There is a student that sits outside the elevator I take up to my office each morning. He sits there on the ground practicing his violin and has been doing this for over two years now. When he began, it didn’t sound very good. Lots of false starts and missed notes. Now it sounds pretty good. He’s not ready for Carnegie Hall, but he is making music, not just sound and noise.
In the past couple weeks, several teachers have commented to me, while crowded in the elevator on way up, about how much he has improved. Some have mentioned that they wished they had a ten second audio clip from each day to see how it has transformed over the past year. And it has. It’s great to hear and I’m happy for him.
This isn’t about him though. It’s about the teachers, the staff, and the rules that exist in schools.
Everytime someone makes these comments, I internally ask myself, “What would they be saying right now if it had been the drums? Or hard, metal rock with an amp? Or, heaven forbid, a kid rapping, hoping to be the next Eminem or Jay Z?”
The answer is obvious. There wouldn’t have been a year of improvement. There would have been a quick, “Sorry honey, you can’t practice that here.” There would have been action, without any sympathetic thought, that it was best for all if he simply didn’t drum, rock, or rap there.
This type of discrimination is what schools do very well. We decide what is acceptable. What’s okay. Then, we simply disallow anything else. We close off the possibilities before they even begin and make sure the creativity and expression is within whatever realms we deem digestible and proper.
It makes me upset each time I hear him now. He has become an auditory symbol of all the possibilities that aren’t allowed, “because.”
So every morning I start my day with a little bit of sadness, knowing that for some, or perhaps many, of our kids, it will be another day where we kill just a little bit of whatever they’re passionate about and get them one step closer to conformity what’s expected of them.
David Graeber writes in the concluding pages of Debt, “what else are we, ultimately, except the sum of the relations we have with others” (Kindle Locations 7961-7962).
It takes nearly 500 pages for the reader to arrive at that sentence and fully feel the weight of it, but it is a question that decides how we wish to be in the world. For Graeber, there are three ways of interacting with the people around us: communism, hierarchy, and exchange.
Communism is the “foundation” of human relations. We would not survive infancy and childhood without it. It is a system predicated on, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. A mother does not provide for her child because she is looking for something “in exchange” or to show her superiority in the ladder of hierarchy. She does so out of love because she is able and the child is in need. This is how Graeber views communism when stripped from its political and historical connotations. Ultimately, it is an expression of love, benevolence, and kindness. There is no community on earth that could survive without it and all societies are built upon it.
When engaging in this type of relation, debt doesn’t exist. Not really. Not in the form of specific quantification and the need for equivalence in repayment. There is clearly no equivalence between mother and child. They do not meet as equals and then decide to become indebted or not. Repayment doesn’t really begin to enter it. What would we think of the parent that tallied every service provided to their child and presented them with a receipt upon becoming an adult of all debts owed? They would be a monster in our eyes.
Hierarchy and exchange are the two systems we use when we aren’t giving freely. Traditionally, hierarchy arises from differences in the status and power of people. Interactions are not among equals, but debts and levels of honor are maintained. One can increase their honor by taking it from those around them. The lord with the most honor is the one that maintains the largest number of people below them, able to strip them of honor at any time. Of course, all this maintenance requires large and frequent gifts on the part of the lord, but servility and obedience is expected in return. They are not the gifts of the mother and humility, degradation, and violence await anyone that decides not to repay with servility.
Exchange is when people meet as equals. They may choose to take on debt and become unequal, but the possibility of repayment always holds out the idea that equality exists now or in the future. Of course, debt doesn’t have to be taken on at all and two people can simply exchange and part, no further relationship required. In that sense, exchange doesn’t require us to see each other as having relations at all. Our relationship ends as soon as our deal or debt ends.
Understanding these modes of interaction helps the reader once Graeber begins describing money, which comes in two essential forms, credit or coin. Credit forces us to engage in relationships because of the necessity to extend trust when interacting. When we lose trust, we lose credit. Coinage, on the other hand, allows us to interact through pure exchange with no relationship. Graeber points out that the “military-coinage-slavery complex” can arise because of this aspect of coinage.
Militaries of conquest can pay their soldiers with loot. In foreign lands with no relations, this loot can easily be turned into coin and no relations or credit are needed in order exchange goods and services. This often leads to slavery for a few reasons. Enslaving a conquered people entails stripping them of all ability to enter, form, and maintain relations with others. They are now objects, not human, and can become similar to the looted coin. They can also be harvested to create more coin and allow further military expansion. A slave can be seen as unfree because they have no relations or the ability to make them.
Graeber notes that our somewhat strange definition of private property descends from Roman law which includes the right of dominia, the full right to use and abuse as the owner sees fit. This is a direct result of the extreme version of slave rights that the Romans had. Romans were allowed to literally do anything they wished with their slaves because they had dominia over them. This was not usual or common elsewhere, even at that time, because slavery was often a temporary condition and not lifelong. The right to use and abuse non-human property, such as a table, would hardly need the legal protection encoded in the right of dominia.
In the end then, Debt is much more a book about what it means to be human than about anything financial per se. If we are to agree with Graeber about his classifications of the types of interactions we can engage in and the various outcomes that arise, we are presented with hard questions about ourselves.
More than anything else, this book forces the reader to ask about the nature of violence in human relations and what exactly it means for our humanity. The ability to exercise violence strips me of the need to “see” you at all. On the other hand, if communism is our foundation and it is predicated on love, giving with no thought of repayment, then hierarchy and exchange both rely on either debt or payment instead. They rely on valuing and pricing, not the recognition that humans or relationships can in fact be beyond value or priceless.
To put a price on something is, to a certain extent, to do violence as an alternative to acting out of love. Because we put prices on nearly everything, we have violence all around us. Admittedly, it is often tacit, hidden, and out of sight.
Where do we find it? Laws, police, and prisons. If I am hungry and steal food without paying the stated price, violence will be done to me. If I seek shelter because I am cold and homeless without paying the proper price, violence will be done to me. Most of this violence is simply threatened, but it is real if we choose to ignore it. Even in our own houses, violence is a very real threat. Own your own home outright with no mortgage? Try not paying your property taxes one year. You will quickly find police force removing you from “your” home.
When everything has a price, we aren’t required to empathize and sympathize with others as humans. We can always pay them if they’re a nuisance. This is strange though because payment is only simulated equivalence, not real, actual equality. Payment to another for injury, pain, or stress does not actually erase it.
