Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Reason for Success

In my last post I explained why it doesn’t much matter which school you send you kids to, as long as it reaches some minimum standards. So we can all relax.

Except we can’t, because, juding by the comments, most people don’t believe it. All our experience suggests a straightforward cause and effect relationship between successful kids and good teaching. We enjoyed the maths lessons of Mr X while the history class of Miss Y sent us to sleep. Surely, we did better at maths and worse at history as a result. But think back honestly. My best subject at school was physics but I had a succession of boring teachers who actually put me off doing the subject at university (I changed back to physics after a year at college).

This is why I am so excited by the work on genetics that has shown nurture to be largely irrelevant. Science is at its best when it is utterly counter-intuitive. That the earth orbits the sun still seems ridiculous if you sit down and think it through. Ditto, that upbringing, quality of teaching and environment make a significant difference to outcomes. Remember how we are all taught to talk endlessly to our toddlers to help them develop their language skills? It’s rubbish. Healthy children are no more capable of not learning to talk then they are not learning to walk.

As for anecdotes, I can’t accept them as evidence in this case. The experience of particular individuals does not invalidate a general thesis that never claims to be exhaustive. But the varied experience of individuals does show us that we cannot use science as an excuse to discriminate. Science can inform large scale policy – hence it should help us get over the irrelevant grammar school debate. But it cannot be allowed to pigeon hole particular people because they come from a group which has a higher or lower average level of some trait.

Bearing that in mind, let me briefly explain why middle class children, on average, do better at school. Membership of the middle class really just means earning a good wage. Brains are valued more than brawn, so ‘white collar’ workers are paid more than ‘blue collar’. The more intellectually demanding the role is, the more that the people who do it get paid. Today, being middle class is almost synonymous with being a ‘knowledge worker’ or a ‘professional’. This much, I hope, is not controversial.

Clever women and clever men tend to marry other clever men and clever women. This trend has become increasingly pronounced now that women have taken their rightful place in the workforce. In other words, feminism has probably entrenched the middle classes by making it more likely that men will marry their intellectual peers.

Finally, clever parents are more likely to have clever offspring. If both parents have brains, as is now usual in middle class families, the kids’ chances of inheriting the genes that built them are enhanced even further.

And that is why middle class children will always, on average, have better academic results. It’s not because their parents are pushy, or get their kids into the best schools. It’s just that their children have inherited the same genes that made their parents middle class in the first place.

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1 comment:

Elliot said...

Hmm. I'm sure there's some truth to that, but it strikes me as a just-so story... and one very often used to justify social inequalities. Are there any scientific experiments demonstrating the genetically-based superior intelligence of the middle class? Is there really time for a noticeable genetic difference to arise when only a few generations before most people's ancestors were farmers?

Sorry for thinking anecdotally, but my story is the one I know best. My own family was definitely working class but gradually edged into the middle class thanks to a particular job my mother got, not because of great intelligence but because of diligence. Now, I think my parents are/were intelligent. But I know other equally intelligent people who avoided academic acheivement and stayed working class, based on what they valued and their beliefs about the world. And my father only got a fourth or fifth grade education because WWII intervened, which consigned him firmly to the working class, regardless of inherent smarts he may or may not have had. So I suspect life experiences can either greatly accentuate or greatly dampen the effects of those underlying genetic factors. Perhaps, as you say, in the grand scheme of things the statistics average out.