significantly more than you wanted to know

They would not admit me, first of all, at RUMC. The more-or-less explicit reason was that I was unwilling to say that I was a physical danger to myself. This was not so much a matter of pride on my part as a matter of honesty; I was in rough, rough shape, but I was not in danger of self-harm. So I left with my brother, who had come up from DC to take care of me, sedatives in hand, and proceeded to look for outpatient care. I remember walking out onto a Staten Island street and just thinking, what the fuck do I do now?

It was a wearying ordeal to get into treatment. Maybe I’ll write about it someday. But I am in treatment, now, and have been for four months. I am blessed with a great prescribing psychiatrist, thanks to help from my friend Katie Halper. Finding a working therapy solution has been much harder, but I have done some short-term CBT and I’ve Skyped with a psychoanalyst.

I am on a comprehensive meds regimen. I am on the largest dosage of lithium I’ve ever been on. I’m on olanzapine, an antipsychotic. Accepting that I need to be on an antipsychotic medication has been a key step, for me, and one of many ways in which this time has been different than the past. I am on fluoxetine (Prozac). I’m on Wellbutrin. I was on Lamictal but I had an allergic reaction and we had to drop it. I have prescriptions for Xanax for anxiety and Ambien for sleep. (Don’t worry, I consider avoiding benzo addiction to be one of my hobbies these days.)

One thing you learn: there’s no such thing as just the right level of concern. Like, you tell people you’re bipolar, and they think you’re kind of a moody fellow. You tell them you’re on antipsychotics and they think you belong in Arkham Asylum.

The side effects are what they are. I have tolerated olanzapine in a way I have never tolerated Seroquel or risperdal and for that I’m grateful. But, god, the hunger. The olanzapine causes hunger pangs, omnipresent and gnawing, all day, every day. If I’m not careful I could just write about the hunger for hundreds of words. Hunger in the morning and at night. Hunger right after I eat. Hunger that dominates my mental life. I went to a meeting at my union hall and they had pizzas laid out on a table. I took three slices and went and sat down and while I was eating one – while pizza was literally in my mouth – I began to stress about when I could go back up to get more, when it would be socially acceptable to get seconds. I Googled around about olanzapine hunger and I felt so validated to read other people, talking about 50 pound weight gain, about being forced off the drug by the hunger. One person wrote that it’s like having a hole in your stomach and that sounds about right. I have all sorts of little tricks to try and deal with it; I drink coffee and seltzer by the gallon. (No joke, I average 5 liters of seltzer a day.) Still I’m up 20 pounds since August. It feels like a war of attrition I’m bound to lose.

Other than that, the side effects are alright. I go to bed absurdly early unless I really fight to stay up. Some acne. My hands shake sometimes. I have to pee a dozen times a day. At first I had some verbal dysfunction but it faded, thank god. Mostly at first there was just the permanent sense of being altered, the familiar sense that I was a few degrees off from everybody else, a haziness. I no longer feel that way, usually. The question I guess is if it went away or if I simply got used to it, if I have a new normal. All I can really perceive is just enough of an increase in mental effort to do everyday things, just enough to notice. Writing. Writing is so much harder than it was.

There have been some other annoyances. The logistics, the travel, the time off work, the expense. I struggled with agoraphobia for months after, scared to be seen, scared of people. They tell me it’s pretty common with people who go inpatient and so I feel like it wouldn’t be unusual for someone in my situation. Anyhow, it’s much easier now, although I’m still frightened of being seen in a way I can’t quite express. I mostly keep my world small.

I’m sober. Occasionally I go to AA meetings but I am not really doing the steps; it’s partly the god and partly the submission and partly I’ve read the research. But it is profoundly comforting to know that the meetings are out there, so many meetings. You have to give credit to the 12 Step people on this: I can look on a website and find a dozen meetings in a dozen neighborhoods at many different times of the day. The whole thing is set up to make attending meetings as easy as possible. The contrast with finding a therapist is really stark. Anyway: sobriety’s fine. It’s been easy. I mean it sucks, but it hasn’t been difficult. I’ve been to bars with friends and not had any temptation. I just miss beer. I made a pot roast while it was snowing the other night and it felt criminal to not drink a nice stout. But I’m committed to sobriety and it has clear and direct rewards.

