Long ago in tutoring students, I figured out that I wasn’t ever going to win the game of intellectual fanciness. Working in LA (and around the world) for the very wealthy, I encountered lots and lots of students who had been diagnosed with a whole smörgåsbord of learning disabilities. It was tough enough convincing students to try, look up words they didn’t know and do practice problems–the things any human has to do to get good at things–when the student had convinced themselves that they didn’t get the math gene or wasn’t smart. However, when someone with a PhD in Neuropsychology had told them they had ADHD, an executive functioning disorder or dysgraphia, then suddenly it was my Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from Harvard vs their PhD from La Di Da University. And this gets to the biggest issue I have with Jon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, he acts as if “Progressives” or “Liberals” don’t have strong intuitions of Authority. They do. They WORSHIP magical pieces of papers called college degrees. And some of them have more power than others.
A lot of people encouraged me to go get a PhD from La Di Da University. It made sense within the culture of liberals’ intuitions of authority. You should get a PhD, then people will take you seriously. But, by this point, Katie O’Brien and I had already pulled together SEVEN fields of neuroscience and psychology. To acquire legitimacy to say what we were already saying based on reading the research, we would have to have gotten seven PhDs. It was a nutso system. So, we figured out a very simple workaround. We didn’t question anyone’s intellectual authority. We just treated our students’ beliefs about their intelligence as hypotheses.
Hunter/Katie: “Okay. You have an executive functioning disorder AND Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder AND your doctor said that when you read it’s like you’re running on one leg AND you have dysgraphia. That sounds bad!”
Little Kid: “Yeah. Real bad.”
Hunter/Katie: “So, what are we going to do?”
Little Kid shrugs shoulders.
Hunter/Katie: “We’re going to do an experiment with your brain.”
WHAAAAAAT?!? Experimenting with the brains of children?!?
Rather than taking the diagnosis on faith, we treat it as a hypothesis to be tested. If you think you didn’t get the math gene, I’m not going to fight you on that belief. You’ve got a hypothesis and now we experiment. We keep trying to improve the way you practice and see what we can do to improve your performance in math. We do fix-it-focused practice on your mistakes. We teach you to better manage your fear of math. We make the rules Cake-Mix Clear. In short, we keep improving the way you do things and teach you to doubt your own doubts. Did I really not get the math gene? Do I really have an executive functioning disorder? Well, let’s see. In the end, results speak for themselves. If we can get you doing well in school without any stress, then who is going to argue with that?
I’ve now got thirteen years of working with students and run up against countless diagnoses from people with PhDs from La Di Da University. Some conditions like Down’s Syndrome, Tay-Sachs and dyslexia are real but many of them are actually a side effect of the massively atomistic nature of academia. People are so mired in their tiny sub-field that they don’t understand that to get a complete picture of what we know about learning you have to put many, many fields of science together. The “relevant biology” of human intelligence is a great area to see the story of the blind men and the elephant at work. For most of my life, I’ve avoided controversy…but now I realize that I have a responsibility to share what I know. A lot of kids are getting the wrong idea of their potential because they’re awed by the degrees of people who have cultural biases of which they’re not aware. So, what matters more? Avoiding pissing powerful people off or helping children.
I’m going to go with helping kids (and adults who got the wrong idea about their intelligence when they were kids).
To say you know more than a PhD SOUNDS ARROGANT to some people. But every scientific claim is a claim about reality. A claim about how the human brain works is a claim about how YOUR brain works. And, frankly, isn’t that the brain you care about? Who cares what is true of all brains on average?!? Let’s see what your brain can really do if we use it in the right way!