What is the result of all these payments without sympathy? Dehumanization. If the quote that began this post is true, that we are “the sum of the relations we have with others,” then we have decidedly less humanity when we forgo entering into sympathetic relations with others from a desire to love and not harm. With enough wealth, we can essentially sever all human relations because we have no need to rely and depend on others, we can simply pay for anything we wish.
This, of course, is false precisely because we cannot in fact pay for our humanity. It arises out of those relationships we do form, not the ones we avoid, and the extent to which we are willing to extend love, trust, credit, and allow ourselves to become indebted to others in ways that are beyond repayment. Repayment we would never actually seek because to do so would be unhuman.
This final thought is the central insight of the book. Being human is being indebted to everyone around us, but that does not require us to tally up our debts and seek repayment. Being truly human entails giving and receiving freely, which is also at the heart of being free. Being unfree is to be a slave, as we saw above, and to be no longer human.
So far, I believe everything I’ve written to be true. However, this does present a problem and what I think is perhaps the key issue with modern life. For most of human history, we were poor, but free. Then we discovered the scientific method, the industrial revolution, and the rise of capitalism, which all led to wealth beyond imagination. Yet, it is extraordinarily difficult to imagine this system working without debt and hierarchy.
Does this mean that we have bought our positive freedom, or the opportunities available to us, in modern life at the expense of our more basic human freedom? Is this a mandatory trade-off, having to give up genuine relationships predicated on love in order to set precise prices and debts that must be repaid, to enable massive increases in productivity and therefore wealth and income?
Perhaps it is. Maybe humans are fated to exist as poor and free to engage in whatever relations they want or rich and enslaved to debt and masters. I truly don’t know, but I have a feeling it’s just a choice that we make. I think we can have both, but it means recognizing that certain things can’t be paid for or priced. Some things in human life should simply not rely on violence as the mediator. This will necessarily involve dialogue and some lost efficiency, but the human wealth we gain is likely more than worth any income lost.
Every year I try to share with students as early as possible that I read a lot and that I like to exercise very much. Today, some of my students asked if I still read and exercise a lot, how much it cost me, and how I have the time.
First off, I do still read and exercise a lot. Second, if I read between 70 and 100 books a year at somewhere between $10 and $20 per book, then it cost something like $1,500 a year. This kind of surprised them that I spent “so much” on books.
The next question was about how I remember information if I consume so much of it. I try to be honest; I don’t remember everything. Sometimes I just remember a single idea. However, compared to my students, I genuinely do remember much more than they think is possible and that’s for one main reason - all of my reading is self-selected based on personal interests, usually involving questions I want to find an answer to. If I read an entire textbook on building muscle, for example, then it isn’t nearly as hard for me to remember that information as a student who is trying to memorize biological pathways in a course that is one of seven they have to take in order to graduate. (For the record, mechanical tension or “weight on the bar”, metabolic stress or “the pump”, and muscle damage are the three major known pathways to muscle growth in the literature.)
With that aside, they wondered how I could read and exercise and work all day. My first, tongue-in-cheek reply was that I didn’t have to go home and take care of “one of them” after work ended like their parents did. However, that geuinely is a large part of it. I finish work at 4:30 pm and I have a gym that is about 60 seconds from my front door when I walk down the street. My home is about 12 minutes walking from work. Therefore, I can be at the gym exercising by 4:45 pm on most days. This gets me home by 6:00 pm most nights and I exercise Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, with some less structured, “free” workouts on the weekends when I feel the urge.
If I then shower and eat dinner, which is often either delivery or made by my lovely wife, I can then relax for several hours. Those several hours are typically a couple hours of TV and one to two hours of reading as I fall asleep.
So even in a typical 42.5 hour work week, I can go to the gym four times and read for five to ten hours with very little trouble. And of course, I have the whole weekend to indulge in more reading, exercising, or relaxing as I see fit! The weekend is when I typically do a lot of my writing if it’s been a busy week.
Beyond simple habits of routine, I do use several tools to help me ensure that I get this all done and “stay on track” because I simply don’t like taking it for granted that I will do these things. After all, even though I enjoy reading difficult non-fiction, squatting heavy things, and writing long articles, they are activities that are inherently difficult and increasingly so over time as texts and weights become tougher.
Here are the tools most useful for me:
Those are the relevant dashboard stats on my Goodreads page. They tell me that if I want to finish 100 books this year, I am currently 9 books behind schedule. I've been aiming for 78 (1.5 per week), so I am actually 6 ahead at the moment, but changed it for this post to see where I'm at. The two images below that show my total books and pages read, both this year and years past, which helps for comparison and goal setting.
The two images above are from the Reactive Training Systems Dashboard and show a number of important data points related to my training at the gym. I can see the weekly volume going up and down in the first image. This reflects exactly how much work I'm doing per workout and I should see it going up slowly over time.
That same image also shows my TRAC scores, which monitor stress over time and ideally those should be in the green area most of the time. If stress creeps up into the red, the my training volume will need to be reduced so that I am not carrying so much fatigue. Finally, that image also shows my latest PR's or personal records. I can easily see which exercises I've improved on and which I have not. If I am going too many workouts without new PR's, then something will need to be adjust to continue progress.
The second image shows my training calendar with Tuesday's specific workout enlarged and one of the exercises opened to reveal the actual weights, reps, and sets. This is how I actually record and plan what I'm doing day to day, week to week, and month to month. If it all seems complicated, know that I pay a coach to do this for me and so I don't actually think about any of this. I just open my workouts and do them. I can look at all the stats because they interest me, but it's really up to my coach to monitor it all and keep me moving forward. I just focus on having fun and lifting the bar.
Lastly, I do keep one eye on my page views and visitors for this site, which you can see immediately above. The Weebly phone app is actually better than the website because it gives me a little more information about weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly views. I generally try to keep the number of views going up by the year and don't really pay too much attention to the week to week changes. Of the data points I actually look at, this one is only somewhat important to me.
I know that if I am reading about 50 pages or more per day, I will read thousands of pages every year. I will be more knowledgeable next year than this year. I know that if my workout volume goes up over time, I will be stronger and have higher work capacity. I know that if my stress gets really high either subjectively or because the TRAC points tell me, then I won't feel very good and life won't be as fun. Lastly, if I'm stronger, smarter, and better off tomorrow or next year than today, I try to share it with others by writing on this website.