Everything with me is rituals and rules now.

Getting off of social media was easy too, although I’m sure it would have been harder had it not come with such dramatic upheaval. There’s this unusual feeling that no one is selling anything to you, off of social media. In this era we’re all constantly trying to sell visions of ourselves to those around us, electronically, and cutting that out of my life has left me with relationships that seem at once more natural and more deliberate. Do I miss it sometimes? Sure. I hate to give Facebook any credit at all, but without it things do seem a bit more lonely. There are people I miss. I have this permanent sense of not knowing what’s happening, partly by design; I am not really reading the news lately and tend to avoid takes like the plague. But socially, it’s tough. I have no idea what’s going on in people’s lives. And people are in touch and then they stop being in touch, and I never know why. Probably because of something I’ve done.

I thank god for my union. My strong health insurance, that’s thanks to the NYC public sector unions and how they’ve fought. My prescription drug benefit comes directly from my union. My generous sick leave days are thanks to my union. Had I exhausted them, I would have been able to draw from a pool of shared sicked days that others have donated, thanks to my union. My boss has been great about everything, very supportive, but if that had not been the case, I would have been able to rely on the muscle of my union, on the grievance system. I thank god for my union.

I’ve thrown myself into activism work with my housing rights group. It’s a wonderful radical, deeply pragmatic organization. Housing is such a primal need, and the people who work for housing justice in this city are some of the best I’ve met. My group is a great opportunity to be a rank and file activist, to just be a foot soldier. I do phone banking; I hand out leaflets; I get signatures. I do all the mundane brick and mortar political work, and it’s a blessing. I’ve also been working with my union whenever we have a meeting or an event. Our contract’s up; it’s going to be a hard fight.

I am lonely. I see people and they treat me differently now, and my heart rebels. But my head knows that it’s natural. I am different, after all. Still, when I interact with someone I’ve known and they’re just completely the same, when they treat me the same, it’s such a wonderful feeling.

I get emails, lots of lovely emails from sweet people who reach out to me. I sometimes have a hard time writing back. I often don’t know what to say. I suppose thanks will have to do. I do get other kinds of emails, occasionally. It’s still the internet. On the internet, all truths are crowd sourced, even the most personal and intimate. And so I get people who patiently explain to me what my condition means and doesn’t. I get accused of faking it. I’m told what my disorder can and cannot explain, I am lectured to about what I am accountable for and am not. I am told that my illness renders my political opinions illegitimate. It’s amazing, not only how many experts in bipolar disorder there are out there, but how many experts there are in my bipolar disorder. The question of my culpability for my actions when I am cycling is one that I will continue to turn over in my head for the rest of my life. And I have the advantage of being me. I will keep my own counsel on the nature of my illness. I don’t need any volunteer parole officers for my mental health.

Is the question whether I’m sorry? All I am is sorry. I am so sorry. I have such bone-deep regret. I live in guilt. And I am paying for my mistakes. I have once again set friendships on fire, driven off good people who trusted and cared for me. Not with one big thing but with a long, drawn out series of minor betrayals, my constant accusation and demands, all drawn from a frantic paranoia, my deep-seated fear that people who care for me are withdrawing their affection and, when it gets bad, my belief that they are actively plotting to harm me. I mistreated people who were unfortunate enough to be close to me. You chip away at people’s trust, a chisel here and a chisel there, and then they make the rational decision to cut you out of their lives. And then you have to live without them. Yes, I am sorry. I am so sorry. I’ve changed my life in every way I know how. I should know better than to say that this time is different. But this time it has to be different. I can’t go off meds again. I can’t do this anymore.

And so I’m more sure than ever that I need to stay away. Long experience tells me that, sometimes, that’s the only way to make amends, to make yourself scarce. There are projects I want to work on, longform stuff, if I am permitted. But there will be no comeback tour. I have lost my having-opinions-on-the-internet privileges. I enjoy being off social media; I’m deeply uninformed about the news cycle and couldn’t comment intelligently; I have lost the pathological compulsion to always be writing and sharing. But most importantly, I have to remain offline as a penance to the people who I have mistreated with my words. I have to give up something to show people I understand that my behavior was not acceptable, to sacrifice something in the name of accountability. Are all of the things people got mad at me about legitimate? No. There has been irrational hatred of me along with rational dislike. But I have lost my right to argue about that distinction. I have to be accountable, and the best way to do so is to permanently remove myself from online life. It’s not much but it’s what I have to offer at this time. Besides I was online for 9 years. Better to let other people talk, to let other kinds of people talk.

