27 October 2013

Michael Gove, Robert Plomin and heredity

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, appears to be paying some attention to the possibility of heredity as a factor in intelligence. He has been having talks with Professor Robert Plomin, who has done research on the heritability of intelligence, and who is said to believe that ‘genetics, not teaching, plays a major part in the intelligence of schoolchildren.’

One may wonder why it is of any interest to attempt to evaluate the relative importance of heredity and environmental factors on functionality. It only becomes of interest, surely, when opportunity of various kinds is not paid for directly by the individual, or his parents or guardian, but supplied by the state.

At present, many people, or at least many among the most influential, seem to wish to believe that there is no such thing as innate ability, and that there should be equality of opportunity (and hence equality of outcome). But what are we to understand by equality of opportunity? In practice, this is taken to mean that resources should be applied lavishly to those whose performance is below the average. Thus children with ‘special needs’, for example, are to be sent in taxis, accompanied by social workers, to special schools. And, although this is less explicitly advocated, those who are far ahead should be held back.

Most current discussion of educational issues, such as the distribution of above-average ability in different sectors of the population, is wildly fictitious. The online comments on educational articles in the Guardian, for example, show a persistent belief in the inferior average intelligence of middle-class children, and the superior average intelligence of working-class children, who are supposedly prevented by bad circumstances from showing their ability.

It has become fashionable among certain sectors of society to be very aware of the possibility of working-class children with high IQs getting no opportunity of using their intelligence to attain the academic and career success of their middle-class peers. Arguably, these sectors of society should also be aware of the possibility of high-IQ adults whose educations were ruined and who have had (and still have) no opportunity to enter high-status academic careers, which they need to have, so as to be in a position to use their abilities to the full. In practice, however, people claiming to be concerned for the plight of the unfortunate do not show any sympathy for those whose education has been ruined in this way.

When I was growing up in East London, my parents and their friends, being teachers working in schools where their undoubted hard work was rewarded with substandard results in the achievements of their pupils, never appeared to be concerned that the pupils were being unfairly deprived of opportunity. It seems quite possible that this did not reflect ideologically unsound attitudes on their part, but a genuine awareness of underlying abilities and the limits of what education can do.

In classical Greece, the belief in hereditary ability seems to have been much as it was in this country seventy years ago.
Much education would have taken place in an aristocracy informally through institutions like the symposium ... backed up by the old assumption that the aristocracy possessed inherited, not instructed, excellence.*
Now the concept of hereditary ability is described as old-fashioned, implying that it has been dismissed from consideration; or is even regarded as taboo. And indeed, most ‘research’ in education and related areas now simply assumes that ability is not inherited, without even bothering to state the assumption.

* ‘Education, Greek’, Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd edition, 2003, p.506

Message to the Education Secretary from Andrew Legge, Research Officer at Oxford Forum:
‘We strongly recommend that you appoint Dr Celia Green as your chief educational advisor, either in a consultancy role or as the head of an independent education department. Her experiences of both state and private education, combined with her unique psychological observations, would provide you with a source of incisive pedagogical insight distinct from any others that are available.
If you are sincere in your efforts to understand the true causes underlying Britain’s deteriorating education system, then arguably you have a duty to support us. No one else is going to penetrate to the realities of the situation in a way that is free from ideological baggage.’