Saturday, February 18, 2017

I'll Show You the Life of the Mind

One of the more interesting American phenomena to me is the way many of the same people who pay lip service to equality and other all-American values will, at other times, glumly but complacently declare that confidentially, y'know, everybody isn't equal and we need to learn to abandon sentimentality and live with reality.  Those who take this position range from jingoes like the late Robert A. Heinlein to nice mainstream liberals like Christopher Hayes to intellectual leftists like George Scialabba.  Most recently I came upon a post by the blogger and academic Freddie deBoer, written in a familiar more-in-anguish-than-in-exaltation mode.  DeBoer has taken some good, brave stands, but here he fell on his face.  I'm going to quote from his post at some length because deBoer has taken down his blog, and I don't know if this post in another venue will remain available:
To me, the hard political question is the gap after the gaps — the question of what to do with differences in academic and intellectual potential after we have closed the racial and gender achievement gaps. What do we do with differences in academic achievement after they no longer fall along traditional lines of inequality?

Perhaps it’s easier to say that I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that hoary old bigotries about the inherent intellectual abilities of different groups are wrong, and though much work remains to be done, as a society we are increasingly coming to shared public understanding that this is the case. Black people are not less intelligent than white, women have no less inherent talent for science, Asian people do not have some sort of genetic superiority in math. Those ideas seem to have largely been discredited and discarded by thinking people, and for that I’m glad.

The bad news is that there now appears to me to be overwhelming evidence that there are profound individual differences in academic potential, that different individual human beings have significantly unequal likelihoods of ascending to various tiers of academic performance. Educational philosophy for centuries has assumed great plasticity in the academic potential of any particular student, that given good teachers and hard work, most anyone can reach most any academic pinnacle. And the case that I would someday like to make, that I have been tinkering with making for many years, is that this appears to be substantially untrue. Instead, it appears that in general and on average, human beings are remarkably static in how they are sorted relative to others in all manner of metrics of academic achievement. In education, with remarkable consistency, the high performers stay high, and the low performers stay low. And it seems likely that this reflects some complex construct that we might call academic talent, which whatever its origins (whether genetic, environmental, parental, neonatal, circumstantial, etc) is far less mutable than has traditionally been understood,

There are many, many things that are implied, and crucially not implied, if we imagine a world where different individual students possess profoundly different academic talents.
  • This condition is not rigid, certain, or unalterable; we live in a world of human variability, and individual students will always exist who start out low and go on to excel. There are undoubtedly many exceptions, in either direction. And in fact the degree of plasticity of outcomes itself is likely highly variable. The question, particularly from the standpoint of public policy, lies in trends and averages.
  • This condition may be a matter of strict genetic determinism, but it doesn’t have to be. Simply because a given trait is not genetic in its origins does not mean that it is inherently or permanently mutable. Environmental and parental factors are not genetic but neither are they therefore necessarily mutable.
  • This condition does not imply educational nihilism, a belief that teaching is pointless or learning is impossible. All students can learn, consistently over time, even as relative position remains stable. Indeed, I would argue that is in fact the reality in which we live.
  • This condition does not mean that inequalities in environment are not real, important, or a problem. Individual academic talent is subject to the influence of external forces like any other. Poverty, abuse, affluence, chance — all materially impact outcomes, raising the less talented and restricting the more talented, or amplifying privilege and disadvantage alike. The existence of talent does not imply the irrelevance of external factors, nor does the impact of those factors erase the reality of differences in talent.
  • This condition does not imply that our metrics are the correct ones, that the abilities and knowledge that we select for in our tests and schools are the only real, useful, or valid means of sorting human minds. It does not require use to believe in the wisdom or benevolence of our education system or economy. It only requires us to believe that the socially-designated, contingent abilities we have decided are worth rewarding are not equitably sorted or equally available to all.
  • This condition does not entail some sort of overall difference in the inherent value of different people. There are many more ways to be a good, worthwhile, positive person than simply to fit into our current Procrustean metrics for what makes you a good student.
  • This condition does not imply a conservative, you-get-what-you-deserve attitude towards economics. Indeed, I think it amounts to a powerful argument for socialism
So: good news and bad news, he's been struggling for years with the empirical facts, we have to leave behind romantic illusions and face the cold, hard but still potentially socialist music.