Sometimes I dream of another life, or really another me, a me who wasn’t at war with myself, and the things I would have written then. But I’m too old for that now. I can only move forward. If there is any virtue to getting to a place where you say, to another human being, “I cannot go on like this, and I need help,” it’s that the part of you that cares for the opinions of other people dies, and however briefly, you live unmediated. I would like to think I can access it again, in times of better fortune.

I’ll be alright. I have become acquainted with the quiet. Time for books, time for snow, time for the library, time for campus. Time, like the man wrote, to burrow deep for a deep winter.

standardized tests are tools of inequality, not equality

Consider this fairly recent NYT piece, titled “A Simple Way to Help Low-Income Students: Make Everyone Take SAT or ACT.” The essay talks about research that shows that making these tests mandatory in high schools raises the participation rate (duh) and in so doing identifies high-achieving students who ordinarily would not have taken the test. See, typically those who are screened out of taking a college entrance exam through self-selection are those who are less college ready and perform less well. But this is far from universal, and there are many potential high-scoring testers who are screened out through fees, lack of parental guidance, or a lack of information about when and how to sign up. The research discussed showed that low-income but high performing students are less likely to take these tests than high-income, high-performing students, and that making the tests mandatory will thus lower the relative disadvantage of those students. Mandating the test is thus a tool for equality – it increases the opportunity for students who are typically systematically excluded from college.

Let’s think about things for a second. First, and to be clear, the research does not show that low-income students are more likely to perform well. The opposite is the case:

(Data’s a bit old, but this is a durable outcome.) So having more low-income students taking the SAT will likely mean finding that many low-income students are in fact not prepared for college, to go along with finding those high-performing kids who we wouldn’t otherwise. Still, obviously I think it’s a noble and necessary goal to help identify talented students from poor families. The point is that it’s odd to think of this as a project for increasing equality as such. We’re simply looking for more “diamonds in the rough,” and hopefully helping to pull them out from their peers – who are thus left even further behind.

Here’s a point to stress: the very purpose of educational testing is to identify inequality. That is, we develop and administer tests precisely to better understand how students are not the same. In fact, the most precisely that tests are, the more unequal we understand the tested population to be. A 10 question test likely has less discriminatory power than a 100 question test, and thus the 100 question test is more likely to differentiate between closely-grouped students – that is, to identify how they are unequal. Progress in educational testing stems from designing instruments that are more sensitive to underlying inequality. That’s the very name of the game.

As I’ve said before, we talk about education as fulfilling two functions that are not just in tension with each other but directly contradictory: education is discussed as a tool for creating greater socioeconomic equality, and as a system for identifying excellence and rewarding it with status and economic opportunity. The problems here should be obvious.There’s a much larger conversation about summative equality and equality of opportunity here, which is too directly political to get into in this space. (I will say that I think equality of opportunity is not really a coherent idea when you pull at it a bit.)

But from the standpoint of educational policy, it’s not clear to me that we really know what we want to be doing. Some people tell me that our goal should just be to move everyone up in terms of absolute achievement, raising averages without necessarily changing relative performance. That might have lots of good effects, but it’s by definition not something that could help with inequality, as what’s rewarded by the labor market is relative educational achievement, not absolute. If everyone who ever went to an Ivy League school was sent to the moon, they’d simply look for the next rung down and hire accordingly. If the purpose is instead to shrink the variance, to narrow the range between the top and bottom of the achievement scale, we’d want to talk about limiting resources to the top-performing kids, and we’d still be looking for differences in what individuals can do. And we have no good reason to think that we can achieve either at scale, because while some interventions have helped different groups at different times, the general bell-shaped distribution of overall achievement on any identifiable quantitative metric of academic success has been persistent and unchanging over time.

