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.”