So how do I read, exercise, and work consistently every week? I just pick relevant data points and keep track of them. Just seeing the data keeps me focused and often more motivated than not. I do it because I want to, but there's also a positive feedback loop to the whole thing because actually seeing things go up in a positive trend is itself very motivating.
If my values changed and I suddenly thought there were activities more important than reading, writing, and exercising, I'd try to track them the best I could with some kind of tool, even if it was just a tick-box on my wall. However, for now, those are the things most important for me feeling good and the only things I consciously keep my eyes on and refuse to let slide in the long-run.
We take it for granted, much like oxygen. If asked about it, we’ll probably respond that it’s good, much like oxygen. Yet, much like oxygen, it ravages us.
When do we most appreciate oxygen? When it’s taken away. When we are gasping for it.
If you’ve ever run hard enough that it feels like your heart will burst, or you’ve been underwater long enough to fear drowning, the experience of oxygen being the most precious thing in the world is not lost on you. Yet we can’t will an appreciation of oxygen. We have to lose it first. It’s the deprivation that makes it valuable to us, not its presence.
Existence seems to be much the same. We can’t will a conscious appreciation of existence. Sure, we can reflectively notice it. We can state that we’re grateful for it. But when do we most feel an appreciation of existence in the way of the drowning person? Only when it seems it may be lost.
Fighting, violence, war. Adrenaline sports of all kinds. Jumping out of airplanes, climbing the face of a rock hundreds of feet up with little security if we fall. These are the times when existence is actually appreciated.
This is strange.
We take existence on its face to be something good. How many would willingly live an existence of simple monotony or a groundhog day in repeat? Wake up at 7 am. Shower. Brush your teeth. Dress. Eat. Commute to work. Break for lunch. Finish the second half the work day. Commute home. Eat again. Relax or catch up on chores. Watch TV. Go to sleep. Wake up. Repeat.
I don’t know many people that take the above description as good. It is existence, but it sparks almost a sense of panic. A sense of terror. Is that my life? Is that all there is?
We immediately believe there must be more. So we search. We eat new foods, anything as long as it’s different from the last meal. We travel to new places, see new movies, try new hobbies. We have sex, take drugs, and drink alcohol. Anything to escape the consciousness we have our own existence for a bit. Anything to endanger it and force an appreciation of it onto ourselves. Anything to avoid the fact the existence is inherently meaningless.
Can we do anything else? I think so. We can lean into it. We can embrace and accept it. Life is short, meaningless, and very often extremely painful. So let’s not make it more so. We will die soon. Love as many people as possible. Connect with them deeply. Eat with them, sleep with them, and speak with them. Share existence together and have fun. Play more, work less.
Humans are very, very good at doing a few things. We create prosperity, which saves us time. We develop medicine, which gives us more time by extending lives. And we invent technologies that prevent pain and suffering.
Save time, gain time, prevent pain. That’s what almost every job, profession, career, or occupation does.*
What we aren’t so good at is actually existing and living with all this extra free time we gain for ourselves. We are never quite sure what to do with it. So I suggest more fun, less work. More love, less war. It’s a choice. Avoid boredom and destruction. Enjoy life, it’s not so important that we should take it seriously all the time.
Humans are the animal best at making meaning, of discerning cause and effect. The trees rustle. What does that mean? Could be a tiger. What if it is? The tiger causes the effect of death.
Is that a valid prediction? We aren’t sticking around to find out. Sticking around to find out ends us. Assuming the meaning of a tiger in the bushes we assign to the rustling sound, prevents that end. We survive for the day and live to reproduce.
This is a wonderful tool. This ability to assign meaning, to tease out cause and effect, and to predict based on these conclusions.
We’ve been called the “wise” animal and the “language” animal, but to be wise is subjective and language is not our sole domain. Many animals use language. Many assign meaning as well, but none quite as effectively as us. We thrive at it.
We also go crazy from it. We can’t turn it off. Everything needs a meaning. Our meaning making module, or MMM, is hyperactive.
There’s a drought. What does it mean? The gods are angry. Time to sacrifice animals or possibly even other humans. That will cause them to be appeased and result in the drought ending. Did it work? One time… Let’s continue with it just to be sure.
I failed my final exam. What does it mean? I’m a failure. Stupid. Incapable of being successful in life.
My partner cheated on me. What does it mean? They don’t love me. I’m not good enough. I’m lacking.
None of these statements are logically correct. Droughts don’t mean angry gods. Failed exams don’t imply stupidity or failure. Affairs don’t have any logical connection to one partner’s feelings about the other. Of course they could. Which is part of the problem. Just because they aren’t logically connected, doesn’t mean our hyperactive MMM isn’t correct when it begins to believe these thoughts.
These leaps of meaning have catapulted us to our apex position on the planet, but they’re also largely responsible for a majority of our everyday suffering. We can learn to fight the leaps, but often they’re reactive, happening before we even consciously realize it - like mistaking a rope in the corner for a snake.
If and when we do finally figure out how to be mindful of our MMM, the problems don’t end because others continue to let theirs run wild. And when our entire generation figures out how to quiet it, we die, and the entire process has be learned again by the next, younger generation which will be captive to their MMM all over again.
It seems to me that much of maturing and coping with life is simply figuring out when to listen to the voice in our head trying its best to extract meaning. Sometimes it’s worth listening to and is correct. Sometimes it’s just a chattering stream of nonsense. Knowing the difference is huge.
*More on the Occupations
As mentioned above, it seems to me all the occupations (ways of being occupied) are concerned with really just three things - saving time, extending time, or preventing pain. Beyond these occupations we have callings, vocations.
This is my favorite definition of prosperity and comes from Matt Ridley. Prosperity is the opposite of poverty. It is the ability to save time, as opposed to self-sufficiency in which one must do all work themselves. Doing everything oneself is the mark of poverty. As societies develop, they become more prosperous. This is marked by an explosion of specialization and trade, where one can purchase nearly anything they want from others, saving the time it would otherwise take them learn and produce it themselves.
This is largely the domain of medicine and public health, but anything that wards of death for longer than traditional averages would fit here. Laws, regulations, policies. Security, police, and military. All of these things lower the chance of a person losing their life prematurely, thereby giving them more time to exist.