As long as we use education as a system for sorting students into different tranches of ability, and as long as that sorting system is a key mechanism for placing people into different levels of income and joblessness, we can’t conceive of our system as being an engine of socioeconomic equality. We might sometimes use testing to identify areas where more resources are needed and distribute them accordingly. But 15 years since No Child Left Behind and the testing-heavy era it augured, we have seen almost nothing in the way of convincing proof that testing is a reliable tool for raising standards and increasing either equality or opportunity. Tests are powerful things, and modern test-development can produce exams of extraordinary precision. But they can’t be useful until we have a clear and coherent vision of what we’re testing for. To get that understanding, we have to begin to pull apart our basic assumptions about education and our economy, to ask ourselves if the system can do what we imagine it can do.

recalibrating your sites

Not too long ago, I felt the need to change the stream of personalities and attitudes that were pouring into my head, and it’s been remarkable.

This was really the product of idiosyncratic personal conditions, but it’s ended up being a good intellectual exercise too. I had to rearrange a few things in my digital social life. And concurrently I had realized that my sense of the world was being distorted by the flow of information that was being deposited into my brain via the internet. I hadn’t really lost a sense of what the “other side” thinks politically; I’m still one of those geezers who forces himself to read Reason and the Wall Street Journal op/ed page and, god help me, National Review. But I had definitely lost a sense of the mental lives of people who did not occupy my various weird interests.

What were other people thinking about, at least as far as could be gleaned by what they shared online? What appeared to be a big deal to them and what didn’t? I had lost my sense of social proportion. I couldn’t tell if the things my friends were obsessing about were things that the rest of the world was obsessing about. Talking to IRL friends that don’t post much or at all online helped give me a sense that I was missing something. But I didn’t know what.

No, I had to use the tools available to me to dramatically change the opinions and ideas and attitudes that were coming flowing into my mental life. And it had become clear that, though I have an RSS feed and I peruse certain websites and publications regularly, though I still read lots of books and physical journals and magazines, the opinions I was receiving were coming overwhelmingly through social media. People shared things and commented on what they shared on Facebook and Twitter, they made clear what ideas were permissible and what weren’t on Facebook and Twitter, they defined the shared mental world on Facebook and Twitter. They created a language that, if you weren’t paying attention, looked like the lingua franca. I’m sure there are people out there who can take all of this in with the proper perspective and not allow it to subtly shape your perception of social attitudes writ large. But I can’t.

It’s all particularly disturbing because a lot of what you see and don’t online is the product of algorithms that are blunt instruments at best.

So I set about disconnecting, temporarily, from certain people, groups, publications, and conversations. I found voices that popped up in my feeds a lot and muted them. I unfollowed groups and pages. I looked out for certain markers of status and social belonging and used them as guides for what to avoid. I was less interested in avoiding certain subjects than I was in avoiding certain perspectives, the social frames that we all use to understand the world. The news cycle was what it was; I could not avoid Trump, as wonderful as that sounds. But I could avoid a certain way of looking at Trump, and at the broader world. In particular I wanted to look past what we once called ideology: I wanted to see the ways in which my internet-mediated intellectual life was dominated by assumptions that did not recognize themselves as assumptions, to understand how the perspective that did not understand itself to be a perspective had distorted my vision of the world. I wanted to better see the water in which my school of fish swims.

Now this can be touchy – mutually connecting with people on social media has become a loaded thing in IRL relationships, for better or worse. Luckily both Facebook and Twitter give you ways to not see someone’s posts without them knowing and without severing the connection. Just make a list of people, pages, and publications that you want to take a diet from, and after a month or two of seeing how different things look, go back to following them. (Alternatively: don’t.) Really do it! The tools are there, and you can always revert back. Just keep a record of what you’re doing.

I was prepared for this to result in a markedly different online experience for me, and for it to somewhat change my perception of what “everyone” thinks, of what people are reading, watching, and listening to, etc. But even so, I’ve been floored by how dramatically different the online world looks with a little manipulation of the feeds. A few subjects dropped out entirely; the Twin Peaks reboot went from being everywhere to being nowhere, for example. But what really changed was the affect through which the world was presenting itself to me.

