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Genes, Politics, and Schools

July 9, 2014

Thomas Edsall’s column in today’s NYTimes attempts to answer the question posed in it’s title: How Much Do Our Genes Influence Our Political Beliefs? Edsall cites two recent studies of the political attitudes of fraternal and identical twins that independently conclude that political leanings are determined by genetics to  larger extent than previously believed. The researchers determined that attitudes toward “…authoritarianism, conservatism and religiousness” are inherited to a large degree and are, therefore, difficult to change. Edsall’s conclusion from these findings is summarized in two paragraphs:

From this perspective, the Democratic Party — supportive of abortion rights, same-sex marriage and the primacy of self-expressive individualism over obligation to family — is irreconcilably alien to a segment of the electorate. And the same is true from the opposite viewpoint: a Republican Party committed to right-to-life policies, to a belief that marriage must be between a man and a woman, and to family obligation over self-actualization, is profoundly unacceptable to many on the left.

If these predispositions are, as Friesen and Ksiazkiewicz argue, to some degree genetically rooted, they may not lend themselves to rational debate and compromise.

What does this have to do with education? For decades education has shied away from any discussion of genetic predispositions and learning… and progressive educators in particular have rejected research linking learning and genetics as counter-productive. Edsall notes that several political scientists have also questioned the value of this kind of research, and his concluding paragraph addresses this issue head on:

Why are we afraid of genetic research? To reject or demonize it, especially when exceptional advances in related fields are occurring at an accelerating rate, is to resort to a know-nothing defense. A clear majority of those involved in the study of genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology are acutely aware of the tarnished research that produced racist, sexist and xenophobic results in the past. But as the probability of a repetition of abuses like these diminishes, restrictions on intellectual freedom, even if they consist only of psychological barriers, will prove counterproductive. We need every tool available to increase our understanding of our systems of self-governance and of how we came to be the political animals that we are.

The research linking genetics to learning is, in my mind, analogous to the use of “big data” to inform instruction: in both cases advances in science have the potential to provide a means of enhancing learning but, in both cases, the advances assume that science and technology will be used for good and not for ill. To paraphrase Edsall, to avail ourselves of the potentially positive results of science and technology we need to assume that “the probability of a repetition of abuses” is diminishing…. we need to have faith that data sharing will not result in an invasion of privacy and that genetics will not be used to sort and select some students into a permanent underclass. and ultimately this is not a question of faith in science or technology… it is a question of faith in our fellow man.

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