Not much difference from the above category, but certainly distinct. Many occupations will overlap between the two. Perhaps occupations like psychiatry make for exemplars, in which a person is not necessarily at risk of early death, just living in misery.
Vocations and using time
Of course, not every “job” will fall into the above. Some jobs are done regardless of the prosperity or security they bring. Artists are perhaps the finest exemplar in this category. However, artists clearly operate differently than many of the other jobs listed above. Many people are lawyers because it pays the bills. No one goes into art with the expectation of retiring early and in comfort. No, these types of “jobs”, if we can call them that, are done because they are what we would all do if we had only pain-free leisure time to use. Performer, artist, entertainer, sportsman, musician. There’d be no point in existing at all without these. These are the activities that allow us to both recreate and renew ourselves. A sense of joy, love, and levity are often attached to them not wholly distinct from the activities that many of us could never even hope to be paid for - sex, eating, sleeping, and relaxing with a good book or cup of coffee.
The only reason I can see for us not using much more time with these jobs and activities is that we are nearly always obsessed with meaning making or running from existence as described above. Our anxieties constantly push us in wrong directions, feeling an urgency for something we can’t quite put our finger on. This anxiety is in the end hopefulness. Hope that we aren’t the animals we are, that we can be better than we are. That we are ideal. Giving up that hope, becoming hopeless about who we are, can itself be liberating. We are animals. We aren’t perfect. But, we can love and we can be joyous, hoping for nothing more and nothing higher.
Why children differ in motivation to learn: Insights from over 13,000 twins from 6 countries
This study explored the etiology of individual differences in enjoyment and self-perceived ability for several school subjects in nearly 13,000 twins aged 9–16 from 6 countries. The results showed a striking consistency across ages, school subjects, and cultures. Contrary to common belief, enjoyment of learning and children’s perceptions of their competence were no less heritable than cognitive ability. Genetic factors explained approximately 40% of the variance and all of the observed twins’ similarity in academic motivation. Shared environmental factors, such as home or classroom, did not contribute to the twin’s similarity in academic motivation. Environmental influences stemmed entirely from individual specific experiences.
Moreover, attending different classrooms did not increase dissimilarity between twins in their levels of enjoyment and self perception of competence. Equal similarity between twins attending same and different classrooms cannot be explained with equalising effect of the shared home environment as no such effect was found in this study. These results suggest that similarity in academic motivation for any unrelated individuals stems from their chance genetic similarity, as well as similar individual-specific environmental experiences, rather than similar family/classwide experiences. Whatever the environmental influences on the levels of enjoyment and self-perceived ability are, they seem to act in a non-shared, individual-specific way, potentially interacting with genetic make-up, experiences and perceptions. Multiple individual-specific life-events, such as birth complications, missing school due to illness, and peer-relations, may contribute to motivation. Effects of family members, teachers, classes, and schools may also be non-shared: parents, siblings, and teachers may actually treat children in the same family/class differently, responding to their individual characteristics (Babad, 1993; Harris & Morgan, 1991; Spengler, Gottschling, & Spinath, 2012). On the other hand, children may perceive their parents, teachers, classmates, and schools differently (Zhou, Lam, & Chang, 2012) – depending on other non-shared environmental and genetic effects. In addition, genetic effects may differ as a function of environment. For example, research suggested that heritability of reading might be moderated by teacher quality or SES status (Taylor, Roehrig, Hensler, Connor, & Schatschneider, 2010).
True grit and genetics: Predicting academic achievement from personality.
Twin analyses of Grit perseverance yielded a heritability estimate of 37% (20% for consistency of interest) and no evidence for shared environmental influence. Personality, primarily conscientiousness, predicts about 6% of the variance in GCSE grades, but Grit adds little to this prediction. Moreover, multivariate twin analyses showed that roughly two-thirds of the GCSE prediction is mediated genetically. Grit perseverance of effort and Big Five conscientiousness are to a large extent the same trait both phenotypically (r = 0.53) and genetically (genetic correlation = 0.86). We conclude that the etiology of Grit is highly similar to other personality traits, not only in showing substantial genetic influence but also in showing no influence of shared environmental factors. Personality significantly predicts academic achievement, but Grit adds little phenotypically or genetically to the prediction of academic achievement beyond traditional personality factors, especially conscientiousness.
Understanding and Influencing Pupils' Choices as they Prepare to Leave School
The data collected here suggests, simply, that pupils who like and admire their teachers perform better than students for whom this is not the case, and this is partly for environmental reasons. It is important to note that our study design does not allow us to identify the direction of effects and a positive teacher-pupil relationship could as easily be a consequence as a cause of high achievement. A related point is that Phase 3 analyses noted that pupils with relatively high g expressed higher average opinions of their teachers. This was particularly clear for Maths and Science.
In summary, it remains unclear whether and how we can influence pupils’ choices and behaviour at this important developmental stage. However, our study has identified some key areas for discussion and further exploration. Given the prevalence of idiosyncratic experiences in our data we would also emphasise a need for ‘sensitive schooling’ in the form of personalisation and attention to individual differences. Great swathes of empirical data, including that presented here, suggests that all pupils are ‘special snowflakes’ who are likely to be helped (not harmed) by being recognised as such.
Inequality in Human Capital and Endogenous Credit Constraints
We find substantial evidence of life cycle credit constraints that affect human capital accumulation and inequality. The constrained fall into two groups: (a) the chronically poor with low initial endowments and abilities and low levels of acquired skills over the lifetime, and (b) the initially well-endowed persons with high levels of acquired skills. The first group has flat life cycle wage profiles. They remained constrained over most of their lifetimes. The second group has rising life cycle wage profiles. They are constrained only early on in life because they cannot immediately access their future earnings. As they age, their constraints are relaxed as they access their future earnings.
Equalizing cognitive ability has dramatic effects on reducing inequality in education (Table 7). Equalizing non-cognitive ability has a similar strong impact. Earnings and consumptions, including family background, has much less dramatic effects after controlling for the other first order effects of cognitive ability. Reducing tuition substantially promotes schooling, but has only minor effects on our measures of inequality. Enhancing student loan limits has minor effects on all outcomes studied. There are dramatic effects of equalizing cognition but equalizing other factors
What grades and achievement tests measure
Cognitive skills predict life outcomes. This paper reinterprets the evidence on the relationship between cognitive skills and a variety of important life outcomes by analyzing the constituent components of widely used proxies for cognitive skills—grades and achievement tests. Measures of personality predict achievement test scores and grades above and beyond IQ scores. Analyses using scores on achievement tests and grades as proxies for IQ conflate the effects of IQ with the effects of personality. Both measures have greater predictive power than IQ and personality alone, because they embody extra dimensions of personality not captured by our measures.