You would not be surprised by what my lenses appear to have been (and still largely to be): very college educated, very left-leaing, very New York, very media-savvy, very middlebrow, and for lack of a better word, very “cool.” That is, the perspective that I had tried to wean myself off of was made up of people whose online self-presentation is ostentatiously ironic, in-joke heavy, filled with cultural references that are designed to hit just the right level of obscurity, and generally oriented towards impressing people through being performatively not impressed by anything. It was made up of people who are passionately invested in not appearing to be passionately invested in anything. It’s a sensibility that you can trace back to Gawker and Spy magazine and much, much further back than that, if you care to.

Perhaps most dramatic was the changes to what – and who – was perceived as a Big Deal. By cutting out a hundred voices or fewer, things and people that everybody talks about became things and people that nobody talks about. The internet is a technology for creating small ponds for us to all be big fish in. But you change your perspective just slightly, move over just an inch, and suddenly you get a sense of just how few people know about you or could possibly care. It’s oddly comforting, to be reminded that even if you enjoy a little internet notoriety, the average person on the street could not care less who you are or what you do. I recommend it.

Of course, there are profound limits to this. My feeds are still dominantly coming from a few overlapping social cultures. Trimming who I’m following hasn’t meant that I’m suddenly connected to more high school dropouts, orthodox Jews, senior citizens, or people who don’t speak English. I would never pretend that this little exercise has given me a truly broad perspective. The point has just been to see how dramatically a few changes to my digital life could alter my perception of “the conversation.” And it’s done that. More than ever, I worry that our sense of shared political assumptions and the perceived immorality of the status quo is the result of systems that exclude a large mass of people, whose opinions will surely matter in the political wars ahead.

I am now adding some of what I cut back in to my digital life. The point was never really to avoid particular publications or people. I like some of what and who I had cut out very much. The point is to remain alive to how arbitrary and idiosyncratic changes in the constant flow of information can alter our perception of the human race. It’s something I intend to do once a year or so, to jolt myself back into understanding how limiting my perspective really is.

Everyone knows, these days, that we’re living in digitally-enabled bubbles. The trouble is that our instincts are naturally to believe that everyone else is in a bubble, or at least that their bubbles are smaller and with thicker walls. But people like me – college educated, living in an urban enclave, at least socially liberal, tuned in to arts and culture news and criticism, possessed of the vocabulary of media and the academy, “savvy” – you face unique temptations in this regard. No, I don’t think that this kind of bubble is the same as someone who only gets their news from InfoWars and Breitbart. But the fact that so many people like me write the professional internet, the fact that the creators of the idioms and attitudes of our newsmedia and cultural industry almost universally come from a very thin slice of the American populace, is genuinely dangerous.

To regain perspective takes effort, and I encourage you all to expend that effort, particularly if you are an academic or journalist. Your world is small, and our world is big.

transitioning out of freelancing

Hey gang, I’m back from vacation and excited to get back to work here on this project. Lots of cool stuff in the works for here, including hopefully some audio and video content soonish. (Not a podcast, don’t worry. The world has enough podcasts already.)

I wanted to take a moment and explain why I’m going to be moving away from freelance writing. I’ve had a pretty good run lately; I was in the print Los Angeles Times a couple weeks back and the print Washington Post last week. (You can always check out my published writing by clicking the My Work tab above.) I know we’re all supposed to be too cool to care about print these days but, well, I do care. And I have a couple of heavily-researched pieces coming out in some longer form journals in the next several months, and it looks like I might have a regular column-type thing to indulge my political side. But beyond that, I’m not really interested in freelancing anymore. The truth is that I just find the process so aggravating and dispiriting at this point, and the money so bad, that it’s simply not worth it to me.

I just find, at this point, that the process of pitching, composing, shepherding through edits, promoting, and trying to get paid sucks the life out of me. The commercial interests of publications require editors to ask for things that are tied to the news cycle in the most facile way imaginable. I get it, and I don’t blame them personally. But I’m opting out. And it’s increasingly hard for me to explain to editors what I want a piece to do and say without writing the piece. I’m just really not interested in the “beats” of a piece of nonfiction anymore; the argument, in the sense that people traditionally mean, is just about the least interesting aspect of nonfiction writing. So when asked to reduce my own prospective writing to a series of explicit moves, I’m forced to fixate on the parts that I find least interesting or valuable. What I want is to write in a way that is free of precisely the kind of paint-by-numbers literalism that editors require. Again, not a knock on them. It’s just not in my interests anymore.

