November 12, 2002
Nature - and how to nurture it

For me one of the highlights of the Libertarian Alliance/Libertarian International Conference last weekend was the talk given first thing on Sunday morning by Stefan Blankertz. Listening to a German talking in a definitely German accent about genetics pressed all kinds of irrelevant Anglo-Saxon buttons installed in me by a thousand movies and TV shows, but I strongly recommend that such silly prejudices be shoved aside, and that you also give some attention to this lecture, the entire text of which is now available at Liberalia, the website run by Christian Michel. Blankertz is an uncompromising libertarian, and this was one of the most sensible and humane talks about the relationship between nature and nurture that I've ever attended.

The starting point of his argument was the inescapable fact that children are not all alike. His schematic sub-division of them for the purpose of explication into three learning types - the Worker, the Craftsman and the Student - was almost as crude as the claim that all children are identical, but this enabled him to make his subsequent points, and insofar as genetic differences between children are actually a lot more complicated, as they surely are, then that only lent yet more force to his argument.

If you subject all types of children to an education best suited only to "Students", said Blankertz, then you will not maximise educational achievement. The way to do that, as most sane educators acknowledge even if they may not all care to trumpet it too loudly, is to give each different child the different kind of education that will enable him or her each to make the most progress.

But how do you know what that is going to be? Do you let the parents decide? That's probably better than trusting the state to get it right. But what if some parents, perhaps through an ambitious refusal to face the facts about what sort of child they really have, want their "Craftsman" child, say, to be treated as a "Student", on the grounds that this will turn their child into a Student for real, but will in fact only turn him into a badly educated Craftsman? Blankertz's answer is for the children themselves to have more freedom of choice in the matter.

In short, said Blankertz, summing up:

My conclusion of the Nature versus Nurture debate is as follows:

1. Saying that intelligence is "genetically" determined does not imply that it is not affected by environmental factors.

2. For best results do not choose one environment for all, but the best one for each individual.

3. In order to choose the best environment for each individual we would need complete information, which we don’t have. The next best thing is the market process.

And the next best thing is not the one-style-fits-all insensitivity of many state education systems.

Most state education systems now try to treat all children as "Students", and regard any suggestion that, for example, "Craftsmen" should instead start working in their mid-teens alongside fully qualified adult Master Craftsmen (which is what Blankertz recommends) as insulting. The result of this demand that all students should be "Students" is a shortage of well educated (in craftsmanship) Craftsmen, and dole queues full of badly educated and rebellious ones.

(A Swiss attender of the conference told me afterwards that in his country they follow the recommended Blankertz approach devotedly. The result is a country abounding in profoundly respected and very skilled Craftsmen, in which everything technical works flawlessly and is ready bang on schedule. The contrast with my own Britain is almost too painful to think about.)

Blankertz also took time out to criticise the argument put forward by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in their book The Bell Curve. Murray and Herrnstein say that the reason why black children in the USA are not helped more by the state is that they are genetically inferior. But what if this "help" is of the wrong kind, and is actually harmful? Said Blankertz:

What is curious about Charles Murray is that in his former book Loosing Ground he seemed to say exactly this: The welfare state programs actually harmed the underprivileged who were supposed to profit from them. This hypothesis gave Charles Murray some credit among libertarians. But in The Bell Curve he argues that people who do not react positively to the welfare programs could only be genetically inferior. This is just bad science.

Ouch.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:41 PM
Category: Selection
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