Revelations of Bias and Its Brethren

Good morning. I’d love to have a conversation with you over coffee this morning, but I guess this blog post will have to do.


I was biased in favor of students of the liberal arts as far back as the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even earlier, I suspect my favoritism guided my perception of the world around me; and the people in it. A couple of recent email exchanges with a woman I hired back then triggered that recollection; that memory that I was inclined toward hiring people whose educational background appealed to me. It wasn’t just their educational background, of course. Education was simply a bit of evidence, often unreliable, that their worldviews and their personalities were good fits with mine.

The emails in question began with one I sent, asking my former employee (who now lives in Iowa) for her perspective on a town in that state. Something about her response and our subsequent interchanges triggered my memory. I remembered using educational backgrounds, specifically degrees in English, as a screening tool when selecting prospective interviewees. And I remember how much better those interviewees who had that characteristic seemed to fit with my personality than did others who were just as well educated in other fields or were otherwise talented and experienced. I hired the woman I recently asked for advice as much for her personality and intellect as for my confidence that she possessed the necessary editorial and writing capabilities. I hired others on the basis of similar feelings of confidence about how well they fit.

Since then, I’ve come to realize degrees simply were screening tools. And, as I said, they were often unreliable tools. But I used them in the absence of interviewing experience. Over time, my interviewing skills evolved so that I was able to discard educational attainment as evidence of intellectual depth. I discovered that life experience, intellectual curiosity, and raw intelligence were much better predictors of both job performance and personality fit. Formal education, it turned out, did not matter much. “Uneducated” people often had far deeper intellectual capacity and richer mental breadth than their educated counterparts. Gradually, over time, I began hiring “English majors” who had never been to college but who were far more intelligent and much more interesting that mass-produced educational clones.

I admitted, in my introductory paragraph, my bias toward “students of the liberal arts.” I did not say “graduates with liberal arts degrees.” Even though I still use degrees as potential clues about intellect, I put less faith in formal education than in knowledge. There’s a widening gulf between people who are knowledgeable and those who possess formal education. The latter too often are lacking in the former.  Still, liberal arts degrees served as sometimes-reliable yardsticks.

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.

~ Dorothy Parker ~

The woman with whom I recently communicated was an excellent employee and a friend. Though it has been many years since we might have considered one another friends, we stay in touch occasionally and I still hold her opinions in high regard. And it was her degree, back then, that got her in the door. Similarly, it was another interviewee’s Master of Arts degree in English that prompted me to interview her. There have been others. I favored liberal arts majors to business majors and people who majored in more technical fields. When interviewees had no formal degrees I could use as convenience screens, I explored their interests in literature and social issues; and their facility with language.

So, what’s the purpose of all this? No purpose, really. Only a randomly-triggered memory that unearthed a bias about my own biases. I have dozens of them; maybe even more.


I both admire it and am skeptical of its value. I’ve still not quite resolved that ambivalence. On the one hand, my late wife’s Ph.D. was testament to both her extraordinary intellect and her consuming dedication to achieving a major goal. But I’ve met other people whose Ph.D. degrees masked their unyielding stupidity. Yet I’ve met incredibly intelligent people who did not finish high school, much less go on to obtain impressive terminal degrees. Two quotations address at least part of my ambivalence about formal education.

I didn’t get a high school diploma. I really didn’t have much of an education, which left me open to educating myself throughout my life, without the limitations on intellectual curiosity a formal education can impose. I followed what interested me.

~ Elayne Boosler ~

And this one that shows contempt for formal education, at least as practiced in his day.

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.

~ Albert Einstein ~

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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5 Responses to Revelations of Bias and Its Brethren

  1. David, there’s no doubt that determination is a key factor in potential success. Maybe you’re right that it is the strongest one. But I would argue that, even with the strongest determination, without raw intelligence and deep curiosity, even the most determined are unlikely to achieve true knowledge. Instead, they may stick it out and become “educated,” but they will remain dull in comparison to their more curious and intelligent contemporaries. I do not discount the value of degrees, including advanced degrees, but I do not value them as highly as I once did. My degree means to me that I was willing to “stick it out.” Pursuing it enabled me to obtain considerably more knowledge than I had beforehand. But…you know the rest…

  2. Thanks, Meg; I am glad you found the post thought-provoking.

    Marilyn, thanks for your comments, too. I agree with your brother. I think common sense, though, arises from a person’s early upbringing or, in too many cases, being ignored and neglected by people who don’t understand the value of critical thinking skills. Critical thinking, early on, sprouts from the seeds of intellectual and emotional challenges.

  3. kozimeg says:

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post, John.

  4. Marilyn Matzek says:

    Hi John, Your article reminded me of a conversation that I had some years ago with my brother. He did hiring for government NAVAIR positions. He and I both grew up on an Iowa farm. He told me that he would hire a graduate from the midwest with less education quite often, than one who had advanced degrees. He said he could spot common sense a mile away. He said that you can’t teach someone who is only book smart, but no common sense, nearly as well, as some one who has common sense, but is willing to learn. I’ve always remembered that conversation.

  5. davidlegan says:

    Of course, curiosity is an important determinant of potential for success – possibly it indicates an open mind. One would not seek out information unless one was prepared to use that information to form their opinions and deepen their wellspring of knowledge. I think, however, that curiosity is not the strongest indicator. THAT honor must be reserved for DETERMINATION. Perservence. The ability and desire to “just by god finish what I started.” Educated or not- curious or not- nothing stops a person who just keeps on a-coming. And that, I have always maintained, is the tangible value of the “terminal degree.” The degree holder FINISHED!

    I hired, trained, and mentored hundreds of aspiring real estate agents. Intelligence, curiosity and an open mind were all factors in their success. Carol A was not particularly smart or curious. She did not seek knowledge for it’s own sake. But when her car broke down, and she took a city bus (with two bus changes) to a beginner agent training class, I knew that she would be successful, and she was.

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