The Cultural Belief Hindering Children’s Academic Performance

A Discussion About The Aptitude Myth: How an Ancient Belief Came to undermine Children’s Learning Today by Cornelius Grove

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Cultural ideas surrounding a child’s predetermined ability to perform well have hindered their chances of succeeding in education. Instead of this belief, we should be using the effort applied by children to determine their potential capabilities. I talk to Cornelius Grove, Ed.D., an interculturalist, educator, and author, about his book The Aptitude Myth: How an Ancient Belief Came to Undermine Children’s Learning Today.

Cornelius, it was lovely to speak with you about the importance of the teacher on a child’s school performance.  This time we are going to discuss your first book, The Aptitude Myth: How an Ancient Belief Came to Undermine Children’s Learning Today. Can you tell our readers a bit about the book?

Thank you. The Aptitude Myth is a history book; it’s about the history of an idea. The idea is this: A child’s performance in school on academic subjects is very largely due to his or her inborn intelligence. In other words, those who were born with more intelligence tend to get higher grades; those who were born with less intelligence tend to get lower grades.  

Most of your readers will be surprised to learn that this is an idea that needs investigation. It’s common sense, right?  Well, the problem is that, to most people in the world, this idea sounds weird. Parents in many world regions know that some people are born with higher intelligence than others. Nevertheless, their idea about a child’s performance on academic subjects is that it’s very largely due to the extent to which he or she studies. It’s due to the child’s effort.

Our idea that academic excellence depends almost entirely upon inborn intelligence is actually a belief.  It’s not a scientific fact. So where did this belief come from? That’s what I hoped to discover when I began research that yielded The Aptitude Myth.

What inspired you to write the book?

I was intrigued by the fact that, ever since the international comparative tests were first given to students of many nations, our American students have never performed well on them. The Americans invariably end up in the middle of the pack, or lower, often ranking with the students of nations that we think of as ‘less developed.’ Considering all the money we spend on education, and all the reforms by which we try to improve our children’s learning, it’s shocking that they don’t perform better in comparison with students from abroad. By the way, this consistent difference in scores has persisted since the late 1960s!   

Because school reforms just keep coming but never make a lasting difference in our children’s performance, it seems likely that reforms aren’t addressing the factors that are holding our students back. I have long believed that our students are held back by the beliefs we Americans make use of whenever we think about children’s learning in classrooms. A major culprit, in my view, is our belief that academic performance very largely depends on inborn intelligence. 

What inspired me? I thought that, maybe, I could dig into the historical record and discover where this belief began and how it came to be so strongly held today.

Can you discuss the ‘ancient belief’ mentioned in the subtitle of The Aptitude Myth?

What was so interesting for me, as I dug into the historical record, was that the origin of this belief was really difficult to discover. At first I thought it originated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Wrong! I had to explore farther and farther back in the centuries . . . until I found myself all the way back in ancient Greece!

It turns out that Aristotle was the originator. Aristotle wrote in one of his major books, Physics, that every individual living thing, whether plant or animal, comes into being with an inborn potential to reach its full maturity as a unique being. So unless a disaster derails that natural process, each living thing will automatically attain its final, pre-determined, mature form.  

The KEY FEATURE of Aristotle’s belief is this: Automatic attainment of the mature form applies not only to one’s physical and physiological development, it also applies to one’s mental development. Because one’s development is fore-ordained, there is nothing anyone can do to change or improve.

If Aristotle is correct, then it’s futile for a student to study hard. How well or how poorly a student performs depends solely on the degree of his or her mental development, which is pre-determined at birth. Aristotle was arguably the most influential thinker in Western history. For nearly 2000 years, an opinion was judged by how closely it adhered to Aristotle’s teachings.

When researching the book, was there anything unexpected that you learned?

One surprise was that the person most responsible for speeding Aristotle’s belief along to modern Americans was someone of whom I had been only dimly aware: Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a British scientist and philosopher who, during the late 1800s, lectured often in the U.S. and had a huge following. Spencer had strong views on all sorts of topics, including children’s learning in schools. Soon after the Civil War, just as we were beginning to craft our public school system, a little book by Spencer – Education – appeared and was snapped up by Americans eager to be guided by someone who knew how children learn best. Spencer’s guidance on children’s learning strongly paralleled what Aristotle’s guidance had been.

Another big surprise was that, during the mid-and late 1800s, Americans went beyond Aristotle’s teachings to conclude that not only was studying futile, it also was detrimental to a child’s health! This idea originated centuries earlier when Roman Catholic leaders decided that because young children had no knowledge of sin, they were pure – and precious. Jean-Jacques Rousseau advanced this idea when he famously wrote that the younger a human is, the better he is. In America, the idea that children are precious increasingly comprised the belief that they are delicate, fragile, and mentally easily exhausted. Helping to spread this idea were romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and William Blake, who portrayed classroom learning as detrimental to children’s development.  Spencer warned in Education that hard studying has “vicious” outcomes, including disfiguring girls!

