Incidental Racism, Sexism, Class, and Other Forms of Unfair Prejudice
I wish to introduce and describe a concept which I will call "secondary bias" or "incidental bias" that artificially results in real disadvantages to certain groups even though no one necessarily intends or ever intended any kind of discrimination against the group or for any group to be disadvantaged. It occurs in education or educational institutions, as it does elsewhere. The way to eliminate this kind of bias is to see that the standards used to reward some groups are artificial ones, and to eliminate using them as a measure of achievement. This does not require trying to make or help the disadvantaged group improve their ability to pass certain tests, but to eliminate the tests because they are unnecessary and unjustified, or at least to stop bestowing rewards and advantages on those who are good at the activity being measured.
And I want to contrast this kind of incidental bias with real and serious disadvantages which are not the result of current bigotry, prejudice, or racial (or gender or class) bias or discrimination, though they may, in some cases, have resulted from bias that was either incidental or intentional. In many cases they have nothing to do, either in origin or perpetuation, with any bias at all. Eliminating these kinds of disadvantages is more difficult because it does require overcoming serious obstacles which cannot be eliminated or justifiably ignored.
There are, of course, people in education or in any other institution who are prejudiced against some group or other, whether they know it or not, but this paper is not about that kind of prejudice or discrimination. This is about a secondary or derivative kind of bias and discrimination that is incidental and artificial because it is based on a characteristic mistakenly believed to be important and unrelated to any particular person or group.
There also exists in education and elsewhere secondary or derivative bias which is intentional rather than incidental where (1) one or another group is purposely treated with neglect and then later said to be inferior because they have not flourished in a way that those with greater nurturing did, or where (2) performance in artificial activities is purposely chosen for reward because the favored group is known normally to be superior at those activities. But the main focus of this essay is that form of secondary bias which is incidental and natural, particularly in education.
The essay is being prompted by some recent works and news reports that discuss differential education achievement between males and females on the one hand, and between blacks and whites or other minorities on the other hand. As of this writing, in general black students do not do as well on the whole in school as do white students. This is not to say they cannot do as well as white students. It is not to say they are not as bright as white students. It is not to say that any given black student will do worse in school than any given white student. It is just to say that on average, black students do not do as well in school as white students.
I want to suggest that, apart from whatever current incidental or secondary fair advantage white students may have over black students -- even if caused historically and originally by vicious and intentional prejudice -- many difficulties blacks have in schools results in large part from an incidental bias in the system which gives certain urban and suburban white students an unfair advantage over them. But more importantly I want to examine the concept of what constitutes an unreasonable systematic bias as opposed to a reasonable systematic difficulty which causes a disadvantage that needs to be addressed and remedied by communities, but which does not constitute or result from an unreasonable current bias. In other words, I want to distinguish between a fair handicap or disadvantage from an unfair one, for not all difficulties for any cultural group result from current, continuing overt or incidental bias or prejudice. Both kinds of handicaps and disadvantages need to be minimized or eliminated but the way to eliminate unfair handicaps or disadvantages is very different from the way to eliminate fair ones.
I have written elsewhere about different concepts of fair opportunity, and I will not repeat that here. What I wish to do instead is to examine whether typical curriculum and instruction in schools puts groups of students at a serious disadvantage, and if so, when that might be fair or reasonable as opposed to when it might be neither. I believe that minorities (and others, such as economically or otherwise socially or culturally disadvantaged individuals) suffer in school from incidental biases, but they also suffer from educational disadvantages that are not based on current bias, and which need to be addressed and overcome. Moreover, the incidental biases do a disservice to all students, not just these students, but they harm the students against which they discriminate in an additional way from just the way they harm other students.