Meanwhile, the money generally sucks. I am very grateful for the LAT publishing me in their print edition, for example, and I knew what the rate was going in. But writing and editing a thousand-plus word piece for one of the biggest newspapers in the country got me $200. So many younger writers I know think that the higher profile, more established places are where the money is, but often that’s not true. Not anymore. And if I don’t enjoy it and the money’s not good, what’s the point?

I also don’t have a lot of hills to climb anymore in terms of places I want to be published. At this point even my (many) dogged critics can’t really claim that I can’t get published in major magazines or newspapers. And it’s not like they changed their tune once I did, anyway. I started writing for big pubs in part as a way to prove to my detractors that, contrary to what they said, I could get published in respectable places. When I did, they didn’t retract their old insults. They just switched to new ones. So there’s little appeal there, at this point.

And, finally, I’m just exhausted by people not reading. I’m just exhausted. The WaPo piece is an expression of 100% straightforward left-wing values; it’s a critique of corporations and an endorsement of the idea that only the left can guarantee true freedom. I do write my fair share of left-on-left critiques, but this piece really is not that. It’s simply an articulation of basic left principles in a frame designed to make them more appealing to the unconvinced. But the piece has predictably attracted criticism from the left, people insisting that I’m a reactionary even though I’m making a standard left critique of corporate power. Some have claimed that it’s a defense of the Google memo writer, when in fact I explicitly justify Google’s actions in the very first paragraph. The great bulk of the piece was written six weeks ago, before that memo existed, and that situation is tangential to my larger point. Meanwhile, others saw the headline and immediately assumed that this was a defense of the Charlottesville protesters – which would have been remarkable, given that the piece had come out on Friday, before the event. Either of these misconceptions could have been cleared up simply by reading the piece. But this is, increasingly, a bar that many refuse to clear.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I’m happy to have this outlet, where my audience is small and sympathetic and where I can avoid so many of the headaches involved in professional freelancing. Never say never, obviously, and I’ll pop up here and there. But what was always a bad bet has only gotten worse since I started doing this and I just don’t really have it in me to continue the slog. I need to focus on academic writing, book projects, and this website. Thanks for coming along.

throwing out the individual differences baby with the group differences bathwater

Group-level differences in cognitive ability are in the news again, thanks to the quickly-notorious Google memo on the company’s diversity efforts. You can find a lot of stuff written about these differences from qualified people already and I’m not gonna add to the pile, other than to say that from where I’m sitting, if there are any sex differences in intelligence or math ability, they seem not to exist in early childhood and there are plausible cultural and social reasons that they would appear by high school. The science on personality trait differences seems less clear to me but then those constructs are also less concrete. In all of this I’m pretty much in keeping with the liberal mainstream.

But I do want to voice a caution, here, because there’s a natural but unfortunate tendency to make an unjustifiable corollary to arguments of these kind. Regular readers will know that I reject the idea of biological or genetic explanations for academic differences between races. Instead I follow most progressive people in thinking that the differences are socioeconomic and environmental in origin. There, too, I’ve often seen people make the same bad leaps: they tend to reject the idea of innate or genetic differences in individual academic ability or intelligence too. It’s not hard to understand why; talking about genetic differences in intelligence at all may seem like fruit from a poisoned tree, and why not just reject the whole idea altogether? But understanding the difference in group-level claims and individual-level claims is hugely important, both analytically and morally. It’s the difference between contributing to stereotypes that have contributed to marginalization and injustice of vulnerable groups, and accepting the reality that not all individual people are equally gifted in all areas.

And the data here is really, really clear: there are profound differences in individuals in academic or intellectual ability; these differences are generally quite durable over the course of one’s life, although of course there is some variability, as there is in any measurable psychological trait; and there is very strong evidence that a major portion of this difference comes from genetics. I don’t think that boys are smarter than girls or that black kids are less intelligent than white. I do think, and think both the empirical record and common sense shows, that not all people are equally talented in different intellectual domains, and that if you believe that the brain is the product of evolution, we should expect a significant amount of that difference to be genetic in origin, which is in fact what twin studies, adoption studies, and GWAS data show. I’ve written about all this in this space many times before.

