Why Progressives Should Embrace the Genetics of Education

A story by Joe Warner titled “Why Progressives Should Embrace the Genetics of Education,” recently published in the New York Times (July 26, 2018), reported on a massive US-based study and implored those who “value social justice” to harness the genomic revolution. In a savvy slippage between genetic and environmental factors that would make the founders of eugenics proud, the author asserts that “knowing which genes are associated with educational success will help scientists understand how different environments also affect that success.” But, as many critics have pointed out since, the problem is not a lack of knowledge!42 One observer put it best: “I cannot imagine a subject on which we know more about than the environments under which children learn best. It has been the subject of study and discussion for well more than a century. Are we suddenly unsure that poverty has a negative effect on educational attainment?”43

It is not the facts that elude us, but a fierce commitment to justice that would make us distribute resources so that all students have access to a good educational environment. Demanding more data on subjects that we already know much about is, in my estimation, a perversion of knowledge. The datafication of injustice … in which the hunt for more and more data is a barrier to acting on what we already know. We need something like an academic equivalent of “I said what I said!” – the catchphrase of reality TV star NeNe Leakes – for those who insist on digging deeper and deeper into the genome for scientific solutions to social problems.

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The desire to sort good and bad human traits, encouraging the former and discouraging the latter, is also animated by a belief that humans can be designed better than they currently are. Correction: a belief that more humans can be like those already deemed superior. But in all this one forgets to question who was granted authority to make these value judgments in the first place. Genetic discrimination, in turn, does not just describe what prospective parents have to do if they decide to select supposedly smart fetuses over their average siblings. Discriminatory design happens much earlier in the process, in the decisions that researchers make as to what behaviors to categorize as intelligent in the first place. As philosopher Ian Hacking (2006) put it in “Making Up People,” when we identify which people to control, help, change, or emulate as “geniuses,” methods of classification change those who [sic] scientists set out to study.44 And not just change them, but actually create and re-create kinds of people in the process of naming and studying, which becomes a materialization of the scientific imagination.