Incidental or Secondary Bias
To help explain this, consider the following examples, from sports to begin with, for it is easiest to discuss these points and make them clear using sports or games. I once had a tennis buddy who used to beat me almost every time we played. He was younger and faster than I, and he ran a few miles every day, and I did not. I was not in bad shape, but I did not have the long distance running endurance he had. That kind of endurance was not necessary, however, to play two or three sets of singles tennis well. He also had, at that time in our lives, a much more burning desire to win our sets in tennis than I did. I wanted to beat him, but I did not have the strong competitive spirit that I had when I was younger and hated to lose, and he still had more competitive "fire" in that way than I did. He was never ungentlemanly in any way, either on or off the court, but you could tell when crucial points were on the line, he would "mentally turn up his game" an extra notch in a way that I just could not do any more. I was not as interested in winning as I was in playing certain kinds of shots well, even if they were not the safest or best shots to try to hit during the match. But we were not a total mismatch in ability. Most of our sets were 6 - 4 or so. They were not blow-outs. Typically we would be tied at 3 - 3 or 4 - 4. Then he would win a crucial game that I could not recoup.
It is entirely possible, I suppose, that had he wanted to he could have won all our sets 6 - 0, but that seems doubtful because during most points we seemed pretty evenly matched, and there were some games where we each played better or worse than usual. Also, he did not seem to want to exert the kind of effort it would have taken to win every game in a set, and I think I had enough competitive spirit left to exert whatever effort might have been necessary not to lose every game in a set or even very many games in a set. While I did not mind losing close sets to him, I would have worked much harder to keep from losing badly, and I think I had sufficient skill to make such effort pay off. While his greater running endurance did not seem to effect the outcome of our matches because I had sufficient endurance for tennis matches, his slightly greater speed or quickness was somewhat of an advantage to him because although we could each run down shots over most of the court, he could get to some that few of my previous opponents could, and he could win a few more points over the course of a set than I could by retrieving more shots than I could that required speed to reach and successfully return.
Nevertheless, none of this put me at an unfair disadvantage to him for a number of reasons. First, we both chose to play tennis and we chose to play against each other. We were not forced into playing tennis, nor were we forced to play each other. Second, nothing was at stake other than having a good time, getting a lot of great exercise, and winning the points, games, sets, and matches (although we did not really play matches as such, but just however many sets for which we both had time, energy, and interest). My losing sets to him was a natural result of his greater ability, but nothing hinged on it other than that he won more tennis sets than I did. Even if we had entered tournaments together and he always won, and thus achieved higher tennis status or even monetary rewards, it would not have been unfair in any normal sense of the word because all of that would have been voluntary on both our parts.
However, there would have been something wrong, I believe, if we had been made to play tennis and/or if some extrinsic reward was arbitrarily given the winner or punishment to the loser. If someone were to watch us play and fine the loser $50, there would be something unreasonable or unfair about that. Similarly perhaps even if someone were to watch and then give the winner $1000 or a prestigious job that had nothing to do with tennis, but was awarded solely on the basis of winning a set of tennis. It could perhaps be argued that giving the reward to the winner is not wrong, or is not as bad, as punishing the loser. But there are some kinds of situations where not receiving a reward is tantamount to being punished. For example, if we had to play tennis against each other for food or shelter or to earn a living in "winner-take-all" matches, the loser will eventually suffer harm, and not just simply not get ahead.
One more sports example. When I was in high school, the family of a classmate moved into our neighborhood, and they had a ping pong table. He and his brother and friends had played a lot, and they were good. I had never played but wanted to learn. At first I was terrible, but my friend was patient enough to keep playing me. My goal was to win a point or two at first. Then it was to win more points during any game than I had previously. For a long time, that was not very many points. But I steadily improved until eventually I was just barely losing and then finally I could win at least half the time. So although he had a head start on developing his talent for the game over me, apparently I had enough skill, with practice, to be able to match him. At the beginning, it was not that we were mismatched on the basis of raw ability, as I was with my tennis friend, but he was far superior to me because of earlier training or practice. He had previously had access to ping pong practice and instruction in it when I did not. Nevertheless, during the period of time in which he was trouncing me every game, it was not unfair in any way, because I was playing voluntarily and because I lost nothing other than the games we played. There was no other reward or penalty involved. There was no extrinsic reward or penalty.
