We can be grateful that Peter Greene has accepted the burden of reading the reports that pour forth come D.C. think tanks, saving the rest of us the trouble. Of course, when we read Peter’s analysis, we often end up reading the report anyway to find out if it is as bad as he says.
Here Peter analyzes a study produced by the Brookings Institution on the crucial importance of character, drive, and prudence. Peter titles this post “Poor Kids Suck,” because they get worse academic results, which presumably means they are lacking character, drive, and prudence.
When it comes to slick-looking research of questionable results in fields outside their area of expertise, you can always count on the folks at Brookings. They have a new report out entitled The Character Factor: Measures and Impact of Drive and Prudence, and it has some important things to tell us about the kinds of odd thoughts occupying reformster minds these days.
The whole report is thirty-five pages long, but don’t worry– I’ve read it so that you don’t have to. Fasten your seatbelts, boys and girls (particularly those of you who can be scientifically proven to be character-deficient)– this will be a long and bumpy ride.
Character Is Important
Yes, some of this report is clearly based on work previously published in The Journal Of Blindingly Obvious Conclusions. And we announce that in the first sentence:
A growing body of empirical research demonstrates that people who possess certain character strengths do better in life in terms of work, earnings, education and so on, even when taking into account their academic abilities. Smarts matter, but so does character.
In all fairness, the next sentence begins with “This is hardly a revelation.” That sentence goes on to quietly define what “character” means– “work hard, defer gratification, and get along with others.” But we push right past that to get to Three Reasons This Field of Study Is Now a Thing.
1) There’s concrete evidence to back it up, a la Duckworth et. al.
2) That evidence suggests that character is as important as smartness for life success
3) Given that importance, policymakers ought to be paying more attention to “cultivation and distribution of these skills.”
The report brings up the marshmallow study, to introduce the importance of deferred gratification among four-year-olds.
There has been some great research in the last forty years to parse out what this hoary old study might actually mean and might actually miss. I like this one in particular from Rochester, because it finds a huge difference factor in the environment. Some researchers behaved like unreliable nits, while others proved true to their words, and the result was a gigantic difference in the children’s wait time. This is huge because it tells us something extremely important–
It’s much easier to defer gratification till later if you can believe that you’ll actually get it later. If you believe that deferring gratification means giving it up entirely– you are less likely to defer. Brookings does not include the new research in their report.
Brookings concludes this section with
Drive and prudence contribute to higher earnings, more education, better health outcomes
and less criminal behavior.And as long as we’re just making stuff up:
We can also easily imagine that they are important for marriage, parenting, and community involvement.
Plus, we can imagine that they give you better hair, firmer muscle tone, and fresher smelling breath. Plus, you probably won’t get cancer. But as unsupported as these suppositions are, they are still a critical part of the foundation for what comes next.
Yes, Rich People Really Are Better
Brookings now bravely turns to the question of how class is related to these character strengths. And I can’t accuse them of burying the lede:
If character strengths significantly impact life outcomes, disparities in their development may matter for social mobility and equality. As well as gaps in income, wealth, educational quality, housing, and family stability, are there also gaps in the development of these important character strengths?
This is followed by some charts that suggest that poor kids do worse on “school-readiness measures of learning-related behavior.” Another chart shows a correlation between income and the strengths of persistence and self-control through the school years.
Here is the good news! Peter writes:
Brookings, who don’t always seem to get all of the reformster memos, go a page too far now by suggesting (with charts!) that their prudence and drive measures (which would be a half-decent band name) are as good a predictor of success as cognitive/academic measures. Which means that we can totally scrap the PARCC and the SBA tests and just check to see if the kid is able to sit still and wait fifteen minutes for a marshmallow. I will now predict that this is NOT the headline that will be used if leading reformster publications decide to run this story.
Best case scenario– we’ve re-demonstrated that people who come from a high socio-economic background tend to be successful in school, and those who don’t, don’t. Staple on some tautologies as a side show and call it an insight.
Or maybe this is a report that buttresses old farts everywhere by suggesting that since if your kid can’t learn to sit still, he probably lacks character and is likely to fail at life.
And remember up above when we decided to call these “character strengths.” That meant these behaviors are deeper than simple learned behaviors, but not quite genetically hardwired. So we’re stopping just short of saying that poor kids are born with a lack of character.
But at worst– at worst– this is codified cultural colonialism. This is defining “success” as “making it in our dominant culture, which we will define as normal for all humans.” And then declaring that if you want to make it as (our version of) a normal human, you must learn to adopt our values. This is going to Africa and saying, “Well, of course these people will never amount to anything– they don’t wear trousers.”