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21 August 2008

Unintended learning objectives

We have recently had several occasions to ponder the unintended higher order effects that seem to be cascading from academic intelligence studies programs. These chances have come as a new cohort of students inevitably begins to join the workforce from the ’08 classes (at least at those institutions where a graduating class is still measured primarily by spring year group), and as a number of the previous years’ students begin to emerge from the initially overwhelming stages of integration into the community, during which time they were typically near invisible amongst the press of current matters far more serious.

It is usually a good thing to meet a newly minted graduate from any of the intelligence studies programs across the country – and particularly from one’s own institution - as they tend towards an enthusiasm that inevitably and infectiously refreshes one’s own commitment to the mission at hand. In a small but distinct way, it is easy to see in many of these recently graduated students the echo of one’s own early entry into the profession. This is indeed a transferable thing, no matter how one came to the field, for we have seen the dynamic at work even in those for whom intelligence was (as it historically has been) the furthest from the first thing an individual considered as a career path. But intelligence as an activity and a profession has always tended to enmesh those suited for its demands, especially those that spent time as a square peg in other environments – and those individuals are often the first to recognize the same qualities in others. Upon such a dynamic is the entire mentorship structure built, and indeed, as is the nearly feudal system of career progression that marks the professional guilds of the community.

However, we have been disturbed by a marked trend observed in such recent encounters – observations which are reinforced by similar reporting from others of great insight and independent accomplishment in the field. A far too high percentage of these students seem now to be emerging from the sheltered cloister of their institutions bereft of key competencies that one would expect from an entry level intelligence professional, yet implacably infected with a degree of arrogance that is simply breathtaking in its scope and ignorance. And in a profession whose practitioners are not often noted for their humility, this is surely something indeed.

We thus take well Megan McArdle’s recent comments on the perils of graduate education. To her scope we would also add undergraduate education focused intensely on the same subjects. (For unfortunately, the great shame of too many intelligence studies graduate programs is that they offer little different from the same courses taught to undergraduates, compressed into a far shorter dwell time. And while graduate students may in some cases come to the task armed with better core skills – among them ordinary research and basic writing – as well as a presumed level of experience and maturity, the decline of the university system does not always assure this is true.)

The new graduate student, bolstered by the opinions of their professors, tends to become extraordinarily indignant at the notion that anyone would challenge them. Since no one without a graduate degree could possibly have mastered the requisite knowledge, disagreement becomes a sign of willful malice. They stride forth confidently into arguments with professionals armed with the three books they have read on the topic, the opinions of their professors, and enough arrogance to power a high speed monorail between Moscow and Vladivostok. That's when they get their asses handed to them. Even worse, they are often too dumb to recognize this has happened; at the nadir of the disease, they are simply constitutionally incapable of recognizing that a slot at a good school is not the same thing as omniscience.”

We have struggled to characterize the conceits which plague more than a few particular members of these newer generations, in the hope of diagnosing the source. This has proven remarkably difficult to do, not least for the sheer variety of ways in which their hubris seems to manifest. Given that we are perhaps among the most non-denominational of participants in a number of the ongoing debates over current controversies in the community, it is nonetheless disturbing to see so many points in which new professionals deviate from the most basic principles of the craft, while at the same time proclaiming their genius loudly in a most unseemly and self aggrandizing fashion. Unfortunately, we suspect that this is in many cases largely the result of many of these students never having truly learned first principles. In a subset of these cases, the blame may not even lie entirely with the student, given that there is more than anecdotal evidence that many of the foundations of intelligence as a professional activity are simply not now being taught (although blame for lack of humility can certainly be fairly apportioned, even if it is to some degree an inherited trait).

This is perhaps a seasonal disorder, and we could merely wait in hope it shall soon pass. Certainly, it is a disorder in which seasonal changes highlight the observable impacts. But we fear that the symptoms worsen year after year in the nascent intelligence studies academia. There are undiagnosed tumors in the body, and the warning indicators are growing clearer. We do not yet despair, but fain would see the physicians soon attend to their own house.

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