It would have been unfair or somehow wrong, however, if someone had come along at that time and said "the winner of this next game can go to college and the loser cannot." That would have attached an unnatural and unrelated importance to the game that was somehow undeserved and unreasonable. And it seems worse to me somehow if it would have done it at a time when I had virtually no chance to succeed. In a sense it is unfair to give an extrinsic reward of any importance to the winner of some arbitrary contest, and it seems somehow more egregious when one person or group is essentially assured of victory, even if it is not in any way unfair that they are vastly superior at the contest in question because of greater natural or acquired talent, greater or earlier training or access, or any of a number of other factors, such as more fans, home field advantage, etc. Not having a chance to win at a particular activity is not in itself unfair or unreasonable. But not having a chance to receive a reward, or avoid a punishment is unfair and unreasonable if it is because an activity at which one is not (yet) as good as others is arbitrarily, and only arbitrarily, established as the criteria for reward and punishment.
There would be something even worse involved if the reason the particular contest was chosen to bestow a reward to the champion was only because it was known ahead of time who the champion would be. Suppose, for example, there are rules against nepotism, sexism, or racism, but it is known that the white nephew of a college board member is sure to win a ping pong match or tournament. If a college scholarship is established to reward the winner of a particular ping pong match or tournament, knowing that it will be given to a particular person or a person of a particular family, race, or gender, that scholarship award is just as sexist, racist, or the result of nepotism as would be just naming the nephew without the contest. That it is the result of an objective and fair contest does not thereby make it a fair result because the fair contest was chosen to bestow the reward unfairly.
Notice this is not the same thing as not being as good as others in an activity for which there are unavoidable natural consequences. If, in some situation, getting food requires speed to catch prey, or escaping death requires speed to avoid being prey, then your good fortune in being faster than I is not an unfair advantage. It is just an advantage. I am harmed by being slower, but I am not unfairly harmed. It may be open to question whether any given situation is one that has unavoidable natural consequences or not (e.g., you perhaps could share food you catch with me, or could help me escape death in a pursuit), but if there are, then it is not necessarily unfair for the stronger to avoid the fate of the weaker.
And this is not the same thing as not being as good as others in an activity that is crucial to some particular career. If one is not good at math, no matter what training one receives, then physics or engineering are normally not good career choices. But that is not a matter of incidental bias. It is a real obstacle which cannot justifiably be ignored or eliminated by fiat.
Now I am here to argue something far more important than whether, for example athletic scholarships to colleges are fair, or whether it is fair or an unavoidable natural consequence for a star athlete to attract the prettiest or most popular girls. What I am interested in is whether there is an unreasonable, unfair, or egregious incidental bias in the education system that is anything like any of the above cases. I will contend there is, but that not all group advantages in the educational system depend on unfair, unreasonable, or egregious bias. And while all the group disadvantages in the educational system may need community effort to overcome, the kind of effort needed to overcome fair advantages is very different from the kind of effort needed to overcome unfair advantages.
The problematic incidental bias that appears in education has arisen because schooling has become trivialized in a way that alienates many students who either do not have help at home or who do not have the kind of pressure from home that makes them learn in spite of their lack of interest in unnecessary material or material that should not be taught in the first place. The better solution to that problem is to make the curriculum and instruction better and more interesting, relevant, useful, and reasonable rather than trying to put Draconian, but nevertheless unsuccessful, pressure on students to learn unreasonable material just for a grade or a test score. At the same time, for difficult subjects and topics which really are important to learn, it is crucial to try to get better teaching and/or more mentoring help for students so that they can learn the difficult things which really are important. But mentoring should not be wasted on basically training or pressuring students to learn trivial and useless material.
It is a real problem, but not a bias in school when important and significant material is difficult for students who do not have help learning it, despite having good teachers in school. But it is an artificial problem and a significant incidental bias in school when material is only important for grades, has no real significance on its own, and rewards are bestowed on those who learn it because they have artificial help and incentive to do so. Students who learn such material get an extrinsic reward, but they are no better off intrinsically than the students who do not learn it, because the material is not worth learning in the first place.
Such material serves to weed out one group of students from another in a manner that is thought to be meaningful and important, but is neither. Unfortunately the students are separated into groups who receive unfair and unreasonable rewards and those who receive unfair and unreasonable penalties. This is the result of an incidental bias because the material is mistakenly thought to be important by those bestowing rewards in the system -- good grades first, and then the ensuing benefits awarded to those who achieve them.