Were there other factors, unique to the U.S., that helped to cement these beliefs about intelligence people’s minds?

Yes. Beginning in the 1880s, a tsunami of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe flooded into American cities. The new immigrants were perceived by many Americans as very different – and therefore as threatening.  Worse, they came with children, and then had more children. Our dilapidated urban school systems could barely cope. What could they possibly do with all those strange children?!

The industrialists came up with a plan. Their burgeoning factories needed menial laborers.  ‘Menial’ is the keyword: all they needed were people who could understand enough English to be told how to operate a machine. It was in everyone’s interests to decide that virtually all those immigrant children had low intelligence, needed only a basic education, and could then man the factories.

Psychologists stepped up. They devised tests of mental functioning that ‘proved’ that virtually every immigrant child had low intelligence. The development of these tests got a huge boost when the U.S. called over a million men into service for World War I. The new tests were given to them all, confirming that almost all young immigrant males were suitable as foot soldiers. After the war, psychologists further developed their mass intelligence tests. The outcome was the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), first used during 1926.

The bottom line is this: As the 19th century turned into the 20th, it suited many leading Americans to believe that inborn intelligence is the only thing one needs to know about a child to foresee their future, and to educate them accordingly. A figment of Aristotle’s imagination was well on its way from being a conscious belief to becoming most Americans’ subconscious assumption about children’s learning.

What is your main finding in The Aptitude Myth?

Most Americans harbor beliefs about children’s learning that are regarded as common sense or even as scientifically sound.  In fact, these beliefs originated in Aristotle’s imagination 2,500 years ago. These beliefs lead us to de-emphasize the importance of our children’s persistent studying because – or so we believe – the principal factor that determines whether any child will excel in school is his or her inborn intelligence. Worse, this belief often includes the notion that studying long and hard isn’t only useless, it actually endangers the child’s mental, physical, and social well-being, as Spencer alleged.

Why do our students invariably end up in the middle of the pack, or lower, on the international comparative tests? A very important reason is that American cultural values devalue committed studying. The values of many other cultures emphasize and admire committed studying, and highly value a child’s mastery of academic subjects. Are we surprised that their students outperform ours?

Ideas about the determining power of inborn intelligence have dominated two-and-a-half millennia of Western thinking and influence most Americans today. Why is it important to bring these facts to light?

It’s important because inborn intelligence is only a part of the story about what a child might be capable of learning and achieving.  A larger part of each child’s story is the amount of committed studying and practice he or she becomes willing to devote to learning key subjects such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, & mathematics).

It’s also important because of the tendency of many people to decide, on the basis of no objective evidence, that children from unfamiliar backgrounds and ethnic groups are bound to have low inborn intelligence and therefore to shunt them into less demanding learning opportunities. Only one thing conclusively demonstrates what a child is able to accomplish. It’s what that child actually accomplishes. Inborn intelligence is beside the point.

Late in The Aptitude Myth, you introduce a new paradigm not governed by the ‘myth of aptitude.’ Please explain.

To reverse the consistently poor outcomes of the American educational system, we need to put behind us the mythical thinking that we’ve inherited from Aristotle, Rousseau, Spencer, and other prominent Western educators down through history. We need new concepts and values – a new paradigm – to apply whenever we think about children’s learning. The last chapter of The Aptitude Myth lays out a new paradigm in the form of seven ‘assertions’ about how the world really works.  

For example, centuries ago in the West, people began thinking of children as precious, which in turn came to imply that they are delicate, which in turn came to imply that their minds are frail and easily damaged by more than just a little intellectual effort. That’s part of the old paradigm, part of the 2500-year-old myth that, right now, is undermining American children’s learning.

As part of my new paradigm, and in contradiction of the myth of mental frailty that I just restated, here is one of the seven ‘assertions’ The Aptitude Myth offers about the true characteristics and capabilities of children’s minds:

‘A child’s mental apparatus is vigorous, robust, resilient, curious, and absorbent.’

Who is this book intended for, and what effect do you hope it has with readers?

I intended The Aptitude Myth for Americans who are distressed about the poor results of our children’s classroom lessons, especially in academic subjects. I hope those who read and ponder my book will conclude that We have met the enemy and they are us!

In other words, I hope my readers will conclude that America’s disappointing educational outcomes aren’t the fault of bad teachers, failed reforms, deficient funding, or the other usual scapegoats. It’s the fault of how all of us think about children’s capacity for learning, which leads us to do two things:

  • We presume to know how much intelligence a child has, and on that basis to decide how much academic learning he or she is capable of.
  • We avoid expecting children to work hard at learning, instead trying to make their experience of learning undemanding and pleasant.

Where can readers find your book, and how can they get in contact with you?

The Aptitude Myth has its own website: TheAptitudeMyth.info. You can purchase the book from its website, or from whatever online bookseller you prefer. Also, from the book’s website, you can use the ‘Contact’ option to email me directly.

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