Two recent opinion pieces have me thinking about the nature vs nurture debate and its implications for education. Two weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column in praise of Richard Nisbett’s book, Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count. This week, a professor from Texas A&M, Christopher Ferguson, wrote an indirect response to that column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I have no doubt that Ferguson’s essay, “Not Every Child Is Secretly a Genius,” will garner a great number of angry responses from public educators, but I must admit that I am inclined to share his position. Ferguson’s contention is that popular educational theories such as Howard Gardner’s theory of “multiple intelligences” have turned out to be empirically unfounded. Moreover, the very features that make these educational theories politically attractive- their focus on diverse talents and different learning styles, for example- make them empirically unverifiable, a hazard in the sciences. Nisbett’s view is not a direct contradiction of Ferguson, but it strongly suggests a different ideological position. It is that position I want to explore.
For the sake of concision, I will abbreviate the Ferguson position as the “nature” view of intelligence and the Nisbett, et. al. position as the “nurture” view. The nature view is that intelligence is mostly determined by genetic factors and the nurture view is that intelligence is highly influenced by environmental factors. These views don’t necessarily conflict, as proponents on each side concede that both genetic and environmental factors influence intelligence, but the nature and nurture views imply radically different theses about education and the role of educators, which, I will argue, is the real reason for the debate.
In terms of scientific verifiability, the nature crowd appears to have the upper-hand. Psychologist have identified genetic traits that account for about 50% of the variables that determine intelligence and environmental factors that account for only 10% of the variables that determine intelligence. These findings presuppose a static view of intelligence- what psychologists call “g”- which the nurture crowd widely rejects. By rejecting g in favor of some new, qualitatively different account of intelligence, the nurture crowd reframes the argument. “So what if the parents’ IQs are the best indicator of the child’s IQ?” the nurture crowd says, “IQ tests aren’t an adequate or accurate measure of real intelligence because they focus only on verbal-linguistic and mathematical-spatial aptitude.” This re-framing shifts the debate from the realm of science, data-gathering, and empirically-testable claims, to the realm of semantics, value claims, and politics.
The question of whether some aptitude, g, is more heavily influenced by environmental or genetic factors can be answered empirically and, to some extent, it has been answered: g is mostly genetic. The question of what counts as “intelligence” is philosophical, and it is politically-loaded. It is not surprising then that members of the nurture group tend to share certain political values (e.g., equality and fairness) or that they tend to discount social theories which seem deterministic. This is not to suppose that everyone within the nurture crowd agrees upon what counts as intelligence. I would wager to guess that many fans of Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences are teachers who find it pedagogically useful. Nisbett’s work focuses the malleability of skills and aptitudes (including g), so he favors tracing the trajectory of these skills and successes (the usual hallmarks of intelligence) to see where they are influenced by teaching, culture, and other environmental factors. The common tie that binds these views together is not what intelligence is, but rather what nurture proponents believe it must not be: a set of genetic characteristics outside of our control.
It won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog that I find the nurture position unconvincing, despite the fact that I share many of the political values which underlie it. The move from a debate about whether intelligence is genetic to what counts as intelligence is ad-hoc. Also, “multiple intelligences,” is semantically confusing. When I say “intelligence,” I mean g, and I would wager to guess that anyone else who hasn’t read Gardner means the same. More generally, I am not inclined to think that a descriptive theory is true simply because it appeals to my values or biases. If the empirical data suggests that most children who are born to parents with low IQs will also have low IQs and that people with low IQs tend not to be as successful as people with high IQs, I am inclined to shrug it off as unsurprising and move on to other questions. (I work in a homeless shelter, so I have become quite comfortable with the revelation that the world is unfair.) But I am surprised by the number of well-educated people I know- many of them teachers- who seem to find the nature position threatening, as if the strong genetic component of intelligence invalidates their work and efforts. This strikes me as misguided, like a doctor fretting because the maximum lifespan of his patient is determined by genes. Intelligence tests are not supposed to be a measure of worth but a tool for gauging a person’s capacity to learn and think.
I can only posit that the reason for the widespread popularity of the nurture view among educators has to do with the fact that teachers, like all of us, are more successful when they believe that their efforts will make a difference in the future. For example, I said above that the multiple intelligences theory may be “pedagogically useful.” Here is what I mean: It may well be the case that a teacher who believes in multiple intelligences will be better at fostering self-esteem and encouraging effort in students than a teacher who believes in g. Insofar as the teacher incorporates his views on multiple intelligences into the curriculum, he may motivate children who have lower aptitude in g to work harder overall because when a student believes that he has some innate talent or intelligence he is motivated to try harder at school. A child who works hard every day is likely to do better than a child with the same IQ who does not work hard. This is because IQ is a measure of capacity for learning, which is an active process. So, the teacher may come to the anecdotal conclusion that his method (underpinned by his belief in multiple intelligences) is more effective than another teacher’s method (underpinned by a belief in g). The relevant point to note here is that this has absolutely nothing to do with the veracity of the theory of multiple intelligences. As various studies have demonstrated, the teacher could be equally effective by lying about a student’s IQ in order to convince him that he had some special potential. What matters is that you believe that your efforts matter, whether you are a student or a teacher.
The takeaway here is that g is mostly genetic, but beliefs and actions still have an effect on intelligence. A person’s capacity for thinking and learning, g, is not actualized without effort, and so teachers have a significant role to play in motivating their students to put forth this effort. This is not to suggest a compromise position between nature and nurture, however. Environmental influences play a role in whether a person actualizes his potential, intellectual or otherwise, but they do not determine that potential. Also, by and large, studies have shown that IQ is a better predictor of later-life success than any environmental factor. It is dishonest to deny the wealth of empirical data that corroborate this conclusion or make ad hoc conjectures to discount its significance for political purposes. It is also a bad way to fight a political battle. Rather than making questionable descriptive claims about intelligence, proponents of equality should be working to ensure that each child has the opportunity to fulfill his or her intellectual potential, whatever it may be.