Who is smarter, Asians or Westerners? Are there genetic explanations for racial differences in test scores? What makes some nationalities excel in engineering and others in music? Will math and science remain a largely male preserve?
From the damning research of The Bell Curve to the more recent controversy surrounding geneticist James Watson’s statements — the former focused on a controversial connection between race and intelligence while the latter is a Nobel Laureate who claimed Blacks are less intelligent than whites — one factor has been consistently left out of the equation: culture.
Certain skills and traits are rooted in genetics, but intelligence isn’t one of them, counters Richard E. Nisbett, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan.
In “Intelligence and How to Get It,” Nisbett deflates assertions that our mental limits are hardwired at birth. While genetics may play some role in intelligence, he says, the more dominant factors are nurturing teachers and involved parents.
Sounds intuitive. But Nisbett’s aim is to shoot down earlier studies that generated controversy by suggesting a stronger genetic basis to intelligence.
It’s easy to see why those studies might have inflamed anger. If IQ is dictated by genes, then in theory even the best educational resources wouldn’t make the person smarter. But Nisbett insists IQ is far more influenced by environment.
As proof he dissects dozens of studies that suggest that children of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds can excel under the right circumstances.
For example, he points to statistics showing that kids who grow up in poor Black communities tend to have lower IQs than their peers from richer neighborhoods. But when underprivileged kids are adopted into middle-class families, the apparent discrepancy in intelligence seems to disappear.
Nisbett also takes on common stereotypes about students in other countries, for example that all Asian kids are inherently good at math. Sure, they may outperform American kids, Nisbett says, but blame culture and environmental influences, not genetics or some other natural inborn quality.
The author’s arguments are comforting to people who want to believe that all kids are born with the same potential. But he occasionally makes his points in a number of homogenous vignettes that make for repetitive reading.
Most of the research he quotes is of the same form: Move an underperforming student from a non-nurturing environment into more supportive surroundings and the IQ differences fade.
The repetition makes the book a little tougher to read, especially since most of the conclusions are expressed in statistical measures that won’t mean much to the average reader. For that reason, the target audience appears to be other researchers, as well as educators looking to improve their school systems.
However, the later chapters focus less on statistics and more on observations that would appeal to a general audience.
One chapter deals with the Asian stereotype. Nisbett explains the academic differences by providing intriguing glimpses into how Asian cultures differ from ours.
For example, he says, family honor is so important to the Chinese that students work hard not only for themselves but for the glory of their families. In the West, where achievement is a more individual accomplishment, students who struggle don’t have the same incentive to persevere.
Nisbett’s most meaningful advice comes near the end of the book: Don’t praise kids for their intelligence; praise them for their hard work because it’s something they have control over.
When children run into tricky tasks, those who were praised for being smart are more likely to give up because they think they’re not smart enough to handle the challenge, Nisbett says. But kids who have been lauded for hard work are more likely to redouble their efforts because they believe their persistence will make the difference.
These are the nuggets that should have been more prominent. The other messages are intuitive: Read to your kids, use high-level vocabulary and so on.
But his biggest message, largely unspoken, is one of persistence and hope. If all kids are capable of learning under the right circumstances, parents and teachers should never give up on children who appear to be low performers. Everyone has the inherent ability to be smart.
“Intelligence and How to Get It” (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 416 pages. $27.95), by Richard E. Nisbett
Diverse Issues contributed to this report.
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