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A recent study to analyze the reasons for the differences observed in the educational achievement of youth concluded that 98 percent of factors responsible are not inheritable. This report, published in Science, should have been great news to the educators and parents, as it definitely hints at the potential to improve our educational system.
Surprisingly, it is the small chance of genes playing an inheritable role in the cognitive ability of an individual that got the media attention. Researchers further found that the genes that have the strongest correlation to education only impact 1 in 5,000 children.
The researchers concluded that further research into this 1 in 5,000 phenomenon is the need of the hour. Even the US government is playing along, having provided most of the study’s funding.
Whose need is it anyway?
If it is viewed as the existentialistic need of geneticists who want to protect their own interests, perhaps it can be forgiven. Survival instinct is basic to human nature, after all. But, why is the government interested in the inheritability of cognitive abilities? Why do they harp on the possibility of genetic contribution, conveniently forgetting the impact of the 98 percent share that other factors like nurturing, educational inputs, and social conditioning, may have on academic success?
The simplistic explanation is that they have found a potential scapegoat in genetics. If there are shortcomings in the government-funded educational field, just blame it on them genes!
The same can be said for the over enthusiasm of tobacco companies to find a genetic explanation to the ills they perpetuate, because it is directly related to their survival, too. They want to establish that tobacco addiction and smoking-induced lung cancer are genetic traits. Bring in any concocted “evidence based on years of research,” and anyone can hope to wriggle out of tight situations and escape costly litigations. Since genetics is a specialized field, far removed from the public domain, it is hard to disprove their claims.
The Scientific Spirit is Dead
“Art for art’s sake” as an ideology has been replaced by “art for artist’s sake,” as is quite evident from the gigantic advertisement budgets behind book launches. Science is happily following the beaten path. Science for the sake of science is long dead. Scientific researches, in general, and genetic studies in particular, are driven by need-based research projects.
Scientific researches and the researchers need money. Corporate entities with vested interests are ready to shell out money freely to fund researches that would favor them. They pour in the money, rope in professors, and provide the brief. Geneticists are only too happy to oblige. Who is complaining? Public health is everyone’s playground. Even the government is supporting these lobbies in spite of the continued failure to establish any significant genetic link to public health or specific behaviors in humans.
How objective can a study be into the health aspects of high sugar diet or the permissible levels of caffeine if that study was funded by Coca-Cola? Where is the spirit of true inquiry in this? Scientific truths are those ugly facts no one wants to find. They are systematically buried within pages of irrelevant or misleading data in such a way that there is little chance of them finding the seeing the daylight.
Genetic Research in Education
The differences in the educational achievement of different ethnic groups in a multicultural society are often cited in support of the heritability of cognitive ability. It is quite obvious that the reasons for certain ethnic groups performing relatively better or worse than others, are more in their social upbringing than in their genes. At one time, women were considered incapable of academic pursuits, as it is still in some barbaric cultures. But, when given equal opportunities, this was proved to be a false notion. The same is true for ethnic and racial groups.
Advocating a holistic approach to education, Dr. Maria Montessori discouraged educators from digging into the intricacies of the process of learning. Her premise is that every child is born with the capacity to acquire from the environment all the components required for building up his or her own intelligence. The role of the educators is to provide an environment conducive to learning. Like a seed that is planted in rich soil, children need an enriched and stimulating environment to thrive academically.
Variations in the cognitive capacity between individuals are a fact of life, and some of it can be attributed to inheritable traits. However, the intentional magnification of the genetic component, at the expense of other more pertinent factors, rings the alarm bells. If cognitive abilities were predominantly inheritable, then we should be having a long line of Einsteins and Newtons trailblazing in the scientific world!
Inheritability of Diseases vs. Inheritability of Cognitive Abilities
People who carry certain mutated genes may develop diseases like thalassemia or cystic fibrosis. However, this knowledge has not led to any effective cure. But, as in the case of the breast cancer marker BRCA1 gene, the identification of certain genetic markers that predispose people to specific diseases has facilitated preventive interventions. A targeted study, as in the case of many cancers, with the aim of understanding or finding a solution to a specific health problem has some amount of credibility.
But, employing the same yardstick to research into the inheritability of cognitive ability is not justifiable. Are the differences in intellectual accomplishment a disease? Since no identifiable gene for intelligence could be pinpointed in earlier studies on twins, geneticists started looking for genome-wide associations that predict higher cognitive ability, and ended up with a 1 in 5,000 chance.
What is the point of this research?
Based on these studies, would the government fund extra educational inputs to those who are found deficient in this particular GPA? Quite unlikely! Or is the government looking for a scapegoat to blame for the poor state of the public school system?
In the absence of a definable problem, and a specific goal, allocating public funds to these kinds of studies is a blatant disregard for priorities, to say the least.