You can think about this clearly if you just eliminate the comparison between groups that are supposedly different and look only at within-group distribution. So, for the purposes of this debate, look at women and their various metrics for intelligence and academic success, whether generally or in math/STEM/computer science. Forget about comparisons to men for a moment: within that group, on any properly validated intelligence metric, we find a normal distribution of ability. That is, there’s a mean, and there’s a distribution of about two thirds of the data points within a standard deviation from that mean, and about 95% of the data points within two standard deviations, and the distribution is just about symmetrical. Some women are better than other women on the SATs, IQ tests, quantitative reasoning tests, etc., and in predictable ways. The same exact condition applies when looking at distributions of black students, Asian students, students from Turkey, students who attend public schools, students who are left-handed, students who play Little League, etc. – real, persistent, and predictable differences of ability between individuals.

Now these individual differences don’t have much to tell us about diversity efforts like those at Google, which for the record I support, other than to say that Google is probably looking for those in the very top reaches of these distributions no matter what. But they say a hell of a lot about how we should approach education from a policy level. Policy has to reflect our empirical understandings of reality, and right now, ours doesn’t, as it is based on the false notion that all students can be brought to meet arbitrary performance standards, that there are no intrinsic limits to how well any individual student can perform, and that the purpose of schooling should train every student to be a Stanford-education Silicon Valley superstar. That’s the kind of cheery, optimistic, utterly-unachievable policy goal that comes from thinking that, because there aren’t genetic differences in intelligence between men and women or between races, there are no such differences between individual people either. That’s wrong and destructive and we can’t allow our necessary efforts to oppose bigotry to lead us in that direction.

For a lot of great thoughts on how to ethically consider genetic influences on individual intelligence, I recommend the work of the brilliant Paige Harden.


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on vacation!

Hey gang, I am officially on vacation for the first time since I started my job last September. Posting this coming week will be light, though I expect to have at least a couple pieces up. Thank you for your continued support of the ANOVA. I’m having lots of fun and hope you all are too.

The Academic “Success Sequence” – Get Lucky at Birth, Mostly

Matt Bruenig critiques the concept of the “Success Sequence” quite convincingly here. There are a lot of just-so stories in our culture about what it takes to be a success. Typically, these stories are confusing the lines of causation all over the place, failing to see that confounds and covariates are doing most of the explaining.

I sometimes get anxious emails from parents, wondering what they need to do to make sure their children are going to be OK academically. And because of networking effects and the nature of who reads this small-audience education blog, I can mostly tell them accurately that they don’t really have to do much of anything; they’ve already set up their children to succeed simply by virtue of having them. Here’s the real Academic Success Sequence:

  1. Be born to college-educated parents.1
  2. Be born to middle-class-or-above parents.
  3. Be born without a severe cognitive or developmental disability.
  4. Don’t be exposed to lead in infancy or early childhood.
  5. Don’t be born severely premature or at very low birth weight.
  6. Don’t be physically abused or neglected.

If you are one of those lucky enough to tick off these boxes, congratulations. You’ve got the vast majority of the accounted-for variance breaking in your favor. Is everything accounted for? No. We’ve got a lot of variance in cognitive and educational outcomes that never seems to be systematically explainable. I actually think that’s a good thing – perfect determinism is contrary to the fight for human meaning – but it’s important to say that this variance is not only not currently accounted for, it is likely never-to-be accounted for. This is what the behavioral geneticists call the “gloomy prospect“: the possibility that large portions of unaccounted-for variation in psychological traits like intelligence are the product of truly non-systematic events, like particular psychological traumas, getting a concussion, meeting the right person, having the right conversation at the right time….

Thus it’s the case that some people can “win” in all of the above categories and still suffer from real hardship in life, just as some can be on the wrong side in many or all of them and flourish. Still: if you’re an educated, employed parent raising a healthy child in a stable home environment, the odds are strongly in the favor of that child’s eventual academic success. Of course, none of this stuff is stuff that individuals can control, and much of it is not stuff that parents can control either – particularly given that the parents were once the children whose outcomes were similarly conditioned….

