Competence, Not Mastery

Feminists argue (correctly, in my opinion) that laws against witchcraft were really about social control.  It was notoriously difficult to even define what a “witch” actually was.  Accusations were comparatively rare; successful prosecutions were by no means certain.  A witchcraft accusation, on this reading, was the community’s last-ditch effort to rein in a socially noxious woman when all other attempts at reform had failed.

Though less remarked (for obvious reasons), sodomy laws seemed to have had a similar function for men.  Unlike witchcraft, sodomy was precisely defined.  The penalties were harsher, too — witches might get off with penance; homosexuality was a death penalty offense in Britain until well into the 19th century.  But of course you’d search in vain to find someone actually executed for sodomy in modern Britain.  Here again, the point of the law seemed to be a last-ditch effort at reining in social deviants (with what everyone knew went on at English public schools, how could it be otherwise?).  Even the most famous sodomy trial, Oscar Wilde’s, wouldn’t have happened if Wilde himself hadn’t forced the issue — it wasn’t a “sodomy” suit; it was a libel suit, brought by Wilde himself.

The point of all this is that our forebears well understood a point we’ve forgotten: Black-letter laws are only to be invoked in extremis.  They were self-confident in their culture, so they were comfortable with the notions of illegal-but-tolerated (e.g. homosexuality) and legal-but-forbidden (prostitution).  We modern Americans, on the other hand, are nearly to mental North Korea — everything not forbidden is compulsory.  We can’t handle nuance.  We lack cultural self-confidence — indeed, refusal to make value judgments is just about the only principle of modern “morality.”  Our first reaction to anything we don’t like is to ban it, for everyone, everywhere (if we like something, we rush to social media to secure external validation of our preferences).

Worse, we’ve applied this to all areas of our life.  In education, for example, a high school diploma was — within living memory — regarded as a certificate of mere competence.  Having one meant you had the bare minimum of skills and training to be considered “educated” (and “educated” itself was never an unambiguous good).  Nowadays, of course, “passed” means “mastered.”  I have students saunter confidently into my upper-division university courses, certain they’re going to ace it because they got a C in “history” their sophomore year of high school.  When I point out that this is like assuming you’re going to ace vector calculus because you passed 9th grade geometry, it doesn’t compute…

….because, of course, they did pass 9th grade geometry, which means they know math.  All of it.  They were at grade level on their state-mandated NCLB exam, so “math” has been downloaded to their brains, Matrix-style.


This is the explanation for Millennials’ insolent, invincible ignorance.  If they don’t already know it, it’s by definition not worth knowing, because they passed the test.  There is nothing more to human knowledge than what’s on the NAEP test.  Is it any wonder they can’t grok things like the Second Amendment?


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4 thoughts on “Competence, Not Mastery

  1. Recusant

    On this God abandoned island the probability that any discussion about religion will have someone pointing out that “they used to burn heretics” as the very definition of the awfulness of religion is 1.

    When you – well actually me, in this instance – point out that people are still being punished, fined and imprisoned for their ‘bad thought’ today, the rejoinder is always, “but at least they’re not burned!”. Pointing out that we also do not hang people for stealing a spoon or transport them to the benighted penal colonies of America and Australia for helping themselves to the squires sheep either, their masterly rhetorical response is usually…..”Fuck off!”.

  2. Al from da Nort

    Re high school: I graduated in 1964, when the earth was still cooling. Even though at that time a HS diploma meant you were ready for semi-skilled employment, everybody with any work experience (and almost everybody had some) knew there was a lot more to learn on any job. A man could support a family on a semi-skilled job (i.e. factory work) in those days but only after a year or two’s experience and a raise or two and everybody knew that too.

    Alternatively, a HS diploma meant that you were trained well enough to start up the ladder into well-paying skilled work such as via an apprenticeship program or on-the-job-training. Everybody knew that getting your journeyman’s card or master’s license took several years and passing several stiff practical exams. *Then* you could get the boat you always wanted.

    The ~20% of us going on to college knew full-well that we had *a lot* to learn. A fear of failure was an excellent motivator. It’s hard not to blame the parents today if nobody knows this any more.

    As it is, many current HS grads need remedial work to even start up the economic ladder. You still need to know Geometry and Algebra II just to apprentice as a carpenter. You still need to know all that plus Trig and Solid Geometry to apprentice as an electrician or machinist. You have to be able to read the tech orders, etc.

    The military branch that I served in now does not bother to send recruiters to metro high schools: Their grads mostly can’t hope to finish tech school due to basic deficiencies in reading and arithmetic (not to mention obesity). Apparently nobody tells millennial the truth any more.

    Maybe you should consider a short snap quiz at the start of the semester. If they can’t hack the work you’d be doing them a favor to let them know right away.

  3. Jay Carter

    It’s amazing how many high school girls these day’s don’t know how to sew a button . . . how many high school boys don’t know how to properly insert a bit into a drill.

    It’s sad. Very sad.

    1. Nate Winchester

      I’ve said before I think a lot of problems have come from the loss of industrial tech in schools.

      Like in the gun debate, people seem to believe that smart guns or stopping manufacture would be effective like the weapon is some kind of magic wand. A little bit of metal work would quickly learn them that a gun is a pretty simple machine and it wouldn’t take much for people to make their own.

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