24 May 2007

Superior performance is "due to practice"

It is important, in fact central, to the modern ideology to believe that the individual is infinitely malleable by society. Perhaps this is because the driving force of modern society is its desire to destroy all individuals who are in any way perceived as ‘superior’.

It follows that ‘education’ in the modern world must be antagonistic to able individuals. As I have pointed out before, if you wish to ‘refute the supposition that top achievers possess extraordinary talent or aptitudes that allow them to outpace their less fortunate counterparts’, as the website of Florida State University puts it, then if a person appears likely to provide evidence to the contrary, they must be deprived of opportunity — as I was throughout my ‘education’, continued to be afterwards on account of lack of paper qualifications and any way of earning money, and still am being. My life was ruined at an early stage of the development of the Welfare State, but the ideology was already then clearly present and quite highly developed.

Whenever I was being prevented from doing something that I wanted and badly needed to do, it would be made to depend on my asserting something about my having some specific level of ability, usually ‘being a genius’ (genius undefined) or being ‘better than everybody else in some category of persons’. Opinions of this sort had not entered at all into my considerations about the desirability of doing whatever it was, but it was an effective way of blocking any further presentation of my reasons for wanting to do it — not that any such presentation would have had the slightest hope of success. Thus, to quote the headmistress of the deplorable Woodford High School, which I had wanted to leave at the end of the first day, and not expected to be opposed by my parents in doing so, ‘It would not be fair to treat her as a genius before she has proved that she is one.’

Now, of course, the wish to assert that there is no such thing as exceptional ability is much more explicitly expressed, although it has been influencing everyone in the educational and university systems for over 60 years. Consider the great enthusiasm which is expressed for the views of the well-paid and statusful Professor K Anders Ericsson. (Article here, found via Stumbling & Mumbling blog; my comments in square brackets; italics mine.)
Widely acclaimed as the torchbearer in the Expert Performance Movement, Ericsson's ascent to superlative status is buoyed by his contrarian [?] view. His research refutes the conventional wisdom and everyday supposition [not any longer, surely] that the top achievers among us possess extraordinary talent or aptitudes that allow them to outpace their less fortunate counterparts. Ericsson's work tells the world that, in fact, there is no mysterious genetic hard-wiring for greatness, no intrinsic tendency for talent and no natural high-performance endowments. ...

With the November 2006 release of "The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," Ericsson led a team of researchers that produced this first-ever collection of academically reviewed studies of expertise and expert performance. The seminal [?] work received enthusiastic reviews and critical accolades in the academic and mass media alike.

Ericsson’s work purports to prove that there is no such thing as innate ability, and the enthusiasm with which it is greeted demonstrates how fundamental to the modern ideology (the new religion of collectivism) is the destruction of the concept of the individual.

Actually his work does not, and could not, prove any such thing. He has paid a good deal of attention to activities involving motor skills, such as sports and the playing of musical instruments. It certainly does not seem likely that a person will excel at such things without a lot of practice, but that does not prove that anyone could reach the same level. I am, I imagine, below the average in ability to play games, and although I can slowly improve by practice (at playing squash, for example) to something approaching a normal level of performance, I would never expect to be able to perform well. There is some component of aptitude that I do not have, although my mother did. She was a natural athlete, captain of most games at school. She had medals for swimming and, until I was born, played hockey for the county. My father, on the other hand, was unsuited to games. My mother said that people laughed at him when he ran.

In games-playing aptitude I would seem to have inherited more of my father’s genetic endowment than my mother’s.

Even if Professor Ericsson has included leading ‘intellectuals’ or ‘academics’ among his experts, that is a population consisting of those who, like himself, have found it possible to rise to socially-recognised prestigious positions in modern society.

Demonstrating that a good deal of practice and conscientiousness has contributed to their position as recognised experts does not, and cannot, rule out the possibility that other, less quantifiable, factors may be present. (One factor that is very likely to be present, as in Ericsson’s own case, is an ability to tolerate the modern ideology and to bring one’s own thinking in every area into line with it. A predisposition to do this might have genetic determinants.)

No, according to Ericsson, there was no special genetic aptitude present in the case of Mozart. He just put in a lot of practice at an early age.

The type of logic being invoked is rather like the lines of argument unfortunately adopted in many modern court cases. Did someone kill his/her babies/parents? He/she can only claim innocence if medical or psychological ‘experts’ are prepared to agree that there is a more plausible culprit in the form of a recognised medical condition or an alternative murderer with the right sort of personality and motivation. Provided there is a good alternative story (or one considered ‘good’ by socially approved experts) the person may be declared innocent.

Similarly, we can produce an alternative explanation of outstanding achievement in terms of practice. Maybe practice alone is enough to account for it. It is certainly not possible to prove that any other factor is present, and so (thus the modern mind works), since this is the most socially acceptable story, we are justified in asserting that there is no other factor in the situation. To quote Ericsson, ‘With the exception of the influence of height and size in some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body has been shown to constrain an individual from reaching an expert level’.

Ericsson, who grew up in Sweden, completed his Ph.D. in psychology from University of Stockholm in 1976, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship at Carnegie-Mellon University. After a 12-year tenure at University of Colorado at Boulder, which included a two-year stint at the Max-Planck Institute for Human Development and Education in Berlin, Ericsson joined the FSU psychology faculty in 1992 as the distinguished Conradi Scholar, the first endowed chair in the College of Arts & Sciences.

"Dr. Ericsson was critical to launching a doctoral degree program in cognitive psychology," says Janet Kistner, FSU department chair, clinical psychology. "His presence enabled us to recruit some outstanding cognitive psychologists to join our faculty, as they were eager to have opportunities to interact with Ericsson and happy to be part of a developing program in expertise."

Lucky Professor Ericsson. How I envy him his status, salary, and expanding opportunities. Just what I need myself, continue to suffer from the lack of, and could make good use of, but have not yet been able to get.

You see the great enthusiasm for endowing academic institutes in which well-paid and socially statusful people can energetically produce work which is of little informational value in itself, but which may appear to an uncritical mind to support the modern drive to destroy individuality.

If the funding being devoted to the development of Dr Ericsson’s programme in expertise were to be deflected to my incipient independent university, which is being kept as inconspicuous and unproductive as possible by financial deprivation, some really progressive research might be done and at the least a few books expressing suppressed points of view could be published.