To remedy the real and the artificial problems of those disadvantaged in schools, it is crucial to be able to distinguish meaningful material from that which is not meaningful, and to find ways to assist students without help at home learn the meaningful material. Such assistance could come from better and more inspiring teaching whenever possible, but it could also come from mentors. In some cases, parents or others can be taught to mentor children well (or better). Often parents know material but do not know good ways to teach it or to explain it to children. Anything that helps parents (or grandparents or siblings or neighbors) better teach material to children could be of great value. This, of course, does not mean that every teaching method that a teacher might teach a parent will be a good one. But the point is to try to find teaching methods and explanations that work well, and teach them to parents or other adults who might be helping students with their assignments or their general education and maturation.
At the same time, material which is not meaningful and which incidentally disadvantages students needs either to be eliminated from the curriculum or its punishing impact needs to be eliminated.
Let me use "parts of speech" as an example of something that causes, I would contend, an incidental education bias. For just one example of parts of speech, consider "prepositions". When I was in high school, and when my daughters were in middle school, we all had to memorize the list of prepositions. I think I had to learn 44 and I think their list contained 42. Words like "above, about, before, below, beneath, beyond, but (meaning except)" etc. I have memorized this list three times now in my life -- once for myself and once with each of my children, and yet I would be hard-pressed to name all the prepositions right now. Plus, it was never clear to me what makes "except" and "but (meaning except)" prepositions. They seem unlike the others. In the grammar books I and my children had, it did not give a definition of "preposition". Prepositions are generally relational words, often telling where or when something is in relation to something else (after, during above, below, near, inside, beyond, etc.), and a handy rule of thumb one of my teachers gave me was that prepositions were the words that made sense if you used them to fill in the blank in "_______ the wall", such as in saying "above the wall," "under the wall," "behind the wall" etc. But prepositions are not therefore adverbs, which themselves are words often stating where something is. And "during the wall" does not make sense though during is a preposition, and "climb the wall" or "climbing the wall" do make sense though climb and climbing are not prepositions. And prepositions also do not always tell where or when either, as in the sentence "The stewardess told us about the safety procedures in the event of a crash" or "The principal told the teachers what was legal and effective to do about the disruptive students."
Furthermore, one is not supposed to end sentences with prepositions, but that leads to various contrivances in order to avoid something that makes perfectly good sense and that offends the ear of only those who believe one should not end sentences with prepositions. In a famous case during WWII, Churchill had to admonish a War Department official who withheld necessary supplies from the front lines because an emergency request for them by a commander in battle ended with a preposition. Churchill sent the pretentious clerk the famous note "This is a situation up with which I will not put!" There is also the perfectly sensible sentence that ends in five prepositions: when a man chose the wrong book from the downstairs library to read to his daughter in her upstairs bedroom, she said "Daddy, what did you bring that book that I do not like to be read to out of up for?" Of course, that sentence has one gratuitous extra preposition in it by substituting "what for" for "why". But even if we eliminate that and put the "up" in an equally natural place, we would still have "Daddy, why did you bring up that book that I do not like to be read to out of?" which is a perfectly intelligible sentence.
Now there may very well be some use for knowing there are prepositions and how they might appear in a sentence, but I do not know what that is. Surely one does not need to be able to name all the prepositions in order to be able to use them or to write well or to speak clearly. Nevertheless, I had to learn them in an Ohio school in the late 1950's and my children had to learn them thirty five to forty years later in Alabama schools. We each wanted to get good grades in schools, so we each memorized the list. I helped them memorize the list after I relearned the words. We practiced them while driving to school and other places and made a game out of it. But if you have students who are not concerned with grades and who do not have parents who either stress good grades (as my parents did) or think it is fun to memorize and have their children memorize a list of 44 words for no apparent reason other than to pass a test or show off, those students are far less likely to get a good grade on the preposition test or even to pass it. Even if they speak and write well and use prepositions properly, they will show a low grade in their English course, if their grade is influenced by a test of how well they memorized the list of prepositions.
