Why Resist Blank Slate Thinking? For One, Look to No Child Left Behind

one of the worst and most consequential education laws in American history could only have sprung from a blank slate mindset

Discussions of genes and behavior results in a lot of what I’d call lawyering. That is, there’s a ton of nibbling around the edges of the argument to disqualify the debate rather than grappling with the heady philosophical issues straight on. I’ve complained about this in relation to the definition of “heritable” in the past - yes, there are some conceptual and linguistic complexities there, but many debates get derailed by quibbling over that term rather than getting to the meat of how we might act in a world where we knew human talents were influenced by our genes. And this seems pointed, to me, in the sense that I think the avoidance aspect of these debates is the whole point. People just do not want to engage with this stuff. With the publication of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s recent New Yorker article, there’s been heroic amounts of lawyering going on.

I don’t want to pick on Quiggin here, as there’s a lot of people expressing this sentiment. But I find this attitude… a little crazy? If human beings are in any sense unequal in their innate cognitive and behavioral abilities, in the way we all accept they are in their athletic abilities, then this has massive policy and politics implications. I wrote a whole book about one obvious place where there are profound policy consequences, which is in education. And nowhere was blank slate thinking more destructive in education policy than with No Child Left Behind.

NCLB was, notoriously, a massive disaster. It was so obviously a disaster, in fact, that when the endless war between Barack Obama and the Republican Congress was at its height, the two sides still came together to get rid of the law. What made NCLB such a profound failure? Well, for one thing, the collision of Common Core and NCLB created onerous testing requirements that drove parents to rebel and passed down huge costs to states, resulting in the opt-out movement that has become woven into today’s social justice movement. More relevant here, NCLB essentially mandated perpetual improvement in student scores and in effect demanded 100% compliance with state standards. Schools that failed to meet these requirements faced harsh sanctions. This resulted in both states and the feds devising workarounds for what was the law of the land - states set standards that were so low it strained the very definition of a standard, and the Obama Department of Education issued exemptions by the bushel. It turns out that you can do a lot of talking tough about how you’re going to insist on excellence, but that doesn’t change the fact that excellence can never be mandated, particularly when dealing with the crooked timber of humanity. And while NCLB is gone, its replacement (the Every Student Succeeds Act) still enshrines unmeetable goals for our education system, just largely toothless ones. Meanwhile, states, schools, and teachers continue to shoulder the burden of the “no excuses” rhetoric that led to No Child Left Behind.

I really must underline this point. A little back-of-the-envelope math suggests that more than 100,000 public school teachers in this country operate under merit pay systems. Those teachers are seeing their wages fluctuate based on the outcomes of their students. Thousands of teachers in this country have been fired (or had their contracts not renewed) on the basis of poor academic performance in their classrooms, and hundreds of schools nationwide have been closed based on test scores and other quantitative educational metrics. But this whole edifice depends on the notion that student outcomes are more or less under the control of schools and teachers. If, on the other hand, we pay attention to decades of research, the experience of many teachers, and common sense, we would rather assume that different people have different levels of intrinsic underlying academic ability, and that this inequality prompts the remarkable stability of relative academic performance over time. And if we thought that way, we would have never passed NCLB in the first place. A truly ruinous law, passed with great fanfare by liberals and conservatives working together, would have been avoided had we taken genetic influence on cognition seriously. How could you say that this scenario doesn’t have policy relevance, Dr. Quiggin?

“No excuses” thinking was always based on blank slatism. The entire school reform movement was predicated on the assumption that talk of inherent ability was just excuse making, lazy teachers and corrupt unions trying to shirk their professional responsibilities. That movement, though wounded in the present moment, has had immense political and policy consequences. Meanwhile, speaking as someone who reads a lot of education research, the topic of student ability sort of flits around the field, not expressly forbidden but rigorously avoided. In study after study, including ones that expressly seek to understand parental influence, the question of any given student’s inherent tendency to struggle or excel is studiously avoided. Similarly, wonks of all types who work at nonprofits and in media conspicuously avoid discussing whether everyone has the same academic potential. When inherent ability is referenced at all in the literature it tends to be a vague handwave that does not factor into the final analysis. But if what we’re interested in is how people learn and why some succeed and some fail, this is totally nuts!

