Making the most of what you've got

Asians, Jews and West Indian blacks have succeeded because of their diligence, respect for education and family stability, argues Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times.

Richard Nisbett cites each of these groups in his superb recent book, Intelligence and How to Get It. Dr. Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, argues that what we think of as intelligence is quite malleable and owes little or nothing to genetics.

. . . the evidence is overwhelming that what is distinctive about these three groups is not innate advantage but rather a tendency to get the most out of the firepower they have.

One large study followed a group of Chinese-Americans who initially did slightly worse on the verbal portion of I.Q. tests than other Americans and the same on math portions. But beginning in grade school, the Chinese outperformed their peers, apparently because they worked harder.

The Chinese-Americans were only half as likely as other children to repeat a grade in school, and by high school they were doing much better than European-Americans with the same I.Q.

The weapon against poverty is “education, education and education,” writes Kristof. And family culture, which is not so easy to influence.

Indian-Americans have won seven of the last 11 national spelling bees, notes James Maguire in the Wall Street Journal. It’s not enough to be a workaholic.

Top spellers must be able to make an educated guess about obscure words using their wide-ranging knowledge of etymology, science, geography, history and literature.

So a top speller needs a rise-at-dawn work ethic and a multidisciplinary education. Still, you ask, why are there so many Indian winners given the fact that people of Indian descent only make up around 1% of the U.S. population? Surely there are American kids of all backgrounds who are hard workers with a great education.

Of course there are. Yet an outsized share of Indian pride is attached to achievements in traditional education.

Top spellers’ families tend to be bookish, Maguire writes. “Yet it was the Indian parents that consistently repeated the mantra: For us, it’s all about education.”

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  1. It’s the culture, stupid.

  2. Nisbett’s book is excellent and should be required reading for anyone who wants to contribute to reforming public education, especially the bottom performing thirty percent. He cites some fascinating cultural history concerning Jewish Americans – notably that they account for less than two percent of the population, but more than forty percent of our Nobel prize winners. The cultural emphasis on literacy is a key.

    Additionally, I’ve often noted to my students that the average West Indian college student in America finishes a bachelor degree in three years. The average American student takes five and a half.

    Very telling information about the emphasis that culture plays in educational success.

  3. linda seebach says:

    Arthur Jensen and Phillippe Rushton have written an extensive critique of Nisbett’s book, at

    I’m sure the usual suspects will jump in with ad hominem attacks on the authors, but I urge the rest of you to ignore that and read what they have to say.

    Steve Sailer, at, discusses Kristof’s credulity.

  4. It is nice to have serious studies of this. If I remember correctly, James Fallows made this observation in his book “More Like Us” twenty years ago. He noticed that the valedictorians at a black high school all had french surnames, and worked out that they were from the West Indes.

  5. Margo/Mom says:

    “Top spellers must be able to make an educated guess about obscure words using their wide-ranging knowledge of etymology, science, geography, history and literature.”

    I recall the documentary on the national Spelling Bee several years ago. It followed a number of spellers. One young man was from an Indian family who truly mustered all of the family resources to support the effort (training in other languages, coaching, etc–a project of the entire extended family). There was the enchanting kid who might have been categorized as on the autism spectrum, who was just hooked on the process of spelling. Another kid lived a pretty isolated life on a farm somewhere in rural America–if I recall correctly his family spoke English as a second language–Spanish being first.

    The girl who stood out for me (and who has been followed since from time to time) was from DC. She had done quite well in learning all of the words for the early rounds, by memorizing from the book provided. When headed for the nationals, her teacher/coach had tried to find out what she should study next and was dismayed to find out that there was no “material” at that level–only, perhaps the dictionary. I remember a particular sadness that this child, who had a supportive family, and a teacher who was willing to help, wasn’t going to go far because there was no one who understood how to help her learn what she needed to know next–which is precisely that predictive ability that comes from etymology, knowledge of other languages, etc. I also remember the word that she went down on. It was ecclesiastical. I was really rooting for her–and I thought she would get that one, because clearly she was a child who had had exposure to a Bible. She had to have seen the book of Ecclesiastes at some point. But, her education was only centered on learning the facts, not on making connections or drawing conclusions.

    What is important in Nisbett’s book is the rejection of a genetic limitation on learning ability. I don’t know that this places the difference in learning outcomes on “family culture,” though. American culture as a whole has frequently been indicted as believing that intelligence, or learning power, is innate and can only be altered within limits. This goes beyond families, and infects public education policy and practice.

  6. Margo/Mom,

    “American culture as a whole has frequently been indicted as believing that intelligence, or learning power, is innate and can only be altered within limits.”

    Let me suggest an alternative wording as I think that people have an innate ability to learn and I have yet to meet anyone omniscient. “American culture at times has encouraged the judging of people to be worthy or unworthy of an education. And one of the tragic results was that people were judged unworthy of an education before any substantial effort was made to educate them.” Perhaps you meant even more, but I’ll leave it at that.

