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Schooling is More than Passing Tests

June 11, 2013

David Brooks’ column today, “The Solitary Leaker”, describes the lone wolf personality of Edward Snowden, the infamous “leaker” of NSA secrets. In the opening sentences, Brooks describes Snowden as follows:

From what we know so far, Edward Snowden appears to be the ultimate unmediated man. Though obviously terrifically bright, he could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school. Then he failed to navigate his way through community college.

Later in the essay, he decries the state of our culture and the way technology is contributing to that trend:

Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, (Snowden) appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.

If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

So… how did someone “terrifically bright” with no HS degree and an inability to “navigate his way through community college” get a high paying job with maximum security clearance? Why he passed a test! Government agencies have more faith in tests than they do in degrees, especially when they are looking for individuals with narrow technical skills. The saga of Edward Snowden should be a cautionary tale for those who believe that passing tests is the best means of measuring preparedness for the work force or for higher education. If schooling is reduced to passing tests, we’ll see a lot more loners like Snowden.

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