Found myself reading the blog of the author of Blink!, which you might have read or seen lying around at bookshops lately.
This post is not about the book (which I have not read). But Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer with The New Yorker magazine. And he maintains an archive of his New Yorker articles on his Website.
In one of these articles, Gladwell reviews the book by John Bruer, ‘The Myth of The First Three Years‘, whose title, Gladwell points out, suggests that the book is a rant but it isn’t. In addition to Bruer’s book, he looks at other literature which further
offer considerable evidence that what the middle class perceives as inadequate parenting need not condemn a baby for life, and that institutions and interventions to help children as they approach maturity can make a big difference in how they turn out. It is, surely, a sad irony that, at the very moment when science has provided the intellectual reinforcement for modern liberalism, liberals themselves are giving up the fight.
The thesis of Bruer’s book runs contrary to the agenda of Hilary Clinton (who wrote It Takes a Village, in which she criticizes the harsh genetic determinism (see below) of The Bell Curve) and other policymakers and advocacy groups. This movement uses the promise and the new findings in brain science to push for better pediatric care, early childhood education, and day care. At a conference at the White House entitled “What New Research on the Brain tells Us About Our Youngest Children”, Clinton said,
Fifteen years ago, we thought that a baby’s brain structure was virtually complete at birth. Now we understand that it is a work in progress, and that everything we do with a child has some kind of potential physical influence on that rapidly forming brain. A child’s earliest experiences–their relationships with parents and caregivers, the sights and sounds and smells and feelings they encounter, the challenges they meet–determine how their brains are wired. . . . These experiences can determine whether children will grow up to be peaceful or violent citizens, focussed or undisciplined workers, attentive or detached parents themselves.
The great thing about reading reviews (and maybe even comments on reviews such as the post you’re reading now) is that you get a concise summary of the book(s) under review, along with evaluation done by the reviewer, who as a prerequisite to his evaluation has already identified the parts of the publication reviewed he finds interesting or contentious. (But you’d have to take his word for all of this, unless you critique what he says or read what he reviews.) In this case, Gladwell does an extensive review of other related literature in what to me initially appeared to be a review for just one book.
Gladwell’s verdict on the debate, after analysing other research in psychology (child development) and neurology and discussions from both camps, is that ‘Mrs. Clinton and her allies have misread the evidence on child development’.
Clinton and her allies base their movement on infant determinism (a term coined by Jerome Kagan (a psychologist who is an advocate of the ideology; not to be confused with the author of Cooperative Learning, Spencer Kagan), which holds that your future might be decided at three by your parents’ behavior. Gladwell’s criticism is that it is just as depressing as genetic determinism, the ideology ‘that holds that your future is largely decided at birth by your parents’ genes’.
Infant determinism doesn’t just encourage the wrong kind of policy. Ultimately, it undermines the basis of social policy. … Inevitably, some people will interpret the zero-to-three dogma to mean that our obligations to the disadvantaged expire by the time they reach the age of three. It is also an unwitting act of reproach: it implies to disadvantaged parents that if their children do not turn out the way children of privilege do it is their fault–that they are likely to blame for the flawed wiring of their children’s brains.
Through his literature review and analysis, Gladwell shows that the zero-to-three idea, one with great cultural clout, is based on misinterpretation of scientific research. What’s left for us to find out is what institutions and interventions can help children as they approach maturity and how these institutions and interventions can make a big difference.
By the way, I should have known that the answer to the question in the title of this post (which I lifted from the title of the article by Gladwell) is no. The word determine means ‘to fix conclusively or authoritatively’. Claims in the social sciences and the humanities that use such a word are just too strong, and would require lots of support.