Now many people will say, well yeah, of course these things matter. But what do we do beyond that stuff? How do we set our kids up to succeed? I’m not going to say that nothing you do matters. But in terms of moving the quantitative indicators that people are, sadly, most fixated on are stubborn and hard to move. Some things appear to work – intensive one-on-one or small-group tutoring seems to me to have the most promising research literature – but we’re playing with small effect sizes here, particularly in comparison to the influence of the factors listed above. Of course you want to bend as much of the variance in a positive direction as you can. But the effects tend to be so small, and thus so subject to being offset by minor random fluctuations in uncontrolled variation, that it’s just not worth worrying about them. The best thing you can do for your kid is to be present and kind and supportive and then stop stressing out.

The great irony is that we’ve seen this growing culture of panic on the part of bourgie parents about their child rearing practices at the exact historical moment that we’ve learned conclusively that these practices just don’t mean very much.

In particular, the Baby Einstein stuff, trips to museums, violin lessons, edutainment software – my understanding is that there just is little to no rigorous research that shows that this stuff works to move the needle on SAT scores or GPA or similar, once you control for the kinds of confounds listed above. Does that mean that this stuff doesn’t matter, that you shouldn’t do them? Of course not. Children should all have the opportunity to lead intellectually enriched, challenging, and varied lives. I’m very grateful that I had that chance myself. But you need to appreciate them for their own sake and on their own terms, not as a means to goose test scores. And obsessing over getting your kid into the right preschool is pointless too, as is worrying over selective high schools. It may make you feel like the right kind of parent to fixate on this stuff; it may, more cynically, help you feel competitive with other parents. But extant evidence suggests it just doesn’t matter. What does matter is giving your child commitment, love, structure, and a moral education, because life is about so much more than where you go to college.

Of course, many people in our society are not lucky enough to have been born into the kind of advantaged position described above. Given that fact, you’d think that our system would be set up to minimize the impact of these unchosen factors. Instead we work to maximize their impact and call the resulting system “meritocracy.”


 

for lack of what is found there

Louis Menand in The New Yorker: 

The funny thing about the resistance all these writers put up to the idea that poems can change people’s lives is that every one of them had his life changed by a poem. I did, too. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I found a copy of “Immortal Poems of the English Language” in a book closet in my school. It was a mass-market paperback, and the editor, Oscar Williams, had judged several of his own poems sufficiently deathless to merit inclusion. But he was an excellent anthologist, and I wore that book out. It changed my life. It made me want to become a writer.

I had an almost identical experience, with an anthology put together by XJ Kennedy, a poet, essayist, translator, and all around man of letters. That’s my copy pictured here. In sophomore year of high school my old Latin teacher Mrs. Montgomery (gone, now, but never forgotten) had wanted to share a poem with me, and had dug around in her closet to find this old, little-loved and forgotten literature collection. It was divided into three sections: fiction, poetry, and drama. In time I would read the whole thing cover to cover, but at the time I obsessed over the poetry section. Growing up in a arts- and literature-obsessed home, I had gotten plenty of exposure to poetry, but this was the first time I really felt like I had the time and inclination to truly explore the form on my own. I got a real poetry education from that book, and learned not just Keats and Housman but Linda Pastan’s “Ethics” and Chesterton’s “The Donkey” and Amiri Baraka’s “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.” I read it under my desk during algebra class and in the cafeteria and on the bus rides home from cross country meets, and today the cover is held on with masking tape, because I wore the damn thing out. When high school was over, I stole it.

I am, as you know, skeptical of the degree to which quantitative educational metrics like test scores can be changed by teachers and schools. But this carries with it the essential qualification: that test scores are not the measure of education’s value. Because I read and talk about quantitative research, and because I acknowledge that these tools are broadly predictive of all manner of eventual academic outcomes, I am often in agreement with those who view education in a reductive light. But my objections to that reductive thinking are as real and important as my objections to those who think that all individual students can be brought to the same levels of achievement on standardized tests. Indeed, precisely because differences in academic ability are real, we must take seriously all the things that education can do which are not expressible in a test score. I doubt that this book made the slightest difference to my SAT scores. Yet like Menand’s, my life was forever changed.

To the Muse
by XJ Kennedy

Give me leave, Muse, in plan view to array
Your shift and bodice by the light of day.
I would have brought an epic. Be not vexed
Instead to grace a niggling schoolroom text;
Let down your sanction, help me to oblige
Him who would leash fresh devots to your liege,
And at your altar, grant that in a flash
They, he, and I know incense from dead ash.