Now if that grade did not mean anything other than the student did not successfully memorize the list of prepositions, it would not matter. But getting a low grade on tests such as naming prepositions will lower one's English grade on one's report card, and getting a low grade in English signifies difficulty in communicating properly in the English language, even though that may not be how the grade was determined. The fact that grade may be a false indication does not help the student who has it. And oppositely, the fact a grade-seeking student might learn all the parts of speech and get good grades, does not mean he had or will ever have an interesting thought in his head or express it clearly or forcefully if he does. What is important in English language (as opposed to literature) courses in American schools ought to be that one can communicate clearly and effectively with others, not that one can know all kinds of facts about language over and above how to use it well.
Grammar is a contrivance for describing patterns in language, but it is not the same thing as language. And learning grammar is not the same thing as learning to speak or write well or to understand the written or spoken word. Those not motivated to find or learn contrived ways to describe what they are doing, or who have trouble finding patterns that do not make much sense to them, should not be penalized from going to college because they get poor grades or scores involving questions of grammar. It is tantamount to say that no one can play basketball on a school team who can not mathematically describe or compute the necessary parabola for making a basket from every place on the court. While a mathematical description is a way to compute an arc that will make a basket, it is not the only way to do it, and it is not the way basketball players do it. Perhaps Chaucer and Shakespeare could have named all the prepositions if asked, but if they could not, it would not have diminished the quality of their writing, and should not have been used as an indicator of either how talented they were or how much they deserved to study something they were interested in. "I'm sorry Geoffrey and William, but you may not attend university to major in English, because your grades and verbal SAT scores were too low."
I had an opportunity a few years ago to help a young woman study for an exam that supposedly determined whether she understood English well enough as a second language to be allowed to enter an American college. She was from the Czech Republic. She had studied English in school and spoke it amazingly well, with very little foreign accent. She had some difficulty, of course, with idioms, and she sometimes would use the wrong form of a pronoun or verb, or she would use a word incorrectly. But by and large she understood English extremely well and she could speak and write very well. In the Czech Republic she had graduated from college and had passed the test to be a licensed pharmacist. To become a licensed pharmacist in the U. S., however required that she take additional college courses here. Coaching her for the collegiate English language entrance exam, I ran into many of the same problems that I ran into helping my daughters with grammar. Many grammatical rules simply cannot be explained in a clear way, do not make sense, and have many, many exceptions if you give them any thought at all. Because this woman was an intelligent adult, it was extremely difficult to explain some of the rules of grammar in a way that did not have exceptions and that made sense. Every time I tried to explain a rule to her that was covered in the book, either she or I would think of an exception to it or a condition that needed to be added. If I gave her the grammatical rule, she would invariably then show me she understood it by applying it to something that fit the rule, but which turned out to be an exception. I would then have to say "No, it doesn't work for that sentence, because....." It was frustrating to both of us because she was looking for it to make sense and because I could not always make it make sense, because it didn't.
I finally decided that rules of grammar, at least for a language as (unsystematically) evolved and as complex as English, only work as an approximation, and they only can be applied well if you already know the language well enough to intuit in some rough way the patterns that the rules of grammar are trying to express.
And further in the case of the English as a second language exam, the test contained not only questions based on grammatical distinctions, but also difficult reading passages about which one had to answer questions within a time limit. Many of the long passages were about esoteric technical subjects such as astronomy or chemistry. They would have challenged any native English speaking adult. Not being able to answer many of the questions did not show one was somehow more challenged in use of language than the average English-speaking American who could get into college without taking this "language exam".
And it is not just the "soft" subjects such as English or grammar where these sorts of problems arise. The most recent disconnect between school subjects and what is important is the example of Peter Agre, co-winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who received poor grades in chemistry in high school (even though his father was a chemist) and who says that his biggest fear is now that his daughter will expect he can help her with her high school chemistry next year. He cannot because he did not learn it or does not remember it. He also said that there were many subjects in high school in which he did poorly.
