the PISA Results:
Evolutionary, Historical, Developmental, and Psychological Perspectives

from James R. Flynn, What is Intelligence?  Beyond the Flynn Effect (Cambridge Univesity Press, 2009):

Our ancestors in 1900 were not mentally retarded. . . .  We differ from them in that we can use abstractions and logic and the hypothetical to attack the formal problems that arise when science liberates thought from concrete situations.  Since 1950 we have become more ingenious in going beyond previously learned rules to solve problems on the spot.  pp. 10-11

The scientific ethos, with its vocabulary, taxonomies, and detachment of logic and the hypothetical from concrete referents, has begun to permeate the minds of post-industrial peoples.  This has paved the way for mass education on the university level and the emergence of an intellectual cadre without whom our present civilization would be inconceivable.  p. 29

from Mercedes Cubero and Manuel L. de la Mata, "Activity Settings, Ways of Thinking and Discourse Modes: An Empirical Investigation of the Heterogeneity of Verbal Thinking," in Seth Chaiklin, The Theory and Practice of Cultural-Historical Psychology (Aarhus University Press, 2001), p. 220:

Bruner (1986, 1990) argues for a semiotic conception of thinking, in which each mode of thought is associated with two ways of thinking, or two ways of knowing: logical-scientific thinking and narrative.

from Merlin Donald,  A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness (W. W. Norton & Company, 2001)

 . . . modern culture contains within it a trace of each of our previous stages of cognitive evolution.  It still rests on the same old primate brain capacity for episodic or event knowledge.  But it has three additional, uniquely human layers: a mimetic layer, an oral-linguistic layer, and an external-symbolic layer.  The minds of individuals reflect these three ways of representing reality.  (p. 262)

from Anthony Orton, Learning Mathematics: Issues, Theory, and Classroom Practice (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)

Nevertheless, the terminology 'concrete operations', 'formal operations', is still apparently found to be useful by those reporting on empirical research, and by many who write about child development and curriculum reform.  p.68

Figure 1.  PISA Math Scores, 2003 - 2015: 20 Nations
The above excerpts from Flynn, Cubero, Donald, and Orton, and the excerpt at the right from Genovese, create a conceptual framework for considering Figure 1.  The emergence of the intellectual cadre essential to our present civilization is neither normative nor inevitable.  Logical-scientific thinking (formal operational competence) on a mass scale is very recent (Flynn) and unevenly distributed (Engeström).

The sharp decline in the scores of Finland and Sweden, and the significant decline of the scores of the Anglo-Saxon nations, suggests that the late twentieth and twenty first centuries are where two lines of development--sociotechnical advance and cognitive regression--clash.  Capitalism--at least advanced capitalism--requires advanced minds. Narcissistic regression--the culture of consumption (see Hall et. al., Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture)--undermines the very possibility of advanced cognitive development.

(On the PISA 2012 results, see Passi Sahlberg's cautionary blog comments of December 2013 following the release of the scores.  But also see Marc Tucker's comments on the dire situation in the United States.)  Thirty-five years of teaching in a degree-granting adult education program in a major university in the heart of industrial America has brought home to me the importance of the approach of Orton and Genovese.  With s few exceptions my students found formal operational modes of discourse entirely alien and threatening to their identity (on such resistance see Illeris, below right). 

But there were exceptions.  The differences in cognitive performativity were traceable to differences in the sets of zones of proximal influence in which individuals were enmeshed at various times in their youth.  Those who were formal-operational (or immediately able to enter into that cognitive domain) had grown up in politically active households and were secular in sociocultural context.  One student had grown up in a household linked to the Shrine of the Black Madonna.  The family would get together every day to discuss and read newspapers and political books.  Another was strongly influenced by her uncle, a politically conscious West Virginia coal miner.  A third was a young UAW activist.  A fourth was the daughter of a union activist.  
from Jeremy E. C. Genovese, "Piaget, Pedagogy, and Evolutionary Psychology" (Evolutionary Psychology, Volume 1, 2003)

