DE RERUM NATURA: THE BLANK SLATE

MANILA, December 15, 2003 (STAR) DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia - When I hear about parents willing to do anything short of stand on their heads, bribe school admission officials or the most horrible I have come across – kill someone else’s kid who is competing for the same admission slot as their kid – to make sure their kids get into the "best schools" at entry level – meaning kindergarten or even earlier – I cringe at the pressure involved. I refer to the pressure exerted on the parents, the children and the schools. Because what is the general school age now – 4? The kids, given the life expectancy – 65 or more years – are barely getting to know their family, not to mention potty-trained, but they are already besieged by this mad insistence to get them to the "right schools." Please do not misunderstand. I realize the importance of a good learning environment but a mad insistence to pursue this path for your children, at all costs, is presupposing that children are "blank slates," that they will be what their environment can make them out to be and thus, could be controlled, as early as possible. And science has long debunked this "blank slate theory."

Steven Pinker is a leading scientist in the field of neuroscience and behavioral ecology. Big words but they both refer to fields that study how the brain works. Pinker has written an article important enough to be included in the Best American Science and Nature Writing Series (Richard Dawkins, ed. and Tim Folger, series ed., Houghton Mifflin, NY 2003). The article is entitled "The Blank Slate." Reading it, I could sense that it arose out of frustration since he found that people, for various reasons such as fear, arrogance or plain idiocy, refuse to accept that we are all products of inheritance. That we have genes that affect how our brains are formed that also shape the way we learn. And for those of you who will jump on the sentence that came before this one, thinking that it is discriminatory since I am saying that there are those with talents and those with none, you are one of those people with whom Pinker is frustrated.

Pinker is saying that we are not born "empty." Nature, through evolution, has selected genes that we are born with which "nurture" meets and have the pleasure and responsibility to shape. Ever wondered why you never ended up a pianist when you were forced to go through all those piano lessons with the temperamental piano teacher next door, but your neighbor who never had lessons and who never owned a piano as a child, is now one?

Having a "physical" explanation for why certain minds work a certain way, however, does not mean that some minds are more worthy than others. For example, even if Einstein’s brain, Pinker says, shows a rather "large, unusually shaped inferior parietal lobes which participate in spatial reasoning and intuitions in numbers," it is preposterous to have a school admission criteria measuring the size of each applicant’s parietal lobes. It is ridiculous because even if one is born with the "brain structure" susceptible to genius, the game is not over because the power of "genes" is the power of an "if" and the power of "maybe." It is not a guarantee because genes are "probabilistic" as Pinker says. There are switches and triggers to genius and talent that depend on the environment. There will be geniuses who will never know their full potential because of limitations to their environments and there will be those who will have full, exquisite use of their "normal" parietal lobe because their environments support it.

But it also works the other way. You cannot blame your parents for every mess you get into as an adult because they gave you "bad genes to start with. There is no such thing as "bad" genes. Children born with unique learning difficulties are not doomed. The "brain" has the ability to compensate and form wonderful new connections that foil the plans of those who think that genes are destiny. From my own personal experience, I have to say that I find being with these kids who are said to have "genetic" learning disabilities, yields far more insights into the question of "nature vs. nurture" than being with a lot of other "normal" crowds. We may be able to understand more and more how the human brain works but this will never mean we are all the same. Each mind is still unique. We may now be discovering the areas of the brain responsible for being good in mathematical reasoning, linguistics, or having an influence in social behavior (a study of convicted murderers show that they are likely to have relatively small and inactive prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that influences decision-making and inhibits our impulses), but we are also finding out how these "givens" are enhanced or even "neutralized" by the learning environment and the society.

My Dad, who is at that stage where he reminisces every time he can get me to spend time with him, always used to say that life was really hard on him as a kid, that the fellows of his generation who had money and went to the best schools as kids had it made for them right from the start. That is, until I introduced him to a man older than he was who was born and raised as a poor kid in Tondo, did not go to fancy private schools, did not even have shoes when he walked to first grade, who struggled through reading as a kid and then grappled with English until he was in college and ended up as a Rockefeller scholar physicist, chosen to train under a Nobel Laureate later in life. I also told him about a man who grew up poor up north, whose parents supported his education by farming with their own hands and keeping a sari-sari store. He invented a computer part so revolutionary and so successful that his company has its own "exit" sign in the California freeway. He was given some honors in a graduation ceremony in UP a few years ago and he made his parents, now in their 80s, stand up to be introduced to the new graduates. By doing so, he gratefully acknowledged and honored his "genes." I also have a good friend who is among the best physicists in the country who, when he was young, walked the Manila railroad tracks where he lived, holding and understanding a book on quantum mechanics. Those were his mother’s genes exquisitely walking the tracks.

The Japanese have a word for it. It is "suiseki." It involves the art of sculpting stone. I asked an artist once why he sculpted a bird about to fly. He said "because it is what this particular piece of rock is; I just liberated it by sculpting it." I think it is a good metaphor for the human mind and how it can unfold.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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