You might need to look up two things before getting the gist of this article. You will need to look up the film “Idiocracy” where our IQ as a species gets lower and lower the further into the future we go. You will also need to look up “The Pygmalion Effect”, but only to gather more information on it as I will give a brief review here. Basically the Pygmalion Effect is where a student’s capabilities rise to meet their teacher’s expectations. For example if a teacher is told that a particular student is potentially genius material, then the teacher’s behaviour towards the student leads to the student performing far better than had the teacher not been given the (possibly false) information. What has any of this to do with the price of fish?

I taught at University level for 23 years. For the first 5 years I didn’t notice much change in the general capabilities of the new intake, but in the following 18 years I noted a monotonic drop in capability. Did anything happen at the end of those first 5 years to precipitate this? On reflection, I realise that yes, we allowed an “Inverse Pygmalion Effect” to gain hold in our educational system. This is how it got introduced.

Bums on seats means money in the Bank for the University, so the last thing the University wants is failing students who don’t cough up the full 3 or 4 years of tuition fees. Now here’s a problem, The Government wants around 50% of school leavers to go to University, for several reasons, none of which are actually for the students’ benefit. Firstly it keeps them off the streets for a period of time, especially important when jobs are in short supply and the last thing you want are hordes of disgruntled unemployed kids roaming the streets. Secondly you get a nice income stream from the tuition fees which is a great wheeze considering that when I went to University I actually got a Government grant which paid towards my keep. However, I digress, the point is you need to maximise the numbers of bums on seats for the 3 or 4 years of the course, given that you are now (by taking on 50% of school leavers) accepting more of what might be called the less intellectually capable along with the more gifted. You are clearly going to have a bigger “tail” of poorly performing students at the bottom end of the class (despite the average “A”-level scores increasing year on year) and somehow you have to accommodate this tail. How do you do this?

Well in the case of my University this is quite simple – you make it a rule that the class average score in exams has to be 50% – so the onus is on the course lecturer to set exams that will end up with this result. The incentive is that the lecturer gets a severe bollocking if his class results fall significantly outside the 50% average. Is that a problem? Well, perhaps it might not be a problem – provided the students didn’t know about it. But as the students DO know about it, what happens? Well they know that whatever they do there is going to be a 50% average score for the group, so they do the absolute minimum amount of work they feel necessary to pass. The lecturer has to “dumb down” the course to accommodate the lowest common denominator AND he has to decrease the amount of material included in the course to allow the lower achievers to stand a chance of passing. Give the system a few years to sort itself out and you find a steadily decreasing capability in the students you turn out BECAUSE THAT IS BASICALLY YOUR EXPECTATION OF THEM!!

I am fully aware that the mathematics I was taught at “A” level around 1974 was of a lower standard than that taught 20 years earlier, and was of a much higher standard than that taught 20 years subsequently. The generation of the Idiocracy has been in the making for quite some time.

I am also aware that “The Pygmalion Effect” in the hands of a gifted teacher can work wonders. We had a rather genius teacher of mathematics at Oxford Polytechnic when I was there doing an HNC from 1973 – 1975. Now this guy introduced us to a mathematical technique early on in the course when he knew we wouldn’t understand much of what was going on. He said, don’t worry, we’ll come back to this again at the end of the course and it will all make sense. Your subconscious will turn it over for a few weeks and when we come back to it, you’ll see what it’s all about. Of course he was right and we were all pretty amazed. So this is a case of the teacher expecting higher than average achievement from his students, and getting it – it does work – but it takes a lot of guts, and a very good teacher to make it work. I’ll admit to never having the guts to try it out on my students. The experiment would not have met with much approval in my University anyway. What’s the point when all you’re trying to do is maximise the numbers of bums on seats?

So there you have it. This is why we are plunging headfirst into the Idiocracy. Does anybody out there have the slightest interest in reversing the trend??