Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Being is Not Univocal: A Response to Jay Belsky & Eugenics 2014

Coming through the Rye (M.A. Reilly, 2010)

I. Partial Views

I first met Darren after he somersaulted into our class. It was his first day of high school and this was the manner he entered the class most days. Darren talked to himself, made models out of folded paper, and had little use for homework.  He had a keen sense of humor.

Ryan, I was told didn't speak at school from 2nd grade until 10th grade. He was routinely picked on in grade school his peers would tell me. He was without question the finest writer I would ever teach and I can still recall that last period of 10th grade English in early October when his 28 peers sat in awe as I read (with Ryan's permission) a dystopian story he had penned.  His first words at school would come later that week. 

Then there was Carlos who in first grade also did not speak and interestingly was able to signal to the class that information about a snake we were studying could be found on a particular in an old encyclopedia he routinely studied.  He showed us the drawings of snakes and other reptiles he had drawn in a notebook I had made for him, turning each page and pointing. 

Then there was Tony who had spent considerable time the previous year in the hallway as he had lot of trouble sitting still and had been 'diagnosed' with ADHD. As an 8th grader he learned behind the lens of a camera, documenting learning and in doing so building his knowledge of composing.  It was his idea that we clear the room of the desks.  He so wanted to move. His idea allowed for increased classroom performance space and what got privileged that year shifted, in part, as a result of him.

Ava was a painter and she helped me to create art conversations (nonverbal discussions using paint as a medium) as a way of making sense, making connections with others and texts that we used during English class. It was a method I would use for the next 30 years. Ava often saw the world through design. She had struggled to put ideas on paper. She painted complex compositions that she could narrate.

Steven arrived in fall of senior year in the late 1980s with a full time nurse, a computer, keyboard and a straw he held in his teeth that he used to communicate by hitting the keys on the keyboard and spelling out his thoughts. Steven had never been to school and it was his desire to do so. He attended English and history that year during the warmer months and graduated with the class that June. 

I met Robert when he was 19 and arrived in English class late September after being expelled from a technical high school for assault of his former English teacher. He was surly, unread, and difficult.  Across the school year he began to connect with books and read a trajectory of texts I could never have predicted. He concluded the year with Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being,  a book only he read in the class. We exchanged marginal notes as a way of discussing the text. He was an amazing intellect whose life beyond the classroom walls was increasingly difficult and dangerous. Both he and Steven would be dead just a few years later.

All of these young people I referenced struggled physically, academically and/or socially at school. Each might be understood as quirky, odd, outside the norm, different, even difficult. To not have know each (as best I could) would have diminished my life.

II. I Know Better Than You: The Obedient Child

A history of teaching children young and old has taught me repeatedly that what I think I know about learners is quite partial. Their lives unfold in ways I simply cannot predict, nor is that my privilege. And so it was with this perspective that I read Jay Belsky's New York Times article, The Downside of Resilience after it had been referenced in a tweet by Ira Socol (@irasocol) and in a post by Anthony Cody (@AnthonyCody). Cody quotes this from Belsky's article:
One might even imagine a day when we could genotype all the children in an elementary school to ensure that those who could most benefit from help got the best teachers. Not only because they would improve the most, but also because they would suffer the most from lower quality instruction. The less susceptible — and more resilient — children are more likely to do O.K. no matter what. After six or seven years, this approach could substantially enhance student achievement and well-being.
It's hard to breathe after reading such a faulty and dangerous vision. Belsky is recommending that "..we seek to identify the most susceptible children and disproportionately target them" based on a genotype profile (as if genes were destiny) with academic/social interventions from the 'best' (for whom?) teachers. 

In Deleuze's Difference & Repetition, he tells us, “There has only ever been one ontological proposition: Being is univocal" (p. 35).  

Being is not univocal. That we labor under this delusion is what I thought about when I read Belsky's article. Beneath his proposition is an unstated belief that there is some closed set that can be named by others that we all (univocally) find desirable, essential.  Really? 

Who determines what is desirable in Belsky's schema? Keep in mind that Sir Frances Falton, the father of eugenics, believed that 19th century British elites represented the model of human perfection. Now perhaps it's because I hail from Dublin, but the idea of 19th century British elites representing human perfection is laughable, as it is tragic. Every bad idea for humanity begins with the proposition that someone with power knows better and therefore can act upon those with less power with impunity.  Is this not the foundation for genocidal thinking?  A sanitized life, genetically and/or behaviorally manipulated, is akin to a life of servitude. 

III. Who Determines?

At the center of this discussion are a few questions, with the first being most central: 

  1. Who determines? 
  2. What cultural, economic, political, geographic, religious, racial, and gender imperatives dominate? (No decision is neutral).
  3. With what agency do children live lives in and out of school? 
A flaw in Belsky's plan is the underlying belief that he and others know best. We see this played out well in Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel, Brave New World. There we see the tension between beauty and stability. In chapter 16, after the Controller quotes from Shakespeare's The Tempest, Savage reacts, surprised that the banned work has been read. This leads to an inquiry by Savage and then Helmholtz as to why the people cannot view Othello and why the writers cannot write something akin to Othello. The Controller answers:
"Because our world is not the same as Othello's world. You can't make flivvers without steel–and you can't make tragedies without social instability. The world's stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get. They're well off; they're safe; they're never ill; they're not afraid of death; they're blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they're plagued with no mothers or fathers; they've got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they're so conditioned that they practically can't help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there's soma. Which you go and chuck out of the window in the name of liberty, Mr. Savage. Liberty!" He laughed. "Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand Othello! My good boy!"

This doing unto others as a means for stability and as an exercise of power is a root problem. One only needs to think about residential schools where indigenous children were interred to understand the faultiness of  someone knowing best. It is with the omniscient sense of self, that we most often know tragedy. 

A life well lived is complex and impossible to map ahead of time. Small perturbations can create significant changes and it is here that we must lean in and ask what has been lost by our tampering? Whose agency has been usurped? What have we unknowingly sacrificed? What life direction that might have evolved as a result of a perceived 'negative trait' have we shorted? 

Jay Belsky's belief in the use of science to engineer better academicians is faulty at best and dangerous for all. Let us learn how to love our quirks, challenges, and differences.

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