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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

"Intelligence and How to Get It"

I Put the Title in Quotations Because It Comes From a New Book by Dr. Richard Nisbett

Here’s the book, and here’s the Nicholas Kristoff essay in yesterday’s Times that brought it to my attention, Dr. Nisbett argues that intelligence is not primarily a result of gene pools — which, as you remember The Bell Curve, is a position that still has many fans. Kristoff focuses on three groups that have done exceptionally well in America: Asian-Americaans; Jews; West Indians. Following Nisbett, he argues that their success has been due to cultural ephasis on education, education, education — along with a high value on hard work, and intact families. 

Why does this matter to us? Well clearly we are interested in education, and we’ve seen the example of Deb Hanson’s Guys Read program that providing father figures can help boys who are struggling in school. But I think the example of these three groups relates in particular to nonfiction, to the issues we’ve discussed in this blog. Because so often especially in elementary school, story, fiction, is presented as the grease, the fun, the motivation, the spoonful of sugar to engage kids, with textbook-driven nonfiction as the medicine that must be forced down. The example of the three successful groups is that education itself is the sugar — the process of knowing, or learning, of having access to the world’s knowledge — and thus a path to success — is the incentive. School itself is the ladder — you don’t designate one rung on a ladder the fun rung and the other the hard one; you just climb.

I have another speculation to add to Nisbett and Kristoff, which again relates to the themes of this blog. At least in the Jewish context that I know, you grow up from the earliest age being comfortable with the idea of "interpretation." You know that knowledge is not purely fact, and not merely a matter of opinion. You are encouraged to formulate theories and test them in discussion and argument. I think that step of moving acquiring information to developing interpretations is crucial for real success in school and in the world. I see many elementary education teachers who are comfortable with interpretion in fiction, but not in nonfiction. And yet I strongly suspect that what tests later as "intelligence" is, from early on, a comfort with the process of developing, defending, and revising interpretations. 

What do you think?


  1. Elizabeth Partridge says:

    Would you say more about teachers not being comfortable interpreting nonfiction? That is kind of blowing my mind, to be sixties-ish.

  2. Betsy:

    For teachers who are not trained in a discipline, who are working off of a textbook and its worksheets, and who need to prepare students for multiple choice testing, certifiable facts have great appeal, while disputable theories and interpretations can be daunting. This is by no means universal, but even the most motivated teachers tell me that it is hard for them to deal with historical interpretation when they have no training in that mode of thinking about and engaging with the past.