Reviewing the Slate

Posted Feb 26, 2004
Last Updated Nov 5, 2011

All kids are the same. I believe it wholeheartedly. And… all kids are different. I believe it equally as well. The contradiction in beliefs is not so hard to explain, because it really just means that there are parts of us that are similar across humanity, and other areas that vary quite a bit.

It's something that all of us know about. But it is something that is easy for us to pervert in our ideologies.

Reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature was one of those rare books that actually forced me to objectively evaluate some of my own ideologies regarding human nature and malleability. It especially forced me to think long and hard about some of my assumptions about childrearing and education—few books have had this effect on me, even those dedicated solely to education.

One of the myths Pinker dispels in The Blank Slate is "The Noble Savage"—an idealized portrait of pre-civilized cultures you find in many liberal-thinking corners. The Noble Savage, according to popular myth, was a peace-loving creature that lived in perfect harmony with nature. It's a portrait that I bought into as a teenager angry with the status quo. While the myth is comforting—and is used to defend the perceived denigration of morals from capitalist changes in society—the concept of the Noble Savage does not hold up to truth. Pre-civilized cultures were more bloody than civilized.

The real monster in the bag, according to Pinker, is modern society's a priori belief in The Blank Slate—of a human mind that can be directly molded and changed to any end if only put in the right environment.

This was a touchy subject for me when I started reading The Blank Slate. I’ve always put an extreme amount of my time and thought into education… and I've always been a firm believer in the ability of humans to better themselves through education. So it was with an element of skepticism that I approached The Blank Slate.

In the end, however, Pinker forced me to change some of my views on the possibilities and limits of the human mind. Many sectors in society won't even let you consider the possibility that some parts of humans are not malleable… and that there are aspects to our behaviors that are given to us in our genes. Talents, preferences, inclinations… they are all traits that can be determined by factors absolutely beyond anyone's control.

Pinker does not deny culture as a source of influence on humans. His stance, however, is that the extreme left-wing academic establishment has clouded the issue for political reasons. The Blank Slate has been conjured to fight racism, sexism and prejudice since the 1960s. While fighting them has been a good thing for human societies, using the Blank Slate as a defense has proven to be intellectually stifling.

The Blank Slate challenges several areas of modern intellectual tenets that have been protected behind the sanctimonious walls of political correctness and social sensitivity. Ideas such as cultural relativism are tackled with insight.

Speaking about postmodernism applied to the arts, Pinker wrote, "It is ironic that a philosophy that prides itself on deconstructing the accoutrements of power should embrace a relativism that makes challenges to power impossible, because it denies that there are objective benchmarks against which deceptions of the powerful can be evaluated… Without the notion of objective truth, intellectual life denigrates into a struggle of who can best exercise the raw for to 'control the past.'"

Pinker asserts that feminism, in its extreme, has blindfolded society with the belief that all sex roles are imposed… that boys and girls are really identical when not molded to be different. The extreme left feminist wing lashes out at all sex roles as an imposition of males to control females. Pinker points to studies that show that men and women really do have inherent differences, such as sexual preferences, strategies to compete, and various physical, mental and emotional traits.

Pointing to attempts to get more women into various fields of engineering and technology, Pinker quotes Patti Hausman’s remark from a National Academy of Engineering: "The question of why more women don't choose careers in engineering has a rather obvious answer: Because they don't want to." While many vocal feminists clamor that established males are keeping the female sex down with a glass ceiling, the average flesh and blood female wonders what the fuss is about—many are inherently disinterested in some fields.

Feminists will immediately be taken back by his claim. But Pinker repeatedly explains that his argument is not that women are inferior to men… but that there really is something called Human Nature that is hard-wired into us. Women and men have certain inherent differences (which most of us happen to know go more than skin deep).

The book is deep and expansive, crossing many fields from evolutionary biology and natural history to linguistics, game theory, politics and sociology. While that may seem like a wide range, it's well connected an written in a fashion that isn’t stifling.

And although the book doesn't pretend to answer all questions about the world and humanity, it does a very good job at explaining some of the reasons why all kids are the same—and all kids are different.

Almost every night I read to my kids. Some of them sit still while others stare distractedly at objects around the room. Some remember my words, others forget quickly. But all of them fall asleep after a while, and I love them all. There's something similar in all of us, as well as something unique.


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