Myself, I don't see any news here at all, bad or good.  DeBoer anticipates that reaction:
This claim is strange in that it prompts both reactions that it is obvious, that “everyone knows” that different individual humans have different academic abilities, and reactions that insist it is offensive, undermining of human dignity, dangerous. What is clear, however, is that in the world of policy, the notion of fundamental differences in the academic potential of different individual students seems bizarrely ignored.
The first thing to notice here is deBoer's focus on "academic abilities."  Though he disclaims it in his bullet-point qualifications, he seems to take for granted that academic abilities are "the socially-designated, contingent abilities we have decided are worth rewarding," and that they the only abilities that matter.  I don't agree that "we have decided" these abilities are "worth rewarding," except in school, and the rewards they receive there are mostly of the gold-star, teacher's-pet variety.  People who excel in school are generally regarded ambivalently in our society; it's proverbial that book smarts aren't worth as much as common-sense smarts; and they are not necessary for worldly or commercial success; not even to get a job and do it well.  The most that can be said is that the years of schooling required to get many "good" jobs have increased over the past century, but this has little or nothing to do with the skills or knowledge those jobs require.  The same high school diploma that used to be a sign of unusual achievement and intelligence will now, maybe, get you a job at McDonald's.  And even that is more because schooling is intended to inculcate obedience, punctuality (the ability to regulate oneself by the clock), neatness (the ability to color within the lines), willingness to take orders, and tolerance of boredom, not the academic abilities deBoer is concerned with.

It's certainly true that "'everyone knows' that different individual humans have different academic abilities."  DeBoer says it's mainly "in the world of policy" that this platitude is ignored, but I'm not so sure.  I recently read the biologist Ernst Mayr's One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought (Harvard, 1993), and Mayr discussed the interesting problem that although individual variation is a pillar of Darwin's theory, scientists have often tended to ignore it, preferring to view populations as uniform; which, aside from being empirically false (as any naturalist could and did point out), rejects a crucial part of the theory they are using.  Ignoring individual variation in groups is a common, perhaps normal human trait.  It persists, I think, because it simplifies whatever question you're thinking about, but it also leads to false and often destructive answers.  Additionally, as I said, a remarkable range of people say, in public, things like "kids are not created equal," trying to give the impression that they are bravely saying the Unpopular Things that 99% of those in public life haven't got the guts to say.

While 'everybody knows' that students have differing abilities and potential, 'everybody' also tends to ignore this knowledge.  Attending to students' individuality costs more money, for instance, and those who want to destroy public education are always seeking ways to cut costs, especially for the schooling of Other People's children.  But it also conflicts with a traditional model of schooling, that of rote memorization and drill, part of whose function is to sort students, though much of it is intended to even out individual differences.  Those who stand out in approved ways may get special, individual attention and permitted to advance to actual education; the rest will not.

The traditional model is also compatible with deBoer's insistence that his "condition does not entail some sort of overall difference in the inherent value of different people."  Traditional, hierarchical, Great-Chain-of-Being models of humanity generally pay lip service to the notion that everybody has his place in God's great creation: red or yellow, black or white, all are precious in His sight.  Know your place, tug your forelock, don't be ambitious, the nail that sticks up gets the hammer.  Let me stress that deBoer isn't pushing such a model; his point appears to be that, given individual variation, he doesn't know what to replace it with.  I suggest that we already know what to replace it with, at least in practice: attention to individuals with full awareness that they have different talents and abilities.  Plenty of teachers and educational writers have addressed this over the years.

That's why deBoer's crucial question is misconceived: "What do we do with differences in academic achievement after they no longer fall along traditional lines of inequality?"  First, in the traditional model of schooling I mentioned, "traditional lines of inequality" often weren't a problem; such schools functioned in 'racially' uniform communities, and their very purpose was to sort students according to academic achievement.  This is true in modern Japan, South Korea, Europe, and other countries with programs to sort students into various vocational tracks or niches; numerous Americans have argued that the US should follow their example. Sexist discrimination was a factor in Japan, for example, but not racial discrimination.  Class discrimination also was a factor, and I am struck by deBoer's failure to mention it, especially given the role class plays in recent efforts by biological determinists to justify stratification based on IQ and other dubious metrics.  In fact, it seems to me that his crucial question is basically that of The Bell Curve, which contrary to what you may have heard, was primarily meant to address the same question deBoer asks, using the same assumptions: What will we do when we've eliminated unfair discrimination and every student, every citizen, is evaluated not by sex or skin color but by their innate ability and merit?

DeBoer also has a short post about a study of Head Start, also available at, which begins by reassuring the reader that he's
in favor of universal Pre-K on social justice grounds and believe that it’s worth it even if there’s no demonstrable educational gains, as parents should have governmental help in rearing children, particularly so that they can go back to work and be more economically secure. And I’m also in favor of broadening our definitions of success as the study’s authors call for.
But in the second paragraph he bemoans "the complete absence of any frank acknowledgment that there is such a thing as natural academic talent," etc. etc., "And until we recognize that there are persistent inequalities in natural talent, we’re not engaging in a productive discussion about real-world problems."  In the longer post he writes:
Yet consider that society: if even a moderate portion of this difference in talent lies outside of the hands of the students themselves, the basic moral architecture of our supposed meritocracy has been undermined. A system that portions out material security and abundance according to the fickle distributions of academic talent, which children do not choose, is a system that has no basis for calling itself fair. Yet if we successfully combated the forces of white supremacy and sexism to the point that we achieved a racially and sexually equal society, many people would content themselves that the work of social justice had been done. But we would continue to live in a world of terrible and punishing inequality. It would simply be distributed on different lines.
The reference to "our supposed meritocracy" may be the giveaway; it shows that deBoer is evidently as confused as most people who talk about meritocracy.  So let me explain.