Why do these findings matter? Achievement tests are widely used to measure the traits required for success in school or life. It is important to know what they measure to design effective policy and use these measures to evaluate schools and teachers (evidence of teacher effectiveness on personality and its consequences for high school graduation is in ref. 28). Understanding the sources of differences in the test scores and grades used to explain the black–white achievement gap (29), the male–female wage gap (30), and other gaps by social class directs attention to what factors might be remediated (5). For example, personality or noncognitive skills are more malleable at later ages than IQ, and there are effective adolescent interventions that promote personality but are much less successful in boosting IQ (31, 32). The predictive power of grades shows the folly of throwing away the information contained in individual teacher assessments when predicting success in life.
G Is for Genes
Reading ability is distributed normally – a classic bell curve. That is, most people cluster around average ability, with a small proportion excelling and a small proportion struggling. Our ability to read is heavily influenced by our genes: estimates of heritability tend to hover between 60 and 80%. This means that a significant proportion of the differences between individuals in how well they can read can be explained by genetic influence, leaving as little as 20% to be explained by the environment in some studies (Kovas, Haworth, Dale, and Plomin, 2007; Wilcutt et al., 2010). Similar results have recently been reported from China, in spite of the very different orthography of Chinese (Chow et al., 2011). (p. 24)
Is mathematical ability heritable? Yes it is. Kovas estimated the heritability of mathematical ability among 10-year-old children, as rated by their teachers, as about two-thirds. Shared environment accounted for 12% of the ability differences between children, and nonshared environment accounted for 24%. She had carried out a similar analysis when the TEDS twins were 7 years old and reached a very similar conclusion: teacher-assessed mathematics achievement was 68% heritable, with shared environment accounting for 9% and nonshared environment 22% of the differences between children. Similar results also emerged when the children were 9 years old. In this sample at least, which is representative of the wider UK population, a heritability estimate of 60 to 70% appears to be robust throughout the early school years. This mirrors our results for reading and writing.
This is what primary school teachers are dealing with. Genetic differences at this stage are more important to mathematics achievement than differences in family income, family Monopoly or Rummikub sessions, parental education, gender, or school quality. Yet teacher training does not take them into account. In one sense, a heritability estimate of 60 to 70% tells the teacher nothing at all about what is possible, or even to be expected, from any particular child, but it should confirm that, for partly biological reasons, all of the children in her class are starting from different points and therefore need to take different next steps to develop their understanding and their ability. It should tell her that her job is to gradually draw out each child's potential rather than aiming, as a class, at some arbitrary, externally imposed target. Teachers already know this, but their methods are too often challenged by a political will to defy nature. Some kids start with a biological advantage in mathematics. It is not unreasonable to propose that those kids will develop differently from those who do not share their advantage. Is it unreasonable for education to reflect this? (pp. 44-45)
So, by the end of our study we were left with the hypotheses that positivity about school, “flow” in the classroom, and peer stress, work as nonshared environmental influences on achievement. We also saw significant relationships between peer and academic stress and “flow”; and, in some subjects at least, between “flow” and academic achievement, which suggests a possible chain-reaction. We also saw that stress was negatively associated with “flow,” suggesting the hypothesis that classroom stress is linked to low morale and that this low morale, in terms of “flow” and positivity, has a negative knock-on effect on academic achievement. Perhaps there would be merit in teaching children how to handle stress and achieve “flow” as a means of boosting their academic performance? (p. 122)
I just binged watched Netflix’s show 13 Reasons Why and then read through the following:
What Went Wrong With 13 Reasons Why?
Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide
Recommendations for Blogging on Suicide
"13 Reasons Why" Netflix Series: Considerations for Educators
NIH Suicide Statistics
The Six Reasons People Attempt Suicide
Causes of Depression
What continues to jump out at me is that every criticism comes off completely flaccid. First, it’s fiction, which appears to have no strong empirical link to an uptake in suicide rates. That is not true for TV news coverage and celebrity suicides, according to the same article. There simply doesn’t seem to be much of a clear link with fiction and real life tragedy, although we can obviously find exceptions.
Second, so what? None of the links above and none of the past readings I’ve looked at actually gives a good reason against suicide. It is labeled as a public health issue (unclear as to why) and is described as abnormal, but what does that mean? Obesity is a public health issue, but becoming more and more normal statistically. It’s fairly safe to say that being overweight or obese is statistically normal now. That’s the problem with using statistics. As abnormalities and deviations become more prevalent, they become more normal by definition. Does that mean public health concerns disappear when the issues become the norm? Is this statistical or definitional?
That isn’t to say that everyone who sees 13 Reasons Why will be compelled to kill themselves, or even that a large percentage of the audience will. “It’s not that 50 percent of the people who see a depiction of suicide will be inclined to act,” Schwartz says. “But when you think about media that’s being consumed by large numbers of people, it will have an effect on a few of them, and when you’re talking about a life-and-death effect. … It’s small statistically, but it’s obviously desperately significant.”
These types of statements can be applied to almost anything. Homicide, terrorism, war, eating bad food, driving drunk, reckless driving, etc. Car accidents accounted for 38,300 deaths in 2015. Suicides accounted for 44,193 deaths in 2015 according the NIH listed above. According to the same data, “1.4 million adults aged 18 or older attempted suicide” in 2015 and, “4.4 million were seriously injured” in car accidents. Where is the outrage? The trigger warnings? The public health expert outcry?
Those numbers are for the US, but cars become much more dangerous once we move to global numbers where total deaths outstrip suicide by 425,000. If we wanted to be consistent, we should have the same types of articles and warnings for The Fast and the Furious as we do for 13 Reasons Why and ask the same question as the Vox article above. Imagine reading an article that read,
For someone who is not struggling with reckless driving, The Fast and the Furious racing scenes are likely to be very moving. It will probably make them want to be more cautious drivers and help keep their friends from driving themselves. But for someone who is struggling with the “need for speed” thoughts, The Fast and the Furious could very well be a factor that leads toward their death.