Or consider the year spent in teaching students geometry and testing them on it. Few students can remember many theorems from their geometry course. Fewer can remember or reconstruct any proofs after any time has passed. And what is worse is that today, many students do not learn, and are not taught, that all the theorems are deductions from the original small set of propositions that are considered to be self-evident. One of the main rationales for teaching geometry is that it is supposed to teach deduction, but students today rarely even see that is what they are supposed to be doing. Most of them try to memorize proofs, if they have to learn them at all. They do not see them as deductions or derivations, but as recipes. They learn the proofs in some cases but do not see the logic or the reasoning behind the proofs. Arguably there are far better ways to teach students to reason well than to do it with as arcane a subject as geometry. And there are far more interesting ways to introduce to students the general "idea" of geometry and some of the most significant and useful geometric theorems, ideas, and relationships than to go one by one through a list of them for a year.
I have written extensively about teaching difficult concepts, and the mistakes teachers often make when trying to teach concepts. That is a real and serious problem in teaching and learning, especially when the concepts actually are important ones. It is not contrived and it is not arbitrary or artificial. Many concepts are difficult to teach well and to explain in a way that they can be understood and absorbed. It is a problem for any group of students. It needs to be solved by finding better ways to teach specific concepts, and by training more people (teachers, parents, mentors) to teach with the methods that work.
But it is quite a different and totally unnecessary problem to teach about things which are at best rough or intuitive contrivances and which do not have a clear purpose or need to be known. Yet much of schooling is filled with the latter, often at the expense of subjects or topics that would be far more useful and meaningful. Where this becomes a social rather than an individual problem is that some groups of students are far less likely than others to endure what it would take to learn those typical academic things which are unnecessary and purposeless just to receive a good grade or earn a high test score. If one is not trained (or socialized or indoctrinated) to learn meaningless material just for praise or for, what is almost the same thing, a good grade or a high test score, or if one is in an environment that negates such training (or indoctrination) about academic topics, one is simply not as likely to learn many of the unnecessary things schools teach.
Children reared in environments where there is practice and praise given for acquiring factual knowledge, and/or solving artificial problems, outside of any useful context, probably have a better chance of doing well in schools that grade on the acquisition of meaningless knowledge ("factoids") or knowledge in isolated, meaningless contexts, than do children brought up in environments that do not train them to sit still quietly doing and learning meaningless things just for an extrinsic reward. And while children who do not do well in school are certainly not immune from learning meaningless things mistakenly held in esteem in their environment (video games, bad pop music lyrics, drugs, total preoccupation with sports, etc.), they are not likely to learn the same sorts of academic skills in that environment that schools reward. And while students who do well in school are not immune from picking up bad environmental traits, behaviors, and interests, they still tend to be indoctrinated to learn at least some of the academic skills schools reward, even if they do not care about them very much.
An additional and very serious problem arises from teaching meaningless material to those not amenable to studying it. They will often not then distinguish or try to distinguish between meaningless material that is difficult and important material that is difficult. It will all be lumped together as "weeding out" obstacles put in their path by those who attach artificial importance to the legacy of "dead, white, European males." It is important to be able to show students, in a way they can appreciate, why important material which may be difficult is universally important. It is also important to try to teach it in ways that can be absorbed and assimilated, and in ways that give students the feeling they are making progress or will be able to.
I believe that if one feels one is making adequate progress, or is confident one can make adequate progress, in learning something (as I did with my neighbor in regard to learning ping pong), one will normally persevere longer than if one feels one will not succeed no matter how much work one puts in. Confidence in learning is a huge motivational factor. I suspect that besides the suspense or competition of a video game itself, many video games "hook" kids by being constructed in a way that lets them make progress toward improvement almost each time they play. Kids feel they can improve. And although the sport of golf may not allow for progress past a certain point, it provides the illusion that one will do better tomorrow, as well as the satisfaction from time to time of a few good shots that "bring one back". As has been said about many things people pursue with a certain amount of unsuspected futility, golf is the triumph of hope over experience. Golfers often have an undeserved confidence they can improve, but it is confidence which brings them back, and which motivates them to practice enough that some of them actually do improve.
Second, how learning it is regarded in by others in one's environment influences whether one will want to learn it, and persevere to learn it, or not. As already noted, even some of the worst school students show great ability when it comes to learning music lyrics, sports trivia, athletic moves, video game skill, and other things esteemed in pop culture. Many of those things are not readily learned unless one is well-motivated, in this case by the expectation or reality of peer acceptance or esteem. Golf, again, as a social game shows elements of this, as handicaps and betting come into play so that things can happen during a round of golf that make it a rewarding interaction with friends even if one's (or everyone's) overall score is not very good.