First: America is not a meritocracy.  Propagandists and apologists for every society will tell you that rewards and punishments are distributed fairly in their green and pleasant land, no matter how unfair the actual distribution may be.  Whatever differences you observe in the distribution are the result of people's merit or lack thereof, though of course there are malcontents who claim otherwise.  They're just jealous of their superiors and want to drag them down to their miserable level.  Just about everybody seems to agree that people should be hired, admitted to university, etc. on the basis of their merit; the trouble is that most people are convinced that merit is connected to class, race, sex, test scores, and other markers that are not, in fact connected to merit.

Second: DeBoer is confusing inequality and difference, as so many people do, and assuming (probably unconsciously) that you can't have a society of equals as long as there are any differences between individuals.  If you believe that, you do indeed have a problem, but if you jettison that assumption the problem evaporates.  He pays lip service to the contrary position in his bullet points, but abandons it when he sums up the Problem.  In the classroom, for example, equality doesn't mean that every child must earn, let alone be gifted, an A regardless of his or her performance -- even assuming for the sake of argument that performance reliably reflects "potential."  The utility and fairness of grading should not be assumed either; there are good reasons why grading, especially competitive grading, should be abolished.

Third: The preceding is true when we move from schools to society at large.  Equality doesn't mean that everybody has the same things.  To begin with, everybody doesn't want the same things.  Nor does everybody need the same things.  I've had some revealing debates with people who confused equality of outcome with political equality, and who couldn't or wouldn't grasp that equality doesn't mean that everybody must get open-heart surgery or take insulin or get an abortion; or that everyone must live in a penthouse apartment in a big city, or alternatively in a farmhouse with a white picket fence surrounded by amber waves of grain.  None of these is more meritorious than other alternatives.

It could be said as truly that there is such a thing as natural athletic or musical talent, or other talents that are not equally distributed through the population.  As Noam Chomsky wrote decades ago, this is not really a problem either.
... The question of heritability of IQ might conceivably have some social importance, say, with regard to educational practice. However, even this seems dubious, and one would like to see an argument. It is, incidentally, surprising to me that so many commentators should find it disturbing that IQ might be heritable, perhaps largely so. Would it also be disturbing to discover that relative height or musical talent or rank in running the hundred-yard dash is in part genetically determined? Why should one have preconceptions one way or another about these questions, and how do the answers to them, whatever they may be, relate either to serious scientific issues (in the present state of our knowledge) or to social practice in a decent society? [from For Reasons of State, Pantheon, 1973, p. 361-362]
There lurks in deBoer's declaration of the Problem the assumption that the difference in potential he refers to must be expressed or discovered in competition, whether in the classroom or in the workplace, and that "material security and abundance" should be parceled out to the winners, with the losers getting less or nothing at all.  If you share that assumption, deBoer's objection that such "a system ... has no basis for calling itself fair" collapses: such a system is fair by definition.  If you don't share the assumption that social "rewards" should be parceled out to the winners of the Game of Life, then deBoer's Problem simply disappears.

Ellen Willis put it very well years ago in a review of The Bell Curve: "If I bought the authors' thesis, I would still be allergic to their politics. I don't advocate equality because I think everyone is the same; I believe that difference, real or imagined, is no excuse for subordinating some people to others. Equality is a principle of human relations, not Procrustes' bed" (40).*  Nor is equality a statement about the talents or other endowments of human beings; individuals are different, but political and social equality has nothing to do with such things.  It means that the person who is less gifted has the same right to a fulfilling life (to say nothing of basic human and civil rights) as the person who is more gifted.  (By which I mean a life that fulfills him or her, even if it wouldn't fulfill me or Freddie deBoer.  From each according to his ability, to each according to his need, y'know.)  I find it interesting that deBoer, who makes much of his commitment to socialism and the left, has somehow managed to miss that.  But then, the academic talents of which he makes so much have often served to make excuses for political inequality, by fostering confusion between equality and sameness, inequality and difference.

It may be that by "hard political question" deBoer merely means the difficulty of getting American society to accept the principle of political equality.  That will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, I would agree.  But it's so difficult because people resist it so strongly.  Empirical research can't settle it, because as Ellen Willis said, equality is a principle, not a fact.  That Freddie deBoer is so confused about it is further evidence of people's difficulty in grasping the difference.  So I'm not sure that he is referring to the practical difficulty of getting the idea of equality across; he sees it as a problem because he wants it to be a problem.  And because so many intelligent and educated people agree with him, that's a problem.

* In Don't Think, Smile!: Notes on a Decade of Denial (Beacon, 1999).