become if I had ever devoted myself to this one sport. Maybe I could have been a great high school player or even had success at the college level. I faced, however, a fundamental problem: I only grew to be about five feet, seven inches tall. And while I was pretty damn quick and could jump fairly high (for a white guy), I was no Nate Robinson, Mugsy Bogues, or Spud Webb. Because of these physical shortcomings, a future career in basketball was not in the cards. No matter how hard I might work, there was a level of quickness that I could never reach, and dunking a basketball was simply not going to happen. Skill developed by hard work could get me to a certain level, but a certain amount of innate talent and/or physical size would be necessary to take me to the top.

The same thing could probably be said about my academic career. I was a good student who worked hard enough, but I am sure that with some extra time and devotion, I would have been a lot better. Still, I hope that most people who have read my stuff or seen me teach would come to the conclusion that I have some pretty good thinking, speaking, reading, and writing skills. But no matter how hard I might have worked in the past or effort that I may devote in the future, it’s hard to imagine myself ever becoming an Einstein, Shakespeare, or Martin Luther King. Hard work is crucial to success, but to a certain degree, genius requires some special, innate talent.

We teachers are constantly encouraged to tell students that they can be anything that they want. I recognize the importance of positive thinking, but the notion that everything is possible is simply not true. Absent a miracle, it was impossible for me to ever become Lebron James, an astrophysicist at MIT, or the next great American painter. The talent level is simply not there. And while my ceiling for potential achievement is set at one level, there are other people out there whose academic, artistic, or athletic potential is either much higher or lower. For some, the prospect of becoming a community college history instructor is simply nonexistent. For others, simply passing a community college history course may be out of reach.

Evolution and the Limitations of the Human Brain

In the modern world, we assume that every student can and should be able to develop the academic skills necessary to meet the requirements for a high school diploma. And increasingly, in our modern corporate, high-tech economy, we hope that everyone will move on to college. But what evidence do we have that all people are capable of doing this level of academic work? It is only in the last few centuries, after all, that we began to see reading and writing as skills that everyone should have. Writing itself has only been around for about 5,000 years, and alphabets that made this skill more accessible have existed for less than 3,000 years. So why do we assume that what has historically been a complex skill possessed primarily by elites is now something that people should develop as naturally as breathing, eating, and walking. Real literacy is hard to develop, and it should not be surprising when large numbers of people struggle.

Over the course of human evolution, the thinking skills necessary to perform academic tasks did not necessarily enhance a person’s survival skills. Physical strength was often more significant, and overanalyzing a situation could lead to trouble. People who think too much and approach the world in a purely rational manner might have a problem when there is a need to fight, run away, hunt, or find a mate. In circumstances often faced by our distant ancestors, instinct and raw emotion were more effective, and there was a premium on reacting quickly. To this day, these more primal skills lead to success in certain situations. Honors students in high school, after all, are not in general winning popularity contests or having the most sex. Instead, they tend to be socially ostracized or beaten up by those who make up for their lack of academic ability with people skills, good looks, and physical strength.

But in the modern world, physical strength, fighting ability, and lack of fear do not matter as much for success. And as automation and mechanization increasingly reduce the need for physical labor, you have to wonder if the human race has the capacity to adapt to a world in which brainpower matters more than the more traditional survival skills. Having taught community college for many years, I have seen large numbers of students fail, and I recognize that a wide variety of circumstances play a part in their struggles. I cannot help but wonder, however, if our expectations are unrealistic, and if the median level of potential academic skill is lower than we want to recognize. Because of our evolutionary heritage and the biological capacity of the average brain, there may be a limited percentage of the population with the ability to do college level, academic work. So just as I will never be a genius or professional athlete, there are others who will never do college level academic work or even be a halfway decent basketball player.

Practical Implications for a College Teacher

There is a fundamental problem, however, with this entire article so far: it’s basically irrelevant for a college instructor like me. As an educator, I have no way of knowing the academic potential of my students at the beginning of each semester. Even if there was a foolproof means of measuring academic intelligence, there is no way to determine if students’ scores measure their innate, biological abilities or if they are a reflection of the circumstances of their past. Both nature and nurture play an important role. So I have to start each semester with the assumption that all students can learn and ultimately pass my class. In the end, I have to be a realistic optimist. I must believe in their potential, but not beat myself up too much if some fail. I must recognize that some will likely fail, but not jump to the conclusion that all who fail were ultimately predestined to do so by either circumstances or lack of ability. My job is merely to determine if they have demonstrated basic historical literacy. It is not to pass judgment on their intelligence or to determine which students are “college material.” This could also be described as a healthy pessimism. I must hold on to the hope every semester that I will be pleasantly surprised.


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    • CHRIS57 profile image

      CHRIS57 6 years ago from Northern Germany

      Living in a country with a fairly well working vocational training system (Germany) i would like to comment that the lack of real vocational training in the US may contribute to the urge for college education.

      If there is no fall back and alternative position, how are students to blame if they try for their best.

      What puzzles and worries me is the "great divide" between hands on jobs and college graduate positions. That is what even more attracts jung students to college education.

