24 August 2016

Culture or Competence

Jessica Calarco, assistant professor of sociology . . . [is] the author of a study on the topic presented at the 111th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Seattle. 
We know that certain behaviors are closely correlated with school outcomes, she said, and educators and policymakers are scrambling to encourage the kinds of behaviors that best promote learning. Economists and psychologists tend to view those "non-cognitive" behaviors as inherently beneficial. But some sociologists suggest instead that they are middle-class behaviors and that schools -- as middle-class institutions -- reward the behaviors of the middle class. . . . Her study, "Class Act: How Teachers Translate Students' Non-Cognitive Skills into Social Class Inequalities in School," investigates those possibilities using data from a longitudinal, ethnographic study of teachers, students and parents in one socioeconomically diverse, public elementary school
. . . 
"Overall, I found that teachers often inadvertently translated students' class-based behaviors into unequal opportunities in school," she said. "More specifically, I found that teachers privileged middle-class students by setting middle-class expectations, such as by expecting students to voice their needs and proactively seek help; by conveying those expectations in ambiguous or inconsistent ways; and by granting middle-class students' requests, even when they wanted to say no."
From here

It is a fact that children with different cultures and different socioeconomic classes behave differently in settings like a public elementary school.  And, as this study indicates, acting the way that "middle class" students act is "closely correlated" with good educational outcomes, while the way that working class and poor students act is not.


There is more than one plausible possibility.

1. Middle class students are middle class because their parents are middle class.  Their parents are middle class, and are economically better off than working class and poor students, in part because middle class parents have higher IQs.  Middle class kids have higher IQs as a result of their parents having higher IQs (mostly due to genetics, but also due to a lack of IQ suppressing environmental factors like lead paint and malnutrition and lack of breast feeding and lack of verbal interaction with adults).  Middle class kids do well in school because they have higher IQs.  

It so happens that in most places, middle class people are drawn predominantly or entirely from people who practice a similar culture (this is inherent in the notion that "social class" is a meaningful concept apart from raw income, years of educational attainment or IQ).

It could be that almost all of the superior academic performance of middle class kids is due to IQ and that it merely looks like culture behaviors are influencing academic performance because it is hard to disentangle the sources of academic achievement.  The cultural behaviors associated with academic success may be merely coincidental.

2. At another extreme, it could be that cultural practices shared by members of the middle class are strongly functional and confer academic advantages, both by involving early childhood parenting practices that enhance IQ and by teaching young children ways to behave in public that are intrinsically better at promoting academic achievement than the alternatives.

3. It could be that cultural practices shared by members of different socioeconomic classes and ethnicities have almost no intrinsic value, and instead add value merely because they are advantageous to people who want to function within the context of that culture. In this case, middle class behavior is advantageous only because the teachers are themselves members of the middle class and respond better to people who share their culture, and not because this behavior is intrinsically better.

The anecdote that comes to mind in this theory was Ataturk's imposition of Northern European attire on Turkish elites in his effort to modernize Turkish culture, even though most Northern Europeans themselves would agree that this kind of attire is suboptimal in places with Turkey's climate and is not an essential component of the societal achievements that members of these cultures have attained in their own countries.

Usually we think of Ataturk's pronouncements as crazy, but there was method to the madness. Cultures is often correlated with functional performance, perhaps because its practices are intrinsically better, and perhaps because the world is unfair and people who imitate the cultural practices of the most powerful will succeed better because elites determine who below them will succeed.  But, cultures involve clusters of behaviors and attitudes that have an "ecological" relationship to each other within the culture, and a culture's functionality, either intrinsically or due to social dynamics, may break down or become pathological if adopted a la carte, rather than as a complex whole.  Even people who live within a culture every day rarely have an accurate understanding of why this or that component of the culture contributes to the whole.

For example, walking around unveiled and arguably immodestly only works as an element of a culture if the culture also has norms that discourage others from harassing you if you behave that way.

Possibility 3 above creates a dilemma.  Should children be socialized to sacrifice their own cultures and instead adopt the cultural behaviors and norms of more successful cultures because in our unfair world that is the secret to socioeconomic success in a wide array of circumstances?  

