Friday, August 05, 2005

A 'degree' of bias

On a trip to a northern beach resort with friends, I met an interesting young man.
He was polite, witty, engaged in intelligent discussion and despite his affluent urban background he had the humble demeanor of suburban folk.
In short, very likeable.

And then I learnt that, despite being 25 years old, he has yet to complete his secondary school education.
I was shocked.

On the way home and in a moment of honest soul-searching I realized that, had I known this information beforehand, I would have looked at this same pleasant person in a completely different light. I would have been thrown off by countless prejudiced preconceptions and in all probability wouldn't have been able to escape my bias.

I am sure I am not the only one to feel this way.
Put yourself in my place and I doubt you can honestly say that this would not have profoundly shifted your impression.

Why?

Why does education and schooling loom so largerly over our assessment of self-worth and that of others?
Why is a professor treated with more reverance than a person who never went to college?

I've been pondering this for a few days now and I have come up with a few theories so far, but none of them seem to complete the picture for me. These are the biases I could think of:
  1. Age

  2. School years are arranged by age. A 9 yr old school student has two years of knowledge, experience and general development over the 7 yr old. We learn to associate school years with life advancement. And we carry this forward with us into adulthood, even though this association breaks down in college and later on in our respective careers. But we continue to assume that those who have more academic knoweldge are 'ahead' of us and the bias remains.

  3. Intelligence

  4. Everyone is impressed by a master of difficult concepts or skills. Those who have earned degrees in admittedly irksome fields are assumed to be highly intelligent. So conversly, we make the unconcious assumption that those who have chosen less intelectually demanding careers or studies must have failed to qualify for anything 'better'. They weren't 'good enough' to be a particle physicist, we'd assume. We don't allow for personal preferences or interests, life-style choices or even financial constraints.

  5. Prestige

  6. Some careers carry an element of prestige around them and it is often arbitrary. Ok, an astronaut is obviously more skilled than a bus driver. Does this mean that a bus driver must be lacking profound depth of thought? A fashion designer is doted on, while a skilled seamstress is not. Maybe it is this presitge that certain careers seem to enjoy that biases us as well.


I am all for education and knoweldge.
I just don't see why we should judge people by their educatonal level or field of study.
Socially, these shouldn't matter as much as they do.

6 Comments:

Blogger Fouad said...

You raise a very valid point, Ramzi. I do think you're overreacting a little, though. You know that we perceive and understand the world through comparison and categorization. And rightfully so, since there's a statistical core to all things around us, socially, economically, scientifically, even at the very heart of matter physics. So assigning a certain object to a certain category, is not, in itself, wrong. If we do it, we will be right more often than not. The classification process is however, not a static one. And the specific category an element belongs to depends on an influx of new information that will either support or disprove the original premise.
What I'm tryingto say -with considerable difficulty- is the following. We are, for the most part, educated, intellectually sophisticated, (yeah classify me as cocky) individuals. And we, well, at least I, can do so much with senseless chitchat that mascarades as an actual informational exchange. So it's only natural for me to seek company that will cater to my specific and rather demanding social and intellectual standards. In all likelihood, what I'm looking for will be provided by people who have a similar educational background. So I will not judge, but I will select to either interact or not interact. It's like saying, equal but different. Again, the person you're describing was an exception. Most people aren't. We are all unique, I know, but the uniqueness is ony within general characteristics that are there that we can't really escape. Statistics are cruel, but they largely shape our lives. Am I making sense or did I go off on a tangent?

9:15 PM, August 06, 2005  
Blogger Ramzi said...

No I agree with you.
Educational background is but one of the parameters of social environment that influences our circle of acquaintances.
I was just pointing out that maybe we shouldn't let it prejudge our interactions, because we could miss out on otherwise rich relationships.

8:35 PM, August 07, 2005  
Blogger Delirious said...

Ramzi, your story reminds me so much of a story that happened to me: a few months ago I met a 25-year old guy on the internet, and we immediately clicked. He was extremely witty and made me laugh a lot. During the conversation, he asked me what I did for a living and I told him I was a translator, then, when I asked him the same question, he said: "I know you'll think I'm a loser, especially with your high level of education and all that, but I work in buildings (paint, tiles, etc.) and I'm trying to pass my Lebanese Baccalaureate [i.e. complete his secondary education] for the umpteenth time, but I really think this time is going to be it."
Frankly, I was taken aback at first, but he had been so interesting, and I had enjoyed our chat session so much that I told him: (after going thru pretty much a very similar thought process as the one you described in your post) "Hey, I'm sure you'll make it this time, you sound like an extremely smart person."
We had been chatting in Arabic (bass bi a7rof inglizi mitil halla2) so I had had no way of 'judging' his educational level based on his use of foreign language for example.
When I told him this, he was speechless at first, then he told me: "Listen, I'm interested in getting to know you better, because you're the only girl to whom I've said this and who replied to me in this way. Usually girls stop talking to me when I tell them what I do in life. May I add you on MSN?"
I dunno why exactly, but I said yes, and we chatted a couple of times on MSN but there was still something bugging me: he sounded too well-read to be the person he pretended he was, giving me parabols and proverbs I'd never even heard of. So when I confronted him, he confessed that he was a lawyer and he was tired of all the superficial girls who only talked to him based on certain 'external' factors and not on what really matters...the 'inside'.
Even though we became great friends later on, talking on the phone and chatting for hours, and eventually meeting, I never told him that I too had a bit of that prejudice in me, and I still dunno if I'd have continued chatting with him if he'd told me right from the start that he was still in high school and into painting and tiling...

9:13 AM, August 08, 2005  
Blogger Ramzi said...

Strange story Delirious, but yes the message is the same

Peter Jennings, anchorman of ABC, has died of lung cancer today. He was a highschool dropout too. Read it here

7:49 PM, August 08, 2005  
Blogger Tempest said...

I'm going to share a secret with you guys... I consider myself to be an intellectual (sort of). Very little of this knowledge came from my university education. I read, explored, questioned and discovered. Not because I was getting graded, but because I found it interesting.

Furthermore, In uni, I haven't learned ANYTHING that spectacular in the past two-three years. The morale, I think, is this:

Education gets you a degree that shows you can do some task or the other.

That's all it does. Everything else, all that makes you an interesting person, with potential and talent comes from how you build upon your basic education.

7:00 PM, August 09, 2005  
Blogger Tempest said...

And as for the bias, I think it's only normal, at least for Lebanon and the region... But living abroad, you quickly lose it because a lot of people read, a lot of people are at least marginally cultured and can interact with you on a variety of topics regardless of their education.

Sadly, that is not the case back home.

7:03 PM, August 09, 2005  

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