Thursday, May 25, 2006

Instilling capability is critical
for the health of nations

One very practical employment of progressive thinking is to support progressive tendencies among very influential conservatives and otherwise try to influence the thinking of those who seem open minded (as well as working for open-mindedness among those who aren't). So, I frequently respond to David Brooks' columns, a very likeable guy (who early on, at his move to The New York Times, honored me with on-camera response to a query about his thinking [which is no longer available to link to]—but that's not why I respond to him).

What follows is my response to his fascinating (as newspapering goes) column today, "Of Love and Money," (now with an added link—and a follow-up to that at the end here, re: my longstanding interest in the work of Annette Laueau’s Unequal Childhoods, which I pursued at some length a couple of months later):

Dear David,

So, by very falsely calling yourself a scientific imbecile and your discussion wonkish, you want to make the anti-intellectual reader feel you're one of them? I just hope you find more time to do more columns like today's. (Your column on Unequal childhoods was immensely valuable to me.) You have the leisure opportunity to pursue research-based trends that can contribute to policy leadership, and you do great service to we non-imbecilic wonks who can't get enough time for much-needed altitude.

You would do even better service if you would give citations, thus saving your preferred reader some search time.

It's important to recognize that, commonly in educational psychology nowadays, IQ score is a partial mesasure of intelligence, such that "self-discipline" is really a keynote of what intelligence is (e.g., see leading intelligence researcher Robert Sternberg's work, summarized in the paperback Successful Intelligence). Duckworth's self-discipline is better explicated as self-regulated learning, concordant with what you (Siegel?) note later in your column. (See also the special issue of Teacher's College Record on "volition," v.106,n.9, Sept. '04). This puts a proper emphasis on initiative rather than compliance, which Duckworth's sense of self-discipline may not do. Practically, fostering/instilling self-directed learning pertains to the kind of "concerted" parenting practices that Unequal Childhoods discovered.

You would agree that the problem is primarily not how does government compensate for home failures, but: How does government facilitate home success? Preschool isn't going to address the crucial period of child development through age 3. The pediatrician may be the critical agent here—though, ideally, a family legacy of excellent parenting practices between generations makes compensatory healthcare service supplementary. (It was healthy family legacy that got us all from village thriving to metropolitan thriving over the centuries.) The keynote now is the health care system, which may provide intimate-level leadership for instilling parent skills and healing parent practices. The education system can only at best work with what good parenting has already instilled (and continues to facilitate). But the crisis of the healthcare system is such that society can't afford basic medical services, let alone preventive or proactively health-promotional benefits that are comprehensive enough, accessible enough, and pervasive enough to do the good that broken family traditions can't ("thanks" to the lean-and-mean demands of the work world relative to the global labor market).

How do we turn our health care system into a progressive and effective means for promoting healthy development? (Also: How do we lead the media market to greater and sustained attention to what good families do, short of making the cloning of David Brooks and the like feasible?)

Health education is essentially about capabilities, rather than information. It is at heart about fostering good development, good family, which is essentially a matter of fostering/instilling self-directed learning about what's good for one's own capabilities.

A capability-oriented approach to social welfare policy got Amartya Sen the Nobel in economics (see Development & Freedom, 1997) and made Martha Nussbaum a leading voice in political philosophy (see Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice, Harvard 2005).

You touch on something profoundly valid in correlating cognitive development and love. But we must appreciate—non-sentimentally—that love is not "the primitive realm," but the highest (primal, then primordial, neither of which can be real as primitively conceived). So, one sees the great American moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt capping his career in terms of "reasons of love" (having nothing to do with Christianity or religion, rather about the cognitive character of intrinsic value); see Reasons of Love, Princeton paperback, 2004.

We—the world—need moon-landing-scale commitments to fostering the health of nations, if only to give our children the capability to pay for the deficits—psychological, as well as economic—that their parents ceaselessly leave behind.

Letting those mirror neurons flourish,

Gary Davis

A July letter to David Kirp got into some detail about Unequal Childhoods