    • oldstudeman profile image

      oldstudeman 7 years ago from Central Florida

      I find it interesting that Mike Rowe, TV's "Dirty Jobs" guy recently testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on christopheranton's premise...yes, we do need more skilled tradespeople. Rowe seems to be an up-and-coming spokesman for the working folks who keep our country running (and a well-known truck brand). As a professor for the past 10 years, I can fully agree that not all college students should be there...middle managemnent is not in their future and they could achieve greater job success working in a hands-on trade. Some of my greatest job satisfaction came during that life period when I maintained mainframe computer systems...if something did not work and you got it back on it's job, there was a real sense of accomplishment--instant gratification.

    • StephanieBCrosby profile image

      Stephanie Bradberry 7 years ago from New Jersey

      barbergirl28, the problem is not with students struggling but higher education institutions giving students who do not really care to be there or non-A students As and empowerment by undermining the decisions and truth about certain students. As a result, there can be grade inflation, plagiarism that is essentially okayed by the administrations despite hard evidence, etc.

      I would rather have a class of students that may not be up to par but are willing to try and care than a class full of A students that are really not for whatever reason and do not take the course seriously.

    • barbergirl28 profile image

      Stacy Harris 7 years ago from Hemet, Ca

      Interesting perspective. I am not a teacher so I guess I have never thought of the ability for people to pass a class and what the reason was behind it. Not to mention, I have always been an A student so I never realized the difficulty for some who struggle to barely pass.

    • profile image

      Joey Lusk 7 years ago

      Interesting. I see a couple of weak points: you assume that a lack of reading comprehension is a biological lack, not an environmental issue. Global literacy rates do not suggest a biological lack. Learning to read is not that difficult when we're young, we have a whole section of our brain geared toward processing symbols (writing). It's much more difficult the older we get. Second, you assume a lack of suitability for college is biological. If a percentage of our student population gets pushed through the system, the older they get, the more difficulties they'll have stemming from that fundamental reading deficiency. Sure, you might be able to skate through "A Separate Peace" in HS with low level literacy, but you're screwed when it comes to writing a ten page paper on Moliere's use of malapropisms.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 7 years ago


      I agree with your basic premise that we need to redefine what high school and college degrees mean, and that people should have the chance to choose their career path early. However, . . .

      There are a couple of problems with your plan. While there is no doubt that more real education could be going on in primary and secondary school, and that much of what is done at the college level now could be completed in those years, it is important to keep in mind that schools are largely daycare institutions. They also have the added benefit of keeping people out of the work force for longer than necessary. So practically speaking, they could educate more quickly, as a place like Japan demonstrates. But this could create some unemployment issues as our population grows older and people work longer. Also, if far fewer people went to college, it would thoroughly mess up the university industry. People like me would then need to get real jobs. And fewer people would get the "self-esteem" that comes with a more impressive sounding degree.

      Christopher, in my earlier article "Academic vs. Vocational Education," I try to raise that same question. Too many people are wasting time in general education college classes when they would be better served getting and education at an earlier age that will help them enter the workforce. The only question, I guess, is how much of a need the economy of the future will have for tradespeople. It seems that we will always need mechanics, electricians, plumbers, and many other people with technical skills, but some may go the way of the traditional craftsman.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Is there not still a need for skilled tradespeople, who can learn their work through apprenticeship?

      Surely everybody doesnt need to go to college?

    • profile image

      Michael Ferguson 7 years ago

      I would go a step further. College has been proletariatized to the point that it no longer means anything useful. The average IQ of a PhD is about 123, about equivalent in your NBA analogy to 6'1". The average professor, according to Robert Hauser's data (which I kind of doubt) is 115 or about 5'11". The Cambridge science faculty came in at 126 or about 6'2". Anne Roe found the 64 most eminent American scientists of her time were a whopping 6'4".

      Why is that? It is a self fulfilling prophesy. If you make the breadth and depth of learning necessary for a PhD accessible to the average 123 IQ person, that is who you get. If you expected more, say a depth and breadth best suited for an IQ of 150 or about 6'6", then you would get a University faculty with that IQ. Of course, because of the range of comprehension pointed out by Leta Hollingworth and studied by Dean Keith Simonton, these professors would be best suited for teaching a student body with IQs between 130-145 with a mean of around 138 rather than the current mean of about 108.

      This, would limit a University education to just about 2% of the population. What would the rest do? Well, right now people get a High School Diploma, go to a trade school, get a two year degree, get a four year degree or go to grad school. Maybe we need a few more levels suited to different abilities and realistic life goals. My argument would be that those 2% should be the grad school. University degrees would be for the next 15% or so with aspirations toward intellectual, professional, business or political leadership. The mean IQ of this would be around 123 or that of current PhDs. The instructors would have characteristic IQs of around 140, i.e. graduate degrees.

      The remainder of the population would go to vocational schools. The notion would be that High Schools would render a culturally literate graduate and then post Secondary education would be geared toward training for a profession. Compared to what we currently have, High School is woefully inadequate and post Secondary education wastes a lot of energy trying to teach young adults things that don't interest them, they don't need, won't use, in fact, won't remember. For example, in order to get a degree in accounting, you need to take at least one quarter of calculus. I guarantee you that not one in ten could perform the most basic differential two years out of school. What is the point?

    • StephanieBCrosby profile image

      Stephanie Bradberry 7 years ago from New Jersey

      Freeway Flyer, as an instructor too, I follow some of your same sentiments in the last section of your article. After a while you can determine what kind of student "so and so" is going to be, like the one who vigorously answers questions the first few sessions and then never returns. You do end up realizing that the standards of basic competency for some institutions undermines a lot of what qualified us a few years ago.


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