Sunday, November 20, 2011

Why the Last Post was So Strongly Worded

After a bit of thought, I realized that the last post was rather strongly worded and I should explain why.

I have no problem with the basic observation that family is more important than teachers in determining a child's success.  If Friedman's post had simply been a laudatory shout out to parent's of every socio-economic status that were doing things right, since it doesn't take money to follow your kid's academic performance and read to them, this would have been a good column.  These factors are a powerful observation of how individual and family traits matter and an explanation for how upward economic mobility occurs.  A parent that discovers late in life the importance of education and learning, or that is an immigrant who never received the opportunities, can pass good habits onto their children so they have far more opportunities than their parents had.

The problem is when the focus is on changing these kinds of characteristics.  I tend to believe there is a hierarchy of what determines success, the first is individual level traits, the second is family, and the third is social constructs such as culture and institutions.  The third is by far the weakest, but its the one that has proven historically malleable to concerted action.  The first two interact with the third, thus we get far more people participating meaningfully in society and making large contributions than occurred in earlier eras.

For an example of this interaction, think about modern disability policy compared to that of the past.  Today, we have people in wheelchairs in our office building and blind people teaching our college courses.  This would have been very infrequent in the past.  In one time period, these individual level traits would have been basically the sole determinants of the success of an individual that had them, today, these individual traits are secondary to other because of changed cultural and institutional circumstances.  For a less extreme example, think of someone with strong leadership but weak academic skills.  Today, such an individual's participation in student council, athletic teams, and other activities will give them a shot at college and later a good job that will emphasize their leadership traits over their weaker academics.  In previous generations, this individual may never have risen above a laborer because their lack of ability in school may have never presented them with opportunities to display their traits, which modern society now does.

And this is the problem with Friedman's column.  We can do very little to change individual characteristics such as how good of a parent someone is directly.  However, we can create cultural shifts and institutions that will change these things.  Focusing on the individual level trait however, perpetuates inequality of opportunity, someone whose parent's don't read to them probably won't read to their children.  However, better schools that seek to compensate for the child's lack of parental guidance can help improve that child's chances somewhat and perhaps even more likely create new opportunities for that child's children by teaching them to read to their children, thus breaking the cycle of poverty.

This is the contribution that studies that emphasize the parental role make.  They show that interventions to help one generation are something that creates a virtuous circle, intervention at one point pays off for future generations as well.  It also shows that vicious circles are just as potentially determinative, a child with bad parent's will likely be a bad parent themselves.  This doesn't lesson individual responsibility, it broadens it.  We are to some degree what our parent's made us, and our parent's are to some degree what society made them.  As a society we can intervene only at the third, and least influential, point.  However, investments will be paid off with ever greater returns across a generation, teaching a kid to read, even too late, may lead to them reading to their children, breaking the vicious cycle a generation down.

However, this also shows how reactionary and regressive column's such as Friedman's are.  It justifies existing inequalities, since even a poor parent can read to their children they become responsible for the failures of their children, who in turn will be responsible for their children's failures.  The rest of us get a pass, bad parents ruin their kids chances just as good parents help their kids chances.  This focus is ultimately destructive, society and mobility has quite obviously changed over the centuries and this didn't happen as a result of some sort of moral evolution or genetic shift, it happened because of policy changes.  Sure, we can do far less for a kid's chances than their parents can, this has always been known.  This doesn't change the fact that we can't choose a kid's parents, but we do have some influence over a kid's teachers.  Focusing on what can be changed, rather than what can't, holds the promise of a better world.  Wishing people were better does nothing but make our problems permanent and delivers onto the son the sins of the father.

This isn't a world I'm willing to live in and I'll speak out against it every time I encounter it.

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