No journalist this century has played a more persistent role in forging a new conventional wisdom on education than Paul Tough, long of The New York Times Magazine. Tough has threaded the needle between the inanity of Great Society theorizing and getting himself Watsoned, as happened to DNA pioneer James D. Watson in 2007 when he said the gap in average IQ between whites and blacks was unlikely to be closed.
In the new conventional wisdom that Tough has helped shape, the critical years are no longer the school days when children can be tested. Instead, the gap has to be rooted in youngest childhood. Maybe the key moment is even prenatal—but it’s definitely not nine months prenatal. Don’t Watson me, bro!
Lately, Tough has followed the lead of his social-science mentor James Heckman, the great University of Chicago statistician who won the quasi-Nobel in Economics in 2000 by more or less giving up trying to disprove The Bell Curve.
Instead, in his current bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Tough fleshes out Heckman’s recent argument that education should be focused less on raising IQ and more on building moral fiber. For example, the psychological trait of “conscientiousness” correlates with good outcomes in life. So society should try to inculcate conscientiousness in the poor.
It’s hard to argue with this. Indeed, nobody does.
One way that American intellectuals could model good character would be to publicly apologize to Charles Murray for all the terrible things they said about him over the years.
It’s not as if much has emerged over the last 18 years to prove him wrong. Heckman’s seminal 2008 paper “The Economics and Psychology of Personality Traits” deals with IQ’s intractable economic importance:
…IQ surpasses any single Big Five personality factor in the prediction of the two academic outcomes, college grades (r = .45) and years of education (r = .55). Big Five conscientiousness is by far the best personality predictor of grades (r = .22).…Conscientiousness predicts job performance (r = .13; corrected r = .22) better than does any other Big Five factor, but not as well as IQ does (r = .21; corrected r = .55). The importance of IQ increases with job complexity, defined as the information processing requirements of the job: cognitive skills are more important for professors, scientists, and senior managers than for semiskilled or unskilled laborers.…In contrast, the importance of conscientiousness does not vary much with job complexity….
We’ve seen countless books over the millennium, from The Bell Curve to The Boy Scout Handbook to The Holy Bible, that offer advice on character building. So it’s not particularly clear what Tough has new to offer other than the latest brain science jargon such as “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal.”
It’s a strange totem of the 21st century that if a brain scan can show us where something would happen inside the skull, we can therefore make it happen in ourselves; and also, hesto presto, we can fix African-American dysfunction by somehow making it happen in their brains.
We don’t think this way about other organs, though. Consider the stomach. For a century or more, we’ve had a more than adequate knowledge of how the digestive system works. Yet on average we’re fatter than ever. Why? Not because the science of stomach scans hasn’t progressed enough, but because we like eating more than we like exercising.
Tough’s rendition of Heckman’s research tends to deteriorate even further when generalist pundits relay it. For example, The New York Times’ goodhearted columnist Nicholas Kristof has recently been promoting Tough’s book in essays titled “Cuddle Your Kid!” and “The Power of Hugs.”
Until Tough’s new book came out, the cliché was that black kids averaged low math test scores because black moms didn’t talk enough. But now, Tough’s description of lab-rat studies has led to the suddenly fashionable implication that Sun People are emotionally colder than Ice People. (This may come as a surprise to anybody raised Episcopalian.)
A rule of thumb regarding male intellectuals is that the more experience they have with their own children, the less confidence they have in their theories. Rousseau, the most influential theorist of child rearing over the past few centuries, sent all five of his babies to an orphanage to starve to death.
Tough has one child, so he’s still in the self-assured phase. It’s not until the second child comes along with all his own individuality that you realize you weren’t really raising your first child; he was raising you to his own specifications.
Yet we shouldn’t give Tough a tough time. It’s hard to afford any children when living in the New York area and writing serious nonfiction. How many people read statistics-based books? The Bell Curve was a historic hit, yet hardly more than one out of a thousand Americans bought a copy. If intellectuals could afford to have a lot of children, we might live in a world where they could sell enough heavyweight books to afford to have a lot of children. But we don’t.
So what should policy be?
In a recent article in the Boston Review, Heckman began, “The accident of birth is a principal source of inequality in America today,” then went on to endorse the usual expensive “interventions” in poor families. Should we perhaps instead strive for a country with fewer accidental births?
All of Heckman’s data suggest that we should aim for fewer—but better—poor children. Encourage poor people to conscientiously concentrate their scant parental resources on one child rather than three or six.
The government has had a policy of dissuading teen births, which have indeed been declining. Why not try to similarly investigate ways to slow down the rate at which impoverished unwed mothers reproduce? For example, why not invest in R&D for better, easier-to-use long-term contraceptives? The FDA’s approval of an injection contraceptive in 1992 appears to have helped bring about both fewer teen births and fewer abortions. Wouldn’t continued improvement—and, just as importantly, continued encouragement of contraceptive use—be a win-win strategy for all of us?
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