Monday, February 09, 2009

"Education Is All in Your Mind"

This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Yet some academics, lost in the Sargasso Sea of PC, still don’t seem to have absorbed the message that heredity counts.

One such is Richard C. Nisbett, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times of February 8 (“Education Is All in Your Mind”), he optimistically cites a few scattered studies that seem to suggest a remarkable effect: making certain changes in the format of examinations can very significantly raise the performance of African Americans on test scores. In this way, he implies, the gap between African-American and white performance on these tasks can be closed.

Nisbett is not an unbiased observer. In a recent book “Intelligence and How to Get It,” he claims to offer a “bold refutation of the belief that genes determine intelligence.” Following in the footsteps of the Marxist scientist and popularizer Stephen Jay Gould, Nisbett asserts that intellect is not primarily genetic but is “principally” determined by societal influences. Clearly this is a new example of the venerable argument that culture rules, and biology has no significant role to play (note the weasel word “principally”).

I turn now to the op-ed. As an instance of his claims, Nisbett cites what the social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson characterize as “stereotype threat,” which ostensibly hampers the performance of African-American students. Nesbitts comments: “Fortunately, stereotype threat for blacks and other minorities can be reduced in many ways. Just telling students that their intelligence is under their own control improves their effort on school work and performance. In two separate studies, Mr. Aronson and others taught black and Hispanic junior high school students how the brain works, explaining that the students possessed the ability, if they worked hard, to make themselves smarter. This erased up to half of the difference between minority and white achievement levels.”

The University of Michigan professor also makes the following claim: “Black students also perform better on an exam when it is presented as a puzzle rather than as a test of academic achievement or ability, another study has shown. These are small interventions that have big effects.”

Nesbitt goes on to give other, purportedly telling examples of the “Obama Effect.”

If only it were so simple. It is widely recognized that the performance deficits of African-American students reflect a variety of factors, including poverty, discrimination, poor health, lack of emphasis on academic achievement in the home, and quite possibly heredity. How can these influences, which are deep-seated, be erased overnight? The answer is that they cannot.

Over many years industrial psychologists have undertaken various pilot studies to improve productivity in the workplace. In one study a small group of employees was told that they had been selected for such a study. The psychologists then increased the amount of light, and lo! productivity increased. At another plant similar conditions were induced. In this case, though, the amount of light was reduced. Again, productivity increased. Afters the study was over, the workers’ productivity returned to normal, the change in light notwithstanding. The researchers made two conclusions. It was not changing the light that caused the improvement in productivity, but the eagerness of the workers to perform in the study.

A more recent study in Orlando, Florida, concluded that improving temperature improved productivity. From this we might conclude that moving factories closer to the Equator is the best thing to do. It is, of course, if the owners want substandard sweatshops, but it seems unlikely the productivity will be improved by this change.

To return to our starting point, then: it is likely that the improved performance of minority students on these tests is an artifact of the intervention. For this reason, it will not prove lasting. This is not a matter for congratulation, far from it. But after so much wishful thinking in past decades, it is time for some sober realism.



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4:43 AM  

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