Or, should parents insist that their children are socialized in a way that reinforces the parent's culture by teachers who share, or at least accommodate that culture by tailoring their instruction to the needs of children who share the parent's culture, because preserving one's own cultural identity is a matter of personal dignity that has inherent worth, even if that comes at the expense of optimal socioeconomic success in the broader world where elite cultural behaviors and norms are optimal.

This dilemma also in turn gives rise to another dilemma.  Who should decide whether children should be socialized into elite culture or socialized into a parent's non-elite culture? The parents, or professional educators?

Of course, both of these dilemmas assume that it is possible as a practical matter for educators to choose to socialize children in one culture or another.  It could be the culture can only be acquired by osmosis among authentic members of that culture, or at least that it is so much easier to acquire a culture by osmosis than it is to learn a second culture (much like a second language), that very few people succeed in doing so and almost none succeed in doing so with mere classroom instruction.

Indeed, historically, much of the debate about the role of culture in academic and socioeconomic performance has revolved around not classroom behavior, but around a student's language or dialect of English. If one speaks an elite dialect of English, one is often successful in an educational system designed to socialize children to speak that dialect, and this elite dialect is easier to acquire for people for whom it is their native tongue than it is for people who speak another language or a non-elite dialect of English.

Anthropologists and sociologists generally come to the question with the starting point assumption of cultural relativism, that all cultures are equal in dignity and value, just as all men and women are equal before the law.  But, empirically, we know perfectly well that behaviors and norms associated with some cultures, ethnicities and social classes are correlated with better academic and socioeconomic outcomes than others. Jews and Episcopalians perform better academically than Baptists and Pentecostals, on average. Asian Americans perform better academically than Hispanic Americans, on average. Upper middle class people out perform working class people academically.

Finally, keep in mind that cultures are not static.  They are constantly reinvented with each new generation and constantly change, sometimes incrementally, and sometimes in punctuated bursts, as they adapt to new circumstances. To the extent that particular behaviors and norms improve academic and economic achievement for intrinsic reasons, it behooves members of cultures that don't include those behaviors and norms to adopt those behaviors as their own, at least to the extent that it can be done in a manner that doesn't compromise the integrity of their own cultures.

For example, while Saudi Arabia has a lot of norms and behaviors regarding the role of women in society that are considered backward and dysfunctional by the rest of the world, it has dramatically changed its stance towards the desirability formally educating women in the last several decades. Where once this culture felt that formal education was wasted on women (something that remains the case in Muslim countries like Afghanistan), in Saudi Arabia, the culture has evolved to make universal formal education for girls even up into higher education a strong cultural norm, and it has managed to do that, at least in the short term, without compromising what it sees as the integrity of its culture.

Similarly, Japanese society has very systemically studied Western developed nations' cultures and identified particular aspects of those cultures which it wishes to incorporate into its own national life. But, it often does so in a manner somewhat different from the ways that those aspects of Western cultures were practiced in the West, and rejects other aspects of Western cultures. For example, Japan consciously adopted a Western style system of land tenure for peasant farmers, but has not adopted the Christian religious beliefs predominant in the West on a widespread basis.

In reality, the truth is probably a mix of the three possibilities. Social classes do have different IQs, on average, and IQ has a significant hereditary component and IQ, at a minimum, is a very good predictor of academic success. But, high social classes and socioeconomically successful ethnic groups, probably do have many cultural norms and behaviors that contribute to academic and socioeconomic success due to their intrinsic value.  Still, it is also probably true that there are many cultural behaviors and norms (e.g. preferences in attire and dialects) that have no intrinsic value that confer socioeconomic and academic success because they are associated with elites and open the door to elite social circles where progress is easier to achieve, and these aspects of elite culture are difficult for those not born to them to master.  The real question is not whether one or the other of these factors is relevant, but what their relative contributions are.  Psychologists have done quite a bit of research to quantify the impact of IQ, and it is possible to infer statistically the impact of culture beyond IQ.  But, it is hard indeed to distinguish between cultural practices with intrinsic value v. those with intra-cultural value without an investigation that is both global and expansive, yet intense and attentive to fine details often lost in oversimplifications.

It is reasonable, however, to conclude that to the extent that one wants to bring about better academic performance and socioeconomic success by socializing children into particular cultural behaviors and norms, that it is necessary to secure enthusiastic, or at least dutiful buy in from the parents of those children and their larger community.  Without that buy in, education becomes a never ending struggle of insurgent students resisting culturally colonial teachers.

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