    Personally I suspect there are innate differences in intelligence. Perhaps even significant differences in intelligence if one only focuses on two individuals. But I also suspect that making open ended judgments on these differences is irrelevant. First, I’d agree with the point being made that effort can significantly improve intelligence and that result can make significant differences to life outcomes. And that those outcomes matter to individuals and society as a whole. Second, even the most intelligent people are still limited. This means there are plenty of problems and opportunities available for everyone else.

  7. I don’t disagree with anything that’s been said so far; quite the contrary, but I think there is another factor. I think all good spellers have read widely, but they have also trained their memories to remember what they have read/seen. I can’t remember the source, but I remember reading that it is typical of Indian schools/culture to stress memorization; therefore stretching kids’ memory capacity.

    Back in the Dark Ages, it was typical of both public and private schools here to expect memorization of a wide variety of things from all areas of academia; science, history and literature. That seems to have been abandoned decades ago, on the grounds that “you can always look it up”, but memory works in the same way as muscles. Regular workouts increase capacity. I know Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Trained Mind addresses this issue and her homeschool curriculum stresses it.

    I’d be interested to know if there are still any schools that require kids to memorize things. For example: state/national capitals, political/physical geography, Preamble to the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Gettysburg Address, passages from classic literature (Shakespeare, poetry etc), the classes/phyla in biology, chemical symbols, structure/function of the solar system, the Dewey Decimal System, American presidents, important dates/events/people in history. My kids are all out of college, but they didn’t do much of that in school. Witchy parents quizzed that kind of stuff at home or in the car.

  8. Margo/Mom says:

    pm–I don’t disagree with you. I would add, though, that frequently the judgments with regard to determine who was/was not (or is/is not) worthy of education followed racial ethnic lines, and there are still those today who will swear that any differences in educational outcome by racial/ethnic group are the results of inherited differences rather than either group or larger societal culture, or any differences in educational inputs.

    While I would generally agree that there may be limits, I am not at all certain that we know much of anything about what they are, or how to define them. There are all kinds of new things being discovered about cognitive development, the ability to recover mental capacity following traumatic brain injury, not to mention the uncovering of capacity in individuals (people who are deaf or blind, autistic, having various kinds of neurological, mental, physical or emotional disorders) who at one time were simply written off as hopelessly defective. I would say that over the course of history we have more often been wrong than right when judging the “limitations,” particularly of groups to learn. Recall the limitations that have been assumed with regard to females, African Americans, the Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Polish, Appalachians, Native Americans, the Chinese, and on and on.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    If you are or know a teacher, you will know of kids who seem to work hard, put in the time, and just don’t do well. The only explanation is that they lack the horsepower. It’s sad.
    There are other kinds of intelligence, of course. There’s the guy who just doesn’t get a joke because he simply cannot manage hyperbole, metaphor, or anything not literal and concrete. Used to have a guy like that here. We’d be laughing at a joke and he’d be explaining why it was impossible. Bright guy, though.
    So it’s mostly culture or it’s mostly heritable.
    Either one is a problem. If it’s culture, you’re judging a CULTURE, for heaven’s sake, and where do you get off doing that? You’re BLAMING people. You’re blaming the victim.
    You’re taking away a handy excuse, and that I will not forgive. Oops. Got carried away there.

  10. I still think that more kids would do better if they were explicitly taught what they need to know for acacademic success, rather than expecting them to discover it on their own or by pooling the combined ignorance in groupwork.

  11. One of the things I really enjoy about teaching my autistic peeps is figuring out where the “blocks” are and ways around them. It’s like a puzzle.

    I think most people are pretty much intelligent enough to do most things if they want to. Want is usually the issue.

  12. I think it’s worth reading Neil Steinberg on spelling bees. I’m all for reading, but spelling’s sort of a terminal skill–just because you can spell a word, doesn’t mean you really understand the meaning.

    But the determination and work ethic needed to compete in anything like a spelling bee, science fair, forensics, etc., is very important for a student. That’s the take-away for me.

  13. momof4

    Dewey decimal system is replaced by Library of Congress in most higher level libraries. Memorization isn’t stressed, per se, but plenty of kids know HTML, which requires the same firing of synapses.

  14. Ragnarok says:

    I think there’s a fair amount of evidence to indicate that both nature and nurture are important. One’s achievements may, I believe, be considered to be the sum of one’s intelligence and effort.

    I’m not inclined to take psychologists on faith, particularly when they talk about hard science. A look at Nisbett’s CV isn’t reassuring; he got an AB in Psychology and a Ph.D. from the department of Scial Psychology. In general they’re not the sharpest knives in the block, except in their own minds.

    As for Mr. Kristof, there’s little to say except “What do you expect from the NYT”? It’s interesting to see him leaping to a recommendation:

    “For at-risk households, that starts with social workers making visits to encourage such basic practices as talking to children.”

    Right, the same social workers who’ve made such a mess of their jobs.


