Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

This article about the differences between parental attitudes and obsessions in the US from those in other western nations (in this case, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Sweden, and Spain) reminded me of my own perplexity about the general culture of childrearing among ambitious middle-class Americans. (When I say Americans, I really mean Anglo-Americans. I think the Americans would have seemed less of an outlier if the original study had included Canadian or British parents.) In particular, why are parents in these countries (and their governments — particularly in the UK) so concerned with training their children in age-inappropriate skills — reading at 4, playing violin at 3 — and so keen to find evidence that their children are prodigies? This despite the clear evidence of child development research that early training in reading is largely counterproductive.

The article points out that the Anglo-American parents are uniquely concerned with convincing themselves (and reassuring their friends) that their children are “intelligent”. Why? Well, in our increasingly winner-take-all societies, there’s obviously a lot of anxiety for the future status of ones children: Modest success no longer seems feasible, so one is left straining to heave ones children into the ranks of the winners, lest they sink into the vast mob of losers. Despite all the evidence that the main criterion for success is having successful parents, it seems to me that there’s been an enormous amount of propaganda in recent decades for the notion that intelligence determines all, and that intelligence is innate.

This is where reprobationism comes in, the Calvinist doctrine that God has chosen the elect, those who ultimately will be saved, from the beginning of time, and there is nothing a damned goat can do, neither faith nor good works, to ascend to the saved sheep.
As Max Weber famously argued, while you might expect this to sink believers into apathy and despair, instead it aroused anxious actionism: You can’t earn promotion to salvation, but God will certainly mark his elect with worldly success. So your efforts to acquire wealth and power are not in themselves useful, but to the extent that they succeed, they reassure you that you were always among the elect.

How does this relate to children and parents? We’ve secularised by one step, so the intermediate goal has become the immediate goal. For “elect” read “intelligent”. Intelligence has been doled out before birth, either genetically or in the womb, at the latest in the first six months of Baby Einstein videos. There’s nothing you can do to change the outcome, but you can try to convince yourself that the already-determined outcome is a good one. Hence the early reading. Children who do learn to read and/or play the violin when they’re 3 or 4 are probably pretty clever (though they might be autistic; oh no…) So if you can force your darling through intensive training to read or play the violin at that age, you won’t make her better off — on the contrary, the direct effect will be harmful — but you’ll demonstrate to yourself, comforting thought, that your child was actually among the cognitive elect all along, destined for a Harvard BA and a high-earning career fleecing the plebes.

And not among the unintelligent hoard, who will be cast into the flaming pit of minimum-wage labour.

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