Tamburrini (1982) pointed out that “there is considerable evidence that formal operational thought is contextually bound” (p. 319).  This is no small concession; the very point of formal operations is that they go beyond context and content.  The failure of adolescents and adults to reason in the ways predicted by Piaget is a serious problem for both the theory and practice of education, for it is precisely the formal reasoning skills that are necessary for mastering academic subjects such as math and science beyond the elementary level.  p. 130

Biologically primary abilities are acquired universally and children typically have high motivation to perform the tasks involving them.  In contrast, biologically secondary abilities are culturally determined, and often tedious repetition and external motivation are necessary for their mastery.  From this perspective it is understandable that many children have difficulty with reading and higher mathematics (p. 63).  p. 131

from Yrjö Engeström and Reijo Miettinen, "Activity theory and individual and social transformation," in Reijo Miettinen, and Raija-Leena Punamaki, Perspectives on Activity Theory (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 25-6:

Differences in cognition across cultures, social groups, and domains of practice are thus commonly explained without seriously analyzing the historical development that has led to those differences.  The underlying relativistic notion is that we should not make value judgements concerning whose cognition is better or more advanced--that all kinds of thinking and practice are equally valuable.  Although this liberal stance may be a comfortable basis for academic discourse, it ignores the reality that in all domains of societal practice value judgements and decisions have to be made everyday.
At the other extreme were those who were performatively speaking of the Tea Party persuasion, only differently colored and churched.  Contexts varied significantly.  The National Baptist Convention qua sociocultural context was the antithesis of the Progressivive Baptist Convention qua sociocultural context.  (sociocultural context is here the same as zone of proximal influence.)  As sociocultural context the Catholic Church was different from both, and could be viewed (for blacks) as a quasi-secular sociocultural context (or zone of proximal influence).  Racism as a mode of discursive/cognitive activity is recognizable by, among other things, its resistance to thinking that refuses the ontological and epistemological hegemony of race.  

Theda Skocpol, in The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (Oxford, 2012), writes that "it is rarely helpful for analysts simply to denigrate the intelligence or autonomy of citizens who believe one false thing or another." (p. 12)  On p. 68 Scocpol notes that her Tea Party informants' "responses usually took the form of anecdotes . . . "  To this I must reply that to analyze is not to denigrate.  Engeström, Genovese, Cubero, Flynn, Illeris, Orton, Vygotsky, Bronfenbrenner and so many others must be deployed in these circumstances. To do otherwise is to miss everything of significance, cognitive as well as psychological.  The anecdotes that Scokpol alludes to are described by her as racially inflected morality tales.  "As we listened to our Tea Party interlocutors talk about undeserving people collecting welfare benefits, racially laden group stereotypes certainly did float in and out of the interviews, even when people never mentioned African-Americans directly."  In contrast to Tea Party activists' efforts to avoid being considered racist, "fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims were commonly expressed." (p. 69) This is part of a strategic recoding of ressentiment: the essence of racism is preserved in these kinds of discursive maneuvers--racism is above all not about misconceptions about the other but the very process of otherizing.     When Skocpol refers to anecdotes, it is good to bear in mind the distinction Vygotsky makes between everyday and scientific concepts.  What Skocpol has stumbled across but failed to recognize is the specific character of a limited, undeveloped, childlike mode of cogno-discourse, intimately linked to the emotional burden it carries: ressentiment.

