If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Who Are You?

I recently finished reading The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, by Steven Pinker. I love Pinker's books. His explanations of how the human brain works are easily understandable by a layperson without being dumbed down. He doesn't shy away from saying something controversial, but his arguments are so well backed up by clear thinking and an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject that you wish there were a lot more people thinking about things the way he does. Most importantly to me, I always feel like my understanding of the world has expanded by the time I reach the last page.

In The Blank Slate, Pinker goes on the attack against the idea that human beings are born as malleable lumps of clay whose characters are entirely formed by their environment and experiences. This may seem like an unnecessary and obvious argument to make in this modern age in which individuals are getting their whole genome mapped, but Pinker points out in his introduction how much of our cultural values and public policies depend on the idea that we are all really created the same, only differentiated by the fortunate or unfortunate circumstances into which we are born. Like I said, Pinker does not shy from controversial topics.

The bad news for those of us hoping to educate young women and men of good character, is that Pinker makes a pretty good case for the fact that environmental factors have very little influence over the eventual personalities of children:

Decades of studies have shown that, all things being equal, children turn out pretty much the same way whether their mothers work or stay at home, whether they are placed in daycare or not, whether they have siblings or are only children, whether their parents have a conventional or an open marriage, whether they grow up in an Ozzie-and-Harriet home or a hippie commune, whether their conceptions were planned, were accidental, or took place in a test tube, and whether they have two parents of the same sex or one of each. (The Blank Slate, p. 386)

The one place where environment does seem to have some (although still very slight) influence is the peer group:

Even the rare finding of an effect of the shared environment, and the equally elusive finding of an interaction between genes and the environment, emerge only when we substitute peers for parents in the "environment" part of the equation. (The Blank Slate, pp. 391-2)

If Pinker is right, then it might seem that we are doomed in the effort to educate character, and can only hope to collect large enough groups of good kids and hope that they have the desired effect on the not so good ones. I prefer to be a bit more optimistic. I think teachers and schools can have a great deal of influence on how peers interact with one another, and thus on how they learn to be from one another. I've seen it in action in a number of situations that I will describe at length in future posts. I think making character and ethics a part of a schools curricular goals is hugely important. I went to a high school that did a couple of things I think were effective, and I'll touch on those, too, in future posts.

In the meantime, please weigh in: what aspects of character would you hope a school would instill in its students, or at least try to?

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