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Controversy: Replies to Bettelheim’s “Schooling is Not Enough”

In response to:

How Much Can Man Change? from the September 10, 1964 issue

Editors’ Note: A great many letters were received in response to Bruno Bettelheim’s review of Stability and Change in Human Characteristics by Benjamin S. Bloom in the September 10th issue of The New York Review, of which we publish here a small selection, with a reply from Dr. Bettelheim.

To the Editors:

I have just read with great interest Dr. Bettelheim’s review of Professor Bloom’s Stability and Change in Human Characteristics. I have great respect and sympathy for their position. Yet I must disagree with Dr. Bettelheim when, at the beginning of his review, he writes:

How much can man change and at what age is it too late to hope for very much change? Now, thanks to Professor Bloom’s study…we know.

No. We do not know. Professor Bloom’s tables only show us what is happening. They do not and can not show us what, under other conditions, might or could happen. They show that, in schools as they are, the I.Q.s and academic achievement of most children are stable. This is important evidence, but the conclusion that our character and intelligence are largely and unchangeably determined in our first four or five years does not necessarily follow from it.

Dr. Bettelheim’s argument seems to rest on or at least imply two assumptions. The first is that I.Q.s and school achievement are good measures of intelligence. The second is that schools, as they are, are sufficiently favorable to the growth of intelligence so that we can say that, if the intelligence of children could grow as they went through school, it would, and that since it does not, it can not. These assumptions are at best questionable. My own belief is that they are wholly false, that I.Qs and school achievements measure or reveal only a very small part of the whole of human intelligence, and that, with very few exceptions, schools, even the “best,” are an environment so inimical to the growth of intelligence, even among the most highly favored children, that it is only a very rare person whose intelligence can be said to have survived his schooling.

This radical view is more fully presented in a book, How Children Fail, to be published this fall.

Meanwhile it seems worth repeating that even the best statistics can only tell us what is, not what might be. When we are trying to find out what is possible, it is the exceptional case that counts. Even if there are only very few children whose I.Qs changed much after their sixth or eighth birthday, those are the children we should look at. What happened to them might happen, or be caused to happen, to others. We should take a more serious look at schools like Summerhill, where many children with long records of previous school failure have been able to master their problems enough to be able to do in two years or so work that in conventional schools takes four or five. That the school is small does not make the phenomenon a bit less important.

It is, of course, a kind of counsel of despair today that, since we can’t or won’t do anything about poverty and its crippling effects on the children who grow up in it, we must in some miraculous way make up to the children in school for what they have lost at home. I join Dr. Bettelheim in rejecting this belief, which can only lead to failure and disillusionment, and in feeling that the first years are the most important. But it is equally a counsel of despair, to say that if a child gets off to a bad start he is lost for good, and that because schools are not doing anything to help disadvantaged and defeated children, they never can do anything. We may find, when we learn more about schools and education, that there is a great deal they can do.

John Holt

Boston, Massachusetts

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