    “The next step is intensive early childhood programs, followed by improved elementary and high schools, and programs to defray college costs.”

    Yes, now that we know so much about how to run public schools!

    Where do they find these people?

  15. Miller Smith says:

    I would like to see him make a tree intelligent since the genetic code for making a brain is not a necessary condition.

  16. John Thacker says:

    When I think of Richard Nisbett, I always think of his fascinating “Culture of Honor” book demonstrating how cultural norms of honor in the American South and elsewhere affect behavior. He’s done some interesting research showing that, perhaps unexpectedly, Southerners are more polite in general but much more likely to be aggressive if they feel that politeness norms are not respected.

  17. John Thacker says:
  18. Tracy W says:

    So it’s mostly culture or it’s mostly heritable.

    Or it’s brain damage, or something about how the brain grew in the womb. I have a mild case of dyspraxia. No one knows what causes that, no history of that in my family.

  19. Miller T. Smith says:

    Why aren’t there any Down’s doctors? Is it a failure of the education system?

  20. Tracy W says:

    Miller T. Smith, that’s not really an answerable question. If there are no Down’s doctors, it may be because people with Downs syndrome are incapable of learning enough to become doctors, at least until medical science can fix brains, or it may be that there are ways of teaching poeple with Down’s syndrome sufficient information to become doctors but the education system hasn’t discovered that yet. And I don’t know of any way, outside the field of mathematics, to tell the difference between “this can’t be done” and “this could be done but we don’t know how.”

    But, if we are in the second situation, it seems extremely perfectionist of you to say that it would be due to the failure of the education system. Other professions, such as medicine and engineering, still don’t know how to do many things, does that really mean that they’re failing? Or does it just mean that they haven’t succeeded at everything yet? Would you really call Alexander Flemning a failure because he didn’t discover a cure for cancer along with a cure for bacterial infection? Or say that engineering has failed because the engineers haven’t yet developed robots that can do the housework?

  21. “A look at Nisbett’s CV isn’t reassuring; he got an AB in Psychology and a Ph.D. from the department of Scial Psychology.”

    I guess its no longer just race. It could simply be an interest one develops. Well what can one expect from people who graduate Summa cum laude from Tufts 🙂

  22. Miller T. Smith says:

    Tracy W., I was taking a shot at Dr. Nesbitt’s assertion, “…what we think of as intelligence is quite malleable and owes little or nothing to genetics.” This is such a obvious untruth told only to be politically correct and thus to get money and social position for one’s self. This is a deeply dishonest professor.

  23. linda seebach says:

    Miller Smith is right that Nesbitt’s claim about intelligence and genetics is untrue. It was just barely tenable when Stephen Jay Gould published his tendentious book, “The Mismeasure of Man,” but 20 years of progress in genetics has rendered it ridiculous. (Though it is true that a lot of people, including some who comment here, still believe it.)

    Maintaining a false belief in the face of overwhelming evidence comes at a cost. Why are destructive policies like heterogeneous classrooms and group learning still acceptable practice? Because they allow districts to disguise the (statistical) achievement gaps in their students. Why are passing scores on teacher-entry exams set so low? Because states can’t risk having huge disparities in passing rates. Why is portfolio assessment popular? Because it can be manipulated to produce politically palatable results. Why is gifted education so unpopular? Because not enough of the right people qualify for it.

    Even within a narrow range of IQ, there is wide variation in academic performance. If schools focused on ensuring that all children moved toward the top performance in their range — that is, “making the most of what you’ve got” — we’d have much better outcomes.

  24. “Even within a narrow range of IQ, there is wide variation in academic performance. If schools focused on ensuring that all children moved toward the top performance in their range — that is, “making the most of what you’ve got” — we’d have much better outcomes.”

    Although I also suspect that Dr. Nisbett’s language is probably too strong, the whole idea of trying to fit people in ranges is useless and probably destructive. A much better idea is to stretch the current capabilities of students by making school work difficult but not too difficult.

  25. linda seebach says:

    But pm, schools don’t have to “fit” people in ranges; they’re already *in* ranges, just as they’re in ages or heights (or sexes or races). Your idea is great, but to implement it requires tailoring school work to where children are, without regard to whether their classmates are the socially acceptable mixture of ages/heights/sexes/races.

  26. True, but that doesn’t make it useful or productive. And as I’ve blogged before I’d like to see that changed.

  27. If you’re going to read Nesbitt, read Albion’s Seed, which explains who settled where in the US. Andrew Jackson was the first “trailer trash” president, and he horsewhipped a man who insulted his wife.

  28. Tracy W says:

    Miller T Smith – thanks for explaining.

  29. Ragnarok says:

    Very late, but this article is well worth reading in light of Senor Kristof’s recommendation that social workers be more involved in caring for at-risk kids:,0,7089592,full.story

    One memorable sentence:

    “Four more years went by as the union representing social workers argued that the system would unreasonably increase workloads, Ploehn said. The union did not respond to a request for comment.”