Of course the bigger picture is also discussed in my book: a robust understanding of the influence of the genome could lead to the abandonment of the ideal of just deserts and with it the destruction of meritocracy and capitalism. Seems… relevant.

Again, I’m left with the same basic point: it is not remotely scientifically contentious to say that literally all elements of our physiological selves are influenced by our genome. If that’s true, how could it possibly be the case that there is no influence of our genes on our behavior or cognition, which arise from the physical bodies that we all acknowledged are built by DNA? That notion is so obviously untrue that almost no one is willing to come out and state it directly. But since denialists also don’t want to acknowledge that it’s unthinkable that our genomes could mean everything to our bodies but nothing to our behavior, they partake in the previously-mentioned lawyering as a means of avoidance. I have already read several reactions to Dr. Harden’s book that fixate on minute details, the typical methodological criticisms of kinship studies and GWAS, without once engaging with the question of whether it’s even remotely conceivable that bodies that are built with DNA can house minds that are completely uninfluenced by that DNA. But that’s the fundamental question, the essence of this whole debate. If given perfectly matched environments, will two people with different genomes have the exact same outcomes? And how could such a condition square with 150+ years of research suggesting that genes change everything?

Also, to return to Quiggin’s tweet, we are already changing the gene pool. Assortative mating, which has massively increased in recent decades, is among other things an effort in genetic engineering. Mate selection among humans is a very complicated thing, but there’s no doubt that we are in part selecting for reproductive fitness, broadly defined. If someone decides that they want to partner up with someone else because that person will help provide financial stability - a very common concern in marriage and a perfectly legitimate one - that person is, to some degree, selecting based on genes. Physical attraction is also, among other things, related to our perceptions of the desirability of the genes that potential partner might pass on to our children. But of course it is; we are the products of evolution, and evolution forces us to want to produce offspring who are more likely to produce lots of offspring. Those professional class liberals who are delaying marriage and kids until later and later in life are practicing excruciatingly exacting mate selection, looking for just the right person to make some babies with. That is genetic engineering; the fact that it’s the polite kind does not change the fact that, if such trends continue, on a long enough timescale we will have a rigidly stratified species based on genetic parentage. I do not need to share the extremely durable research showing that more highly-educated parents have more highly-educated children, which has serious consequences even if you suppose that influence is entirely environmental. If it’s even partially genetic, the consequences are civilization-altering. But how can we think through that condition if we must pretend genes and behavior are totally disconnected?

Finally, I will repeat myself: this genie is not going back in the bottle. These issues are not going away. I don’t know what Dr. Quiggin thinks the alternative is to researchers and writers hashing out these controversies from the left. Will genetic testing and prediction stop growing more ubiquitous and effective over time because liberals find these topics unpalatable? Of course not. Will researchers the world over stop pursuing the ability to directly manipulate the genome in order to produce desirable traits in offspring, simply because the topic makes many people uncomfortable? Of course not. There is a fortune to be had in selling rich parents the most genetically fit version of their babies. Screening for the embryos that are most genetically fit from among those that have been produced by in vitro fertilization is not even a next-half-century thing, it is likely a next-decade thing. What will all of the decent liberals do when living, breathing human beings walk the earth who have been engineered to be smarter and stronger and healthier and more productive? Continue to deny that genes matter, when the evidence that they do can shake your hand? This train is barreling down the tracks. The left should act accordingly. “There is no train” is not a plan.

All we can do is talk through this stuff and develop a left-wing philosophy regarding it all. That’s not just something we can do; it’s something we are morally required to do. And all of the lawyering just keeps us from engaging in that conversation, while the worst parts of the right gleefully ponder the influence of the genome.

Update: Please see this Twitter thread for some sensible thinking about this from a policy and politics standpoint. The idea that discovering genetic predispositions for socially disadvantageous conditions means that we must inevitably stop trying to ameliorate those predispositions is nutty. For me, the whole point is that acknowledging there is a strong genetic component to academic ability cuts in the direction of helping those who are not predisposed to succeed. If school is deeply influenced by genes, then results in school are outside of the hands of the individual, and it’s immoral to base their life circumstances on results in school. If we understand that, the argument for society helping those who fail to thrive academically is strengthened considerably, not weakened. Right now, the academically untalented just suffer, and we do nothing to help them. That’s wrong.