Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count

The experience of reading this book in public was not pleasant. I got several poorly-crafted observation jokes of "trying to be more intelligent, eh?" from some co-workers, who met my withering glance and then scurried away. But that was harmless in comparison to the on-edge feeling that I had in the subway, holding my book open as little as possible to minimize the potential for people reading over my shoulder. Was I ashamed of the topic? Not at all, but the language used to discuss a semi-sensitive topic sometimes left me wondering if people might think I was a racist as page after page went on about studies connecting race and IQ. (I realize that this suggests people read more than just a word or two when glancing at the things other people read on the subway, but still, it was enough to unnerve me. All someone needed to do was see "blacks with lower IQs"...)

That said, clearly the point of this book is to say that nature has little to do with IQ and nurture far and away takes the cake. And to make that point, many discussions of race and IQ had to take place (which bring us back to me feeling uncomfortable in the subway). Even in the event of disproving things, we do need to confront some awkward truths, and within Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, Richard Nisbett does a fair job at assuring us that we're not all doomed from the start to be limited in our abilities, though that doesn't mean we don't need to act fast in order to get our children prepared for their lives.

Nisbett includes a great deal of data to carry his point that environment is the major factor in affecting the intelligence of children (and for that matter, adults), which might seem overwhelming for someone who isn't a statistician, but I think it's all presented in a coherent manner, so I never found myself lost completely. Of course, the complex issue that is raised by Nisbett's work suggests that genes have little to do with predicting your IQ... but your cultural and socioeconomic influences do. The ugly truth of that statement? Your genes won't hold you back, but your ignorant family just might as soon as you're out of the womb, so keep those fingers crossed that you're born into an upper-middle class family that converses with each other.

Of course, that's the negative view that one can take away. The positive approach is that parents and schools (or any kind of programs) can have a big impact on the intelligence of children... provided that they're good ones. Without concerned and caring parents, experienced and committed teachers... well... things don't look good. The current socioeconomic system then becomes a kind of caste system, condemning children to repeat the lives of their parents and be unable to rise above, resulting in children who end up classified as disabled when different circumstances could have certainly avoided such a fate.

As a reasonably intelligent person, I feel that most of the conclusions drawn from this data are, in fact, things that make perfect sense if your mind ever happens to alight upon the topic. If you only surround the average child with influences that aren't encouraging or challenging, then the child's curiosity and intelligence will suffer as a result. Of course, Nisbett has data to back all of this up, resulting in some fascinating (and frightening) statistics. (And, of course, he states from the outset that not all families are alike an it's not great to make generalizations, but then the studies make their generalized statements and I start feeling awkward again.) For instance... a child in a middle class family will hear several million more words than a child in a lower class family, and beyond improved vocabulary isn't the only thing that results from that. Parents of middle class children (and again, the generalizations make me uncomfortable, but this was how it was presented in the book) are more likely to be engaged in conversation with their parents, to be asked questions that both draw out the child's opinions and logical reasoning abilities. When lower class children are spoken to by adults, they're often spoken to in terms of orders, such as to perform tasks, rather than engaged in conversation. It sounds pretty bleak, but thankfully, he did at least report on some programs that are invested in teaching better parenting skills or serving as day care facility with trained staff.

And lest you think he dodged some other issues in terms of race and IQ, Nisbitt did include chapters on "the Asian Advantage" and Jewish intelligence. While speaking of Asians, I feel that he didn't include nearly as much research in his discussion as he had with other chapters... which seemed rather odd, given that he himself does a great deal of research in Asia. He made some interesting (though not new) statements about the cultural differences between Asian and Western societies, given one's focus on the family and society's success and the other's focus on personal and individual success. What seemed a bit out of place, however, were statements like Confucius is responsible for all Asian thought, etc. (I did, however, like one Asian father commenting on the idea that it's not "Asian overachievement" so much as it's "American underachievement" when he witnessed his daugher's class give an award for completing all of the homework assignments.) And as far as Jewish intelligence, this chapter jumped away from his general format and seemed only to bring up the various theories that people have about why Jews are so smart and dismissed them pretty quickly. Perhaps he thought the majority of the book's arguments covered these, but still, it might have been worth repeating a bit.

We read this book for my book club and we actually had some great conversations result, particularly surrounding the idea of affirmative action and school funding. A great deal of Nisbett's points seemed to bring focus to early childhood development (though clearly, many educational researchers do), but almost to the point where it overlooked what can be done for older students. And I couldn't help but feel like I was waiting for Nisbett to make some kind of recommendation... to endorse certain practices or programs... but if you're waiting for that, you might as well skip to his last chapter when he tosses in a few common sense recommendations for parents (which can hardly be seen as serious, given that if someone is reading this book, they're clearly committed to their child's education and must be doing all these things already).

Don't feel intimidated by the size of the book if this isn't your usual kind of reading, for you're only reading about two-thirds of the pages... the rest are taken up by optional appendices, footnotes, and research citations. And yes, you can say that the title is stupid, as the book isn't much concerned with telling you how to acquire intelligence, be it for you or your precious little one. It was an interesting read (the studies were my favorite part, when certain things are isolated and the variables are charted) and you'll feel like it was worthwhile if you can manage to stir up some discussions on the topic. Since I work for an educational publisher, you can bet that it wasn't too hard to collect a group that wanted in on the discussion when I started talking about this book with co-workers, and I think that anyone (particularly parents) will be asking you to borrow your copy once you're finished.

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