cross-posted at fredrikdeboer.com
I told my agent, early in the process, that the biggest criticisms of my book would be scientific, as I am a (well read) total amateur attempting to engage with scientific concepts. Science people tend to hate this, and will generally police the borders of any conversation to deny the input of the amateur. Well, look: the influence of genes on human behavior is a matter of scientific controversy, and I am in no position to adjudicate that controversy. I have attempted to accurately reflect one position within that controversy, but it will not surprise me to have gotten it somewhat wrong. It is true, however, that some serious people with serious evidence believe that our genetic endowment shapes our behavioral outcomes like how well we perform in school. Whether they’re right or not, I can’t be the one to say.
What I can say is that the question is ultimately irrelevant to the central argument of my book. Because regardless of the specific influences, we cannot achieve anything like equality in the classroom. Hundreds of years of pedagogy and hundreds of billions of dollars, the efforts of dozens of think tanks and scores of university departments, billions of concerned parents and armies of teachers, principals, and counselors have not been sufficient to create equality in education. If aliens came to Earth tomorrow and observed our education system, the first observation they would make is that students are not equal but rather sorted into a distribution, and that at scale and in general students remain in a particular performance band for their academic lives. We can indulge in fantasies about what we might be able to achieve in some other universe, but no serious person believes that we will achieve educational equality in our lifetimes. And if we recognize that the folly of blaming students or teachers for their outcomes becomes clear.
What is frustrating is that I quite explicitly point out in the book that, even if educational outcomes were 100% environmental, that would not mean that we could create equality. I have excerpted the relevant portion below.
All that it takes to understand my moral and political arguments is accepting that for whatever reasons students are not equal and their outcomes are not under the control of their parents, their teachers, and themselves.
excerpt, pages 237–239:
Many will rush to say that nurture has played a role in the conditions I share with my parents, and they are no doubt correct. The environment shapes us as well as our genes. But here too there is broad misunderstanding: just as we cannot say that influences that are genetic are therefore immutable, so too we cannot say that influences that are environmental are therefore changeable. It has always been clear to me that the difficult circumstances of my youth have influenced my personality, and those circumstances are indeed environmental. But does that fact mean that this influence can therefore be undone? How were those environmental effects any more mutable than genetic ones? What policy or pedagogy could have prevented the experiences that imprinted themselves on my young heart and mind?
To act as though we will ever be able to so carefully control the environment of our children that we protect them from the negative effects of experience is to deny the basic brokenness of human life. There will always be instability. There will always be loss. There will always be inequality and there will always be neglect. If we acknowledge that fact, then we can begin to ask how to live in a world in which all people simply cannot be made equal — for whatever reason — rather than trying and failing to make crooked timber straight. We can confront the inevitability of inequality of talent and decide what to do about it or we can continue to hide behind pleasant fictions.
For too long, the left has obsessed over the vague idea that is “equality.” Equality is the lodestar of the liberal mind, often subdivided into flavors like “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcomes” in a useless and incoherent way. Equality is both the goal itself and a means to a goal, as equality is held up as the key to social mobility, to ending poverty, to achieving justice. Progressive attitudes toward equality have long since become tautological. The left should know better. We should know that the great leftist intellectual traditions share none of this zeal for equality as such. Rather we should simply pursue what’s good for everyone, what fulfills their basic human needs and allows them to flourish. Human beings are complicated creatures, and we can be ranked and measured and divided on a thousand metrics. To suggest that we will ever achieve equality of any meaningful kind is to deny our nature. Recognizing that we have fundamentally different abilities and talents does not curse people to a harsh existence. It is the first step in their liberation.