It would be ridiculous, though not because the problem is any less severe. Unintentional injury is the number one cause of death for persons aged 10-44. Driving is the biggest issue in that category. For ages 5-19, those deaths are most likely to be as passengers and not while behind the wheel themselves. It would make sense to see more outrage over other inflicted death via cars than self inflicted death due to suicide if the issue really were about death itself.
I don’t think that’s the real issue, though. I think the real issue is that people feel guilt when they are near to a suicide. We like causes, responsibility, and blame to be clear. In most deaths, we can clearly point to those things. With suicide, we often have a need to turn the mirror inward and reflect on ourselves and what we did or didn’t do. That process is neither comfortable nor comforting in many cases.
13 Reasons Why doesn’t need any why of its own. It isn’t responsible for more suicides, at least no more so than the glamorization of fast driving, war, or other serious risks depicted in works of fiction.
Looking at a TV show as a cause misses the point. So does a focus on suicide prevention. Preventing suicide in no way gets at a root cause, a reason to actually live. Preventing a negative doesn’t magically make a positive appear. If people are depressed and prevented the option of suicide with no legitimate or valid reasons for valuing life and looking forward to the future, it merely seems like a cruel joke. Society handles this terribly, and every time I ask for an answer I receive no reply.
You don’t like suicide? Come up with a legitimate reason a person shouldn’t. Period. Until you do, I don’t want to hear about why it’s bad, wrong, weak, or should be stopped or prevented. It’s not enough to say, “Don’t do that.” The onus is on you to also say, “Because this alternative is so much better and worthwhile.”
Suicide isn’t bad. Living in deep, persistent suffering is. Fix the suffering. The character Clay Jensen captures this succinctly when he tells the school counselor,
It has to get better. The way we treat each and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow.
I've been reading more and more on the effects of schooling after posting What Does School Do Anyway? a few weeks ago. I continue to try and sort out the effects of schooling in terms of potential increases in variables such as cognitive versus non-cognitive skills, as well as income in order to understand where the biggest marginal impact of schooling comes from.
It seems more and more likely that schooling has a potentially larger effect on non-cognitive skills like self-control and physical health, than it does on dimensions like intelligence, critical thinking, or future income. Below are passages I've found to be helpful in recognizing some of these differences with hyperlinks to the books or articles. I'll try to update the information I'm looking at as I continue.
The Marshmallow Test*
In short, we are less likely to delay gratification when we feel sad or bad. Compared with happier people, those who are chronically prone to negative emotions and depression also tend to prefer immediate but less desirable rewards over delayed, more valued rewards. (p. 35)
Prolonged stress impairs the PFC, which is essential not only for waiting for marshmallows but also for things like surviving high school, holding down a job, pursuing an advanced degree, navigating office politics, avoiding depression, preserving relationships, and refraining from decisions that seem intuitively right but on closer examination are really stupid. (pp. 49-50)
*I haven't finished reading this yet.
Giving Kids a Fair Chance
GED test scores and the test scores of persons who graduate high school but do not go on to college are comparable. Yet GEDs earn at the rate of high school dropouts. GEDs are as “smart” as ordinary high school graduates, yet they lack non-cognitive skills. GEDs quit their jobs at much greater rates than ordinary high school graduates; their divorce rates are higher, too. 3 Most branches of the U.S. military recognize these differences in their recruiting strategies. GEDs attrite from the military at much higher rates than ordinary high school graduates.
Cognitive and non-cognitive skills are equally predictive of many social outcomes: a 1 percent increase in either type of ability has roughly equal effects on outcomes across the full distribution of abilities. People with low levels of cognitive and non-cognitive skills are much more likely to be incarcerated. An increase in either cognitive or non-cognitive skills equally reduces the probability of teenage pregnancy. For the lowest deciles, the drop off in incarceration with increasing non-cognitive ability is greater than with increasing cognitive ability. We find similar patterns correlating both kinds of skills to high school and college graduation, daily smoking, and lifetime earnings. (pp. 12-13).
The gaps in cognitive achievement by level of maternal education that we observe at age eighteen— powerful predictors of who goes to college and who does not— are mostly present at age six, when children enter school. Schooling— unequal as it is in America— plays only a minor role in alleviating or creating test score gaps.
A similar pattern appears for socio-emotional skills. One measure of the development of these skills is the “anti-social score”— a measure of behavior problems. Once more, gaps open up early and persist. Again, unequal schools do not account for much of this pattern. (p. 14)
A large body of evidence suggests that a major determinant of child disadvantage is the quality of the nurturing environment rather than just the financial resources available or the presence or absence of parents. For example, a 1995 study of 42 families by Betty Hart and Todd Risley showed that children growing up in professional families heard an average of 2,153 words per hour, while children in working-class families heard an average of 1,251 words per hour, and children in welfare-recipient families heard an average of 616 words per hour. Correspondingly, they found that at age three, children in the professional families had roughly 1,100-word vocabularies, in contrast with 750 words for children from working-class families, and 500 words for children of welfare recipients. (pp. 24-25)
Programs that build character and motivation, and do not focus exclusively on cognition, appear to be the most effective. (p. 35)
A growing body of evidence does suggest that cognitive skills are established early in life and that boosting raw IQ and problem-solving ability in the teenage years is much harder than doing so when children are young. But social and personality skills are another story. They are malleable into the early twenties, although early formation of these skills is still the best policy because they boost learning. Adolescent strategies should boost motivation, personality, and social skills through mentoring and workplace-based education. (pp. 37-38)
The scarce resource is love and parenting— not money. (p. 41)
The replication was called the Infant Health and Development Program (IHDP). It had a randomly selected treatment group of 377 and a control group of 608, all of them low– birth weight babies. For each infant the intervention began upon discharge from the neonatal nursery and continued until the child reached 36 months of age. The program had three components: frequent home visits by a trained counselor, attendance at a child development center five days a week for at least four hours beginning at twelve months, and parent group meetings after the children reached twelve months. The intervention was designed on the Abecedarian model and in many ways was more intensive.