And third, one might be inclined to learn something difficult if one sees an ultimate point to it or use for it that seems either intrinsically interesting or extrinsically rewarding. If one is fascinated by something that requires knowledge of chemistry, one might be willing to study chemistry even though one does not find it interesting in its own right. If one thinks riding a bicycle will be really exciting, one might overcome one's fear of learning to ride.
Unfortunately many subjects in school are taught poorly, for no apparent point, in environments where the only apparent benefit is a high grade and the possible accompanying esteem (if that) of a teacher who is not particularly inspiring or whom one does not really care to try to impress. It is easy to see why students who then find it difficult, boring, and meaningless would not care or try to learn it if they also have no concern for grades, test scores, or teacher praise. When the material really is worthwhile, students who can learn for extrinsic rewards will eventually find that out after they have learned it. But those who are not motivated or trained to learn for extrinsic reward will not learn it well enough to ever see its potential value to them.
Unfortunately students who will learn for extrinsic reward also waste lots and lots of their time learning things that are really of no real value -- time they could have put to much, much better use. And just as bad, many students who learn things or who learn to do things for extrinsic reward from other people, learn early not to care about whether anything makes sense or not, or seems right or reasonable or not, so their reasoning skills and their sense of personal responsibility erode and deteriorate.
I believe it is really important not to spend much time teaching unnecessary, difficult, and contrived material, except to those who simply find it personally interesting in some way when it is perhaps introduced in a classroom as something people have noticed in the past and developed. And I believe it is important to try to show students how the important material is important, to make it as interesting as possible, and as readily able to be absorbed and assimilated as possible. This is important for all students to be able to learn the most they can, but it is particularly important for those students who are not brought up in a home environment or culture that encourages and fosters learning as a means to either meaningful praise or self-fulfillment from accomplishment -- particularly of the kinds of things taught in school.
I would contend there are many things taught in schools of an important nature, and many more, important things which should be taught but are not, while there are also many things taught which are of very little value. And there are many things taught which depend on having grown up in an environment, and having experiences, which are peculiar to particular groups or subcultures within society. In many cases where students perform poorly on certain kinds of tests, it is not because they lack intelligence or effort to learn the material, but because the wrong kind of material has been presented, or material has been presented in the wrong kind of way, or with inadequate cultivation by teachers, parents, and the community of the prior sorts of knowledge students need to be able to understand it. When students are then graded poorly in school because of their test grades in such cases, opportunities are closed to them which remain open to students who get better grades and scores. In those cases where the material tested is not intrinsically important or justifiably useful or meaningful, or the tests given do not measure important abilities or knowledge, students who perform poorly are at an incidentally biased disadvantage because of an exalted bias toward contrived material, test scores, and grades that is not justifiable.
It is difficult enough to try to educate culturally disadvantaged children about those subject with which they have little prior exposure or experience, without compounding the problem by teaching material that has no real value and is also difficult to learn, and then dispensing failing grades for tests on such material, and then dispensing opportunities and rewards based on those grades.
Moreover, if we taught more humanely and insightfully about more meaningful
aspects of history, literature, civilization, and social issues, disadvantaged
students would probably have far more to contribute to classrooms, and
would get far more out of their education, than those raised in a sheltered
suburban environment shaped by the values of the market place and of institutional
compliance. When culturally disadvantaged students are placed in
a college classroom, for example, that requires reasoning skills and/or
practical social experiences, they will often seriously outperform most
suburban students with far superior previous grades. Unfortunately
the k-12 process tends to weed out these students from being able to go
to a college or university where their thinking and reasoning skills and
attitudes would be cherished and nurtured. And college teachers instead
have to try to develop those skills in the very students who long ago abandoned
them in their quest for good grades on tests of their knowledge of senseless
things. It would better to eliminate the grading of senseless knowledge
and then try to help everyone learn the skills, facts, concepts, and ideas
which would really help them be successful and contribute meaningfully
to their communities.