From Tabula Rasa to the NFL

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The movie, The Blind Side describes how Michael Oher overcame -- with the help of a family that became aware of his plight -- a poverty-stricken, rudderless, and itinerant childhood to become a professional football player.

The benevolent aspect of this movie is heart-warming, but for the film really doesn't do justice to just how badly-off Oher really was. This isn't for lack of trying: I think it would have required a very different focus and a very different movie to pull that off. But an old article in the New York Times, "The Ballad of Big Mike," gives us a better idea. Things began to improve for Oher when he was enrolled in a private school, but his starting point looked hopeless.
The boy, now 16, had a measured I.Q. of 80, which put him in mankind's ninth percentile. An aptitude test he took in eighth grade measured his "ability to learn" and placed him in the sixth percentile.
And why?
In his first nine years of school, Michael Oher was enrolled in 11 different institutions, and that included a gap of 18 months, around age 10, when he apparently did not attend school at all. Either that or the public schools were so indifferent to his presence that they neglected to register it formally. Not that Oher actually showed up at the schools where he was enrolled. Even when he received credit for attending, he was sensationally absent: 46 days of a single term of his first-grade year, for instance. His first first-grade year, that is; Michael Oher repeated first grade. He repeated second grade, too. And yet the school system presented these early years as the most accomplished of his academic career. They claimed that right through the fourth grade he was performing at "grade level." How could they know when, according to these transcripts, he hadn't even attended the third grade?
It will come as no surprise that, except for failing first and second grades, Oher was the "beneficiary" of an unwritten policy of social promotion.

The above situation stemmed partly from and exacerbated the additional lack of guidance consequent to the fact that Oher completely lacked a stable home environment during all those years. Oher had an incredible amount of catching up to do.
If there was a less promising academic record, [principal Steve] Simpson hadn't seen it. Simpson guessed, rightly, that the Briarcrest Christian School hadn't seen anything like Michael Oher either. Simpson and others in the Briarcrest community would eventually learn that Michael's father had been shot and killed and tossed off a bridge, that his mother was addicted to crack cocaine and that his life experience was so narrow that he might as well have spent his first 16 years inside a closet...

But Big Mike wasn't like Steven. Steven had a father and a bed and a decent school transcript. He could cope with a conversation. Big Mike, in company, seemed as lost as a Martian stumbling out of a crash landing. Simpson had tried to shake his hand. "He didn't know how to do it," he says. "I had to show him how to shake hands." Every question Simpson put to Big Mike elicited a barely audible mumble. "I don't know if 'docile' is the right word," Simpson says.
This "docility" comes up multiple times, including on the football field, where Oher's play is also, at first, reflective of his lack of exposure to broad life experiences and lack of a value-hierarchy. In one game, he is flummoxed by the taunts of a much smaller player -- until a play call gives him a chance to pick up and carry his tormentor off the field and almost to his team bus!

And later, when Oher is busy catching up:
Still, in spite of these presumed defects, [tutor Sue] Mitchell was relentless and effusive -- the sort of woman who wants everything to be just great between her and the rest of the world but, if it isn't, can adjust and go to war. And that's what she did. She worked five nights a week, four hours each night, free, to help get Michael Oher into Ole Miss, her alma mater. The Tuohy family looked on with interest. "There were days when he was just overwhelmed," says Collins, who saw the academic drama unfold both at school and at home. "He'd just close his book and say, 'I'm done.'" When he did this, Mitchell opened the book for him. She didn't care much about football, but she fairly quickly became attached to Michael. There was just something about him that made you want to help him. He tried so hard and for so little return. "One night it wasn't going so well, and I got frustrated,"Mitchell says, "and he said to me, 'Miss Sue, you have to remember I've only been going to school for two years.'"
It is a testament to the human spirit that Oher and those who took an interest in him eventually succeeded. This case is also an eloquent demonstration of the spiral theory of learning, namely that past experience is crucial to future development. Near the end, we learn that, by college, "his I.Q. test score had risen between 20 and 30 points."

Whatever I.Q. tests measure, it is heartening that -- although there is no way Oher will be able to replace all those lost years -- they did not permanently or completely ruin him.

-- CAV


madmax said...

his I.Q. test score had risen between 20 and 30 points

Didn't Ayn Rand say something to the effect that proper cognitive training could raise a person's IQ by 30 points? I'm glad you posted on this because it is a good illustration that IQ may not be the be all/end all that so many make it out to be.

The HBD movement is indicative of the genetic determinism that is sweeping the Conservative movement and they worship at the alter of IQ scores. But I am wondering if early cognitive challenges of youth are at least as important as hereditary factors. I am also wondering what the damage done by public schools and their pragmatist look/say method is, especially in regard to this area.

Why do I have a feeling that if public education was abolished and a totally free market in education was established, with all the innovative teaching methods that would bring, that everyone's IQ scores would be higher.

Gus Van Horn said...

I don't know whether Rand ever said anything on that subject.

The rise in IQ reminds me of a paper I read long ago of an early study of whether cognitive development in rats was affected by environmental "richness" in stimuli.

The workers used brain mass as a very crude approximation for cognitive development and found that rats raised in rich environments (e.g., with toys, and other interesting objects) vice bare cages had heavier brains. What they didn't do (or I never read) was whether they changed some rats from "poor" surroundings to "rich" at some point to see whether those rats also had heavier brains. That would be a better analogy to what happened here.

In any event, it appears that, fortunately, even humans raised in such conditions are not rendered incapable of overcoming their lack of development.