The first follow-ups at 24 and 36 months were highly positive. By the time the participants were age five, however, most of those results had disappeared. In the follow-up at age eighteen, the results for the treatment and control children showed no effect for any of the indicators, which covered intellectual ability, academic achievement, behavioral problems, and physical health. (pp. 64-65)
the experience of early childhood intervention programs follows the familiar, discouraging pattern that led him to formulate his laws: small-scale experimental efforts staffed by highly motivated people show effects. When they are subject to well-designed large-scale replications, those promising signs attenuate and often evaporate altogether. (p. 68)
Head Start is the federal government’s primary early childhood program, with a budget of almost $ 8 billion. According to its most recent assessment by the Department of Health and Human Services, it has almost no lasting, positive cognitive effects, and its few, persisting social-emotional impacts are mixed positive and negative. It also suffers from widespread management problems, with federal officials struggling to keep tabs on providers and hesitant to dock poor performers. What seems to have kept it alive is advocacy by providers and widespread support for its mission.
California’s class-size reduction illustrates the huge constraints on taking resource-intensive programs to scale. Inspired by the successful Tennessee STAR experiment, California undertook statewide class-size reduction in the 1990s. The effort failed, producing no conclusive achievement gains while creating a major shortage of qualified teachers. California simply couldn’t staff all the new rooms. (pp. 86-87)
Cognitive skills solidify by age eleven or so. For them, early development is important. Personality is malleable until the mid-twenties. This is a consequence of the slowly developing prefrontal cortex that regulates judgment and decision-making. These fundamental biological and psychological facts explain why successful remediation strategies for adolescents focus on improving personality skills. I cite evidence from effective early intervention programs with 30 or more years of follow-up. They have been rigorously evaluated and show benefit-cost ratios and rates of return that compete with those of stock market investments in normal years.
All of the respondents agree that the early years are important and that families play important roles in shaping the child. Lelac Almagor and Carol Dweck note that it would be helpful to parse out which features of the successful interventions lead to success— to “go into the black box” of program treatment effects. I agree. My colleagues and I have done so by establishing that the substantial effects of the Perry program are due to improvements in the personality traits of the participants. The next generation of intervention studies needs to move beyond reporting treatment effects in order to understand the precise interventions that produce the measured effects and the mechanisms through which they operate. (pp. 126-127)
Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses
A notable finding emerges with respect to the amount of time students spend studying (see table A4.2 in methodological appendix). There is a positive association between learning and time spent studying alone, but a negative association between learning and time spent studying with peers. (Kindle Locations 2032-2034)
What students bring to college matters; this is particularly the case with respect to their academic preparation (SAT/ACT performance, number APs, HS GPA). (Kindle Locations 2349-2350)
when faculty have high expectations and expect students to read and write reasonable amounts, students learn more. In addition, when students report that they have taken a class in which they had to read more than forty pages a week and write more than twenty pages over the course of a semester, they also report spending more time studying: more than two additional hours per week than students who do not have to meet such requirements.67 Thus, requiring that students attend to their class work has the potential to shape their actions in ways that are conducive to their intellectual development. (Kindle Locations 2362-2367)
The final analysis—which includes all background measures, college experiences, and institutions attended— explains 42 percent of the variation in CLA scores. This is a substantial amount by social science standards, although it does imply that much more research is needed to understand the remaining variance. Within our analyses, college experiences and institutions attended explained an additional 6 percent of the variance, after controlling for academic preparation and other individual characteristics.68 While that may appear to be a small contribution, academic preparation, which has received much attention in research and policy circles, explains only an additional 8 percent of the variance beyond students’ background characteristics.69 These estimates may seem low, but this is because of our analytic strategy: we are focusing on growth and are thus controlling for 2005 CLA scores, which, as would be expected, explain the largest portion of the variance in 2007 CLA performance. Thus, students’ college experiences and institutions attended make almost as much of a difference as prior academic preparation. If the blame for low levels of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills of college students is to be placed on academic preparation, then almost an equal amount of responsibility rests with what happens after students enter higher education. (Kindle Locations 2370-2381)
Returns to Education: The Causal Effects of Education on Earnings, Health and Smoking
Graduating high school benefits all—and especially low-ability persons. Only high-ability individuals receive substantial benefits from college graduation.
Higher ability is associated with higher earnings and more schooling. However, as shown by the grey bars in Figure 2, adjusting for family background and adolescent measures of ability attenuates, but does not eliminate, the estimated least squares estimates of the effects of education.
Disaggregating by ability, the effects are strong for high-ability people who enroll in college. They are especially strong for those who graduate college. We find little to no evidence of any benefit of graduating college for low-ability individuals.77 In fact, the point estimates are negative, albeit imprecisely estimated. Although there are wage rate benefits to low-ability people for enrolling in college (Figure 4A), the benefits in terms of the log present value of wages are minimal. For these people, the wage benefits of attending college barely offset the lost work experience and earnings from attending school.
Our findings thus support the basic insights of Becker (1964). Schooling has strong causal effects on market and non-market outcomes. Both cognitive and non-cognitive endowments affect schooling choices and outcomes. People sort into schooling based on realized incremental gains.
The Labor Market Returns to Cognitive and Noncognitive Ability: Evidence from the Swedish Enlistment
We find strong evidence that men who fare poorly in the labor market—in the sense of unemployment or low annual earnings—lack noncognitive rather than cognitive ability. However, cognitive ability is a stronger predictor of wages for skilled workers and of earnings above the median.
cognitive ability is a much stronger predictor of higher education than noncognitive ability. For example, cognitive ability is an almost four times stronger predictor of a university degree than noncognitive ability
Understanding household financial distress: The role of noncognitive abilities
Character skills are part genetics and part the influence of early childhood experience. In adulthood, these skills are hard to change. Using panel data, we find that a person's noncognitive skills are highly correlated over time. More research, however, should be devoted to whether traumatic events can alter a person’s abilities, either in the short run or even permanently.
Also targeting young children to design educational programs that develop noncognitive abilities would be highly cost-effective. Recent research shows the return on investment in education from birth to age five is 13% (Garcia et al. 2016). High-quality education should not only foster cognitive skills, such as the ability to acquire and retain knowledge (Heckman et al. 2013, Cunha et al. 2010). Character – perseverance, motivation, self-esteem, emotional stability, and conscientiousness – is important too, as this research has shown. Improved noncognitive abilities will greatly influence financial wellbeing, income, education, and health throughout the life of an individual.
