Why do we appear to have fewer high verbal achievers than math achievers? I think Murray and Herrnstein were correct when they wrote that “a politically compromised curriculum is less likely to sharpen the verbal skills of students than one that hews to standards of intellectual rigor and quality” annd that “when parents demanded higher standards, their schools introduced higher standards in the math curriculum that really were higher, and higher standards in the humanities and social sciences that really were not”. (Bell Curve, page 432-433) Without question, we have lost a couple generations of cognitively able students who weren’t given the opportunity to really achieve to their fullest capability, and we stand to lose a few more.
But I also wonder if verbal intelligence is less understood and consequently less valued. If one is “good at math”, there’s a logical progression of courses to take, problems to solve (or spend a lifetime trying to), and increasingly difficult subjects to tackle–and plenty of careers that want them. But if one has a high verbal intelligence without good spatial aptitude (which seems to be necessary for higher math) it is often described as “good at reading”, a woefully inaccurate characterization of high verbal intelligence—and then what? Apart from law, there aren’t nearly as many clearly defined career paths with a wide range of opportunities for all temperaments and interests. Most of the ones I can think of involve luck and driving ambition just to get started (journalism, tenured academia, political consultant).
For a good twenty years or so, people with high verbal skills who were indifferent at high-level math went into technology. It’s hard to remember now in the age of Google and after the heyday of corporate computing, but IBM and mainframe shops were filled with bright people who had degrees in history and English and humanities who just “didn’t like math” but were excellent programmers. I routinely worked in shops where all the expert techies making six figures came from non-STEM majors. But that time appears to be over.
Of course, doing anything about this lack of clearly defined career paths for smart folks with less spatial aptitude would involve acknowledging it’s a problem, and I might be the only one who thinks it’s a problem.
Presumably, it's easier to raise math test scores in school than reading test scores, since reading scores depend heavily on how much reading the students do out of school. Still, nobody seems all that interested in trying to figure out how to improve our children's advantages in English. It's almost like we think it's unfair to the rest of the world that we speak English, so we should have our children bash their heads in to compete with Asians on the culturally level playing field of math. That strikes me as a noble but stupid response.
This notion first dawned on me in the 1980s when I noticed a London-based firm called WPP, run by a former Saatchi & Saatchi executive named Martin Sorrell, started buying up advertising agencies and other marketing services firms. While Britain seemed economically down and out back then, it struck me that they still were better at English than we were, and that had to be worth something in an increasingly English-speaking world.. Today, WPP employs 158,000 white collar workers around the world and even owns a large fraction of all the lobbying firms in Washington D.C., Democrat and Republican.