Obsessive Testing and Data Collection One Step Further — Genetic Testing for Children

I’ve been thinking and writing about our nation’s obsession with grit  and big data recently.  I almost couldn’t believe it when I read Jay Belsky’s article in the New York Times entitled “The Downside of Resilience” in which he advocates for genetic testing of young children to decide issues of disposition and, specifically, resilience.  What if it isn’t true, says Belsky, that positive interventions like preschool education have the power to help all children?  What if, instead, we were able to identify certain alleles of genes linked to seratonin and dopamine early on to decide which children are “at risk” for being less gritty?  Belsky suggests that, ethics aside, this would enable us to target “scarce intervention and service dollars” toward “at risk” ungritty “delicate orchid” children who are genetically predisposed to “whither if exposed to stress and deprivation.” Other children, who “are more like dandelions,” … “prove resilient to the negative effects of adversity” and “do not particularly benefit from positive experiences.”

Anthony Cody wrote an insightful commentary about Belsky’s article, pointing out that, if Belsky’s ideas are correct, then the education community’s belief that resilience and grit can be taught is, indeed, incorrect and any instruction in these areas is a waste of time.  And there is a darker side to the use of genetic testing to determine resource allocation.  The eugenics movement thrived in the years prior to WWII as societies looked to science to produce a better human race.  The Nazis wholeheartedly embraced eugenics and we’ve lived with that legacy ever since, vowing to never forget.  But it seems that we are forgetting.  And now, we want to impose ethically challenged ideas on our youngest members of society.

However, isn’t this a natural extension of our nation’s obsession with testing, measuring, and data collection? Genetic testing at birth is merely another form of data collection.  This truly, however, harkens back to Huxley’s Brave New World —  schools for Alphas, different schools for Betas, and Epsilons can mop their floors (no need to waste money trying to education them).

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The Brave New World of Big Data

“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.” (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World)

Why is the U.S. so enamored with big data?  Perhaps the entire concept of big data fits nicely with a consumer society, like the one portrayed in Huxley’s 1932 novel.  Today, consumerism is the soma.  And while we rail against the government for engaging in the mining of personal data for national security, we don’t seem nearly as bothered by the mining of our data by private corporations.  As a matter of fact, we love the convenience of having our internet searches and ad pop-ups tailored to our tastes as consumers.  But we live in an age in which the data and our internet footprints never go away and we’re not quite sure what will become of it.  Think about radioactive nuclear and chemical waste.  Remember Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl.  The original products associated with these locations was not bad and considered beneficial to the region, bringing jobs and energy to the population.  However, what was left behind was far more toxic.

What happens to all the big data after its original use has been thoroughly exploited?  It has an incredibly long shelf life and it highly and easily marketed to another entity who can re-purpose the data for further exploitation.  While education data machine makers offer benevolent reasons for gathering, storing, and reporting all the available data on children from preschool through their college years, this data will never go away.  What other entities will find this data useful and worth whatever price or manipulation to get it.

Will data become destiny for children?  Will it become convenient to sort people according to the data we are accumulating?  Again, we can look back to Huxley’s proposition that social stability will ensue from the acknowledgement that people can become very comfortable with their respective roles.   One of the characters in A Brave New World explains why it is better to be a Beta:

“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly color. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.”

Is grit something we can teach children — or — is it an immutable quality?  Will we conclude after all the grit studies that the quality of a child’s grit level is genetically predetermined and will we decide not to waste too many resources on gritless children?  Will we decide to have them wear a different color or type of Gates’ inspired data collecting biosensor bracelet to continually monitor their attentiveness?  And when they are finished with school, that data can be provided to prospective employers.  They can decide whether or not they can afford to hire a person who, during the 2nd and 3rd grade, was rated as inattentive, unable to focus on academic tasks, and just plain not very gritty.  If they were less gritty for those two years, what’s to say that pattern won’t return at some point?  Best to employ a person with no interruptions in their attentiveness level.

And let’s always remember that poor children are the ones being targeted for explicit grit instruction.  Grit is the magic bullet that will enable them to succeed in spite of the odds.  In 2008, former politician and lingering conservative talking head, Newt Gingrich asserted that “poor kids have no work ethic — unless it comes to doing something illegal. … they have no habits of working and nobody around them who works …”  What they need is the opportunity, even as young as nine years old, to be given paying jobs such as mopping hallways in school.  In a brave new world, Epsilons can mop the floors.  Maybe if they can earn a few shekels, they can develop at least a little grit. But will they ever become Betas or Alphas?  You tell me.

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