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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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