Rethinking education, work and ‘employability’
However, human capital theory fails the test of realism, truncating possible knowledge about education and work, because of weaknesses in its meta-method: theorisation using a single lens, closed system modeling of social relations, the application of mathematical tools to inappropriate materials, and the multivariate analysis of interdependent variables. These weaknesses lead to numerous lacunae. For example human capital theory cannot explain status objectives, which are more important for some graduates, and in some countries, than others; or how education augments productivity; or why top-end salary inequality has increased dramatically in some countries. The limitations of human capital theory are discussed with reference to research on social stratification, work, earnings and education.
Mark Watney: At some point, everything's gonna go south on you... everything's going to go south and you're going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That's all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem... and you solve the next one... and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home. All right, questions?
I watched The Martian for the second time this past weekend and I’ve been thinking about the above quote since. It seems to capture much of what life and existence is - a series of problems. We can accept problems as they arise and live with them or we can begin working to solve them.
Regardless of how many we choose to work on and possibly solve along the way, more will pop up. Life is problems, sequentially encountered, often in parallel, until we die.
Framing it this way has actually been really nice for coping with that reality because it highlights the futility of working on all problems, all the time. Instead, I can simply focus on the problems that are meaningful to me and that I would feel satisfied with advancing solutions to and accept the rest, which will hopefully be picked up and solved by others.
We call all of this collective problem solving “progress”.
I think the central problem I can most contribute a partial solution to is student suffering and wasted potential from the systemic issues with modern schooling. That’s an endless problem, but I can chip away at it with each student I encounter.
There are many other problems that concern me greatly: absolute and relative poverty, health and healthcare, equality of rights. However, those seem beyond my maximal effective impact. I enjoy highlighting them as potential problems that some of my students may wish to take up in the future, but I am better equipped to help them than I am to reduce poverty, disease, or legal protections for oppressed groups of people.
I also am not sure that my best personal fit will be in classroom teaching. I think classrooms are some of the major contributors to the student suffering and wasted potential I mentioned above. I am still figuring out how to chip away at the problem. I know from experience, I’ve felt most successful in one-on-one tutoring or adult education. Perhaps I will return to those or something else entirely.
I recently had a long talk about what I perceive to be the mental health community’s ongoing failure. They simply aren’t being very successful in terms of meaningful impact on the problem of depression from the evidence I’ve seen. I’m clearly not an expert in this field, but any reasonably educated person can read through research reviews and summaries and draw at least a few conclusions.
First, the economic burden of depression is increasing. I imagine at least some of that is from a profit motive as depression becomes ever more clinicalized. Second, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US. Third, the rate of suicide has surged dramatically over the past 30 years, increasing by 24 percent overall since 1999. Fourth, the average age of onset for depression has decreased from 29.5 to between 14 and 15, while also seeing rates increase between 10 and 20 times in the same 30 year period. Fifth, these numbers for depression affect about seven percent of the total population in the US and people are 50 percent likely to relapse after the first episode. Sixth, depression affects 300 million globally and suicide is the second(!!) leading cause of death for ages 15-29. Seventh, these issues are largely considered the result of modernity.
When I see depression and suicide going up, with higher economic burdens over time, and that relapse is very likely to happen, then I conclude the mental health community is largely ineffective at the moment. The direction these numbers are moving is not the direction we want. I don’t hold them responsible for this or think they aren’t doing their best. The numbers just suggest a certain, very specific, reality despite their efforts.
I also recently wrote an article titled School Is Ruining Society. After talking about the above for over an hour with a colleague and reflecting on it even more post-dialog, it seems to me there is an argument to be made that connects the rates of depression cum suicide and the ideas discussed in my article on the failure of school. That connection is that school teachers learned helplessness and that results in many of the issues we are seeing today.
What is learned helplessness? “Learned helplessness is the belief that our own behavior does not influence what happens next, that is, behavior does not control outcomes or results.” For a book length understanding, see Christopher Peterson’s book.
Now think about school. Does any student’s behavior influence what happens next in a genuine way? Does their behavior control the outcomes and results that matter to them? Sure, if they study harder, they can learn their behavior partially controls their test results. That seems a limp victory though. Does their behavior give them any control over the actual subjects, topics, concepts, or skills they learn? Does their behavior control their schedule, room, seat, or surrounding peers? Do they have any control over the tests, scoring, rubrics? What about actual physical action? Do they control when they get to sit, stand, exercise, design or create projects? The answer to all of these questions seems obvious to me.
Remember the average age of the onset of depression above - between 14 and 15? That is roughly when students start entering high school. It’s also the average, so some will experience the onset earlier in middle school. That is roughly the same time that students are likely becoming ever more conscious that their behavior has little impact on the outcomes and results important to them. Before that time, young children are often highly interested in receiving approval and praise from adults and so throughout much of elementary school a student’s behavior does have some direct impact on the outcomes meaningful to them.
I don’t know if teaching and focusing on learned optimism, the opposite of learned helplessness, as "a" or "the" primary aim of schooling throughout the middle and high school years would fix all of these issues. Obviously our environments are made up of many factors beyond school. However, I suspect learned optimism is one of the primary mechanisms behind a variety of other interventions popular in education.
Think about the ideas of “growth mindset”, “grit”, and “deliberate practice”. A growth mindset occurs when individuals believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others). Grit is defined as the “tendency to pursue long-term challenging goals with perseverance and passion”. It is largely mediated by deliberate practice, which “involves stepping outside your comfort zone and trying activities beyond your current abilities. While repeating a skill you’ve already mastered might be satisfying, it’s not enough to help you get better. Moreover, simply wanting to improve isn’t enough — people also need well-defined goals and the help of a teacher who makes a plan for achieving them.”
To the extent the above three ideas are absorbed by students, they learn that their behaviors affect outcomes - the opposite of learned helplessness. They are also all highly correlated with positive life outcomes or what we might generally call “success”. If teachers can flock to and adopt these ideas so readily, could we not also dive a little deeper and take notice when class activities may be leading down the wrong path of learned helplessness? I would argue most other learning in school is of secondary importance. Math ability or reading ability is of little importance if students also leave school depressed and suicidal.
What’s happening now isn’t working. We can’t continue living in a society where our youth are learning their actions don’t matter and not prepare them with skills to affect change. Students deserve to both learn and know, deep in their bones, that their behavior and desired outcomes matter to us adults and that we can and will help them to actualize their interests and goals.