Skocpol confuses the issue when she says that "it is rarely helpful for analysts simply to denigrate the intelligence or autonomy of citizens who believe one false thing or another." Intelligence is not about believing "one false thing or another."  It is about cognitive modality as approached by the work of the above mentioned researchers, and especially as presented by Stephen Ceci in the excerpt at the right.  Regarding the anectdotal nature of Tea Party discourse, its mythological and pre-operational cognitive modality is dealt with in Developmental Divergence and American Politics: Cognitive Development in History

This page is about the cognitive gulf that is a central feature of the postmodern world, a gulf that may well take on catastrophic proportions as this century unfolds. It is hardly helpful to avoid the reality behind Figure 1.

from Knud Illeris, Towards a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning (INT. J. OF LIFELONG EDUCATION, VOL. 22, NO. 4 (JULY–AUGUST 2003), 396–406)

This is why today people develop a kind of automatic sorting mechanism vis-a-vis the many influences, or what the German social psychologist Thomas Leithauser has analysed and described as an everyday consciousness (Leithauser 1976, cf. Illeris 2002). This functions in the way that one develops some general pre-understandings within certain thematic areas and when one meets with influences within such an area, these pre-understandings are activated so that if elements in the influences do not correspond to the pre-understandings, they are either rejected or distorted to make them agree. In both cases, this results in no new learning but, on the contrary, often the cementing of the already-existing understanding.

Thus, through everyday consciousness we control our own learning and non-learning in a manner that seldom involves any direct positioning while simultaneously involving a massive defence of the already acquired understandings and, in the final analysis, our very identity. (There are, of course, also areas and situations where our positioning takes place in a more target-oriented manner, consciously and flexibly.)

Therefore, in practice the issue of learning very often becomes a question of what can penetrate the individual, semi-automatic defence mechanisms and under what conditions. These defence mechanisms are the most common reason for the gulf between the impulses being communicated, for example in an everyday situation, a work situation or a teaching situation, and what is actually learned.

from Stephen J. Ceci, On Intelligence: A Bioecological Treatise on Intellectual Development, expanded edition (Harvard University Press, 1996)

The possibility that there exists a more restless relationship between intelligence and context, in which thinking changes both its nature and its course as one moves from one situation to another, is enough to cause shudders in some research quarters.  It represents a move toward a psychology of situations . . . xvi

The term intelligence is often used synonymously with "IQ", "g", or "general intelligence", especially in some of the psychometric literature. . .  however, the ability to engage in cognitively complex behaviors will be shown to be independent of IQ,  g, or general intelligence . . . cognitive complexity will be seen to be the more general of the two notions and the one most theoretically important to keep in mind when referring to intelligent behavior. p. 22

On anecdotes see Paul Krugman, Delusions of Failure (NYT 1-2-14)
Now, if we are talking about cognitive development rather than simply education; and if our point of departure is cultural historical activity theory or bioecological systems theory, rather than what passes for educational theory these days; then I must recommend two books of vital importance.  One, the aforementioned Hall (reread the excerpt at Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: crime, exclusion and the new culture of narcissism), gets us into our postmodern heart of darkness--regressive narcissism.  The second, Alcorn's Narcissism and the Literary Libido: Rhetoric, Text, and Subjectivity, is a truly astonishing work that has much to say about the psychological dynamic of cognitive development notably missing from bioecological systems theory.  Extensive excerpts can be found here.  These texts make possible a much richer discussion of the problem of motivation and individuation qua Bildung (vs. the individualism of neo-classical and neo-liberal ideology).

Hall and Alcorn complement the approach summarized to the right.  The social science approach of relating sets of independent variables (poverty, teacher preparation, etc.) to test scores as the dependent variable fails to understand the dynamic of developmental processes.  Nevertheless, attention must be paid to such analyses (see PISA excerpt) not only because they assemble and relate vast amounts of data, but also because the statistical methods used are part of the Common Core Standards for High School Mathematics and are a cornerstone of scientific thinking. When educational leaders such as Michelle Rhee and Amanda Ripley dismiss and even denigrate such statistical methods (when they say that poverty is no excuse, or that poverty has no effect on educational outcomes), they reflect and enact a powerful politically motivated current of anti-intellectualism that is itself a significant factor in producing the outcome indicated in Fogure 1.  
from Urie Bronfenbrenner, ed., Making Human Beings Human: Bioecological Perspectives on Human Development (Sage Publications, 2005)

The contemporary scientific study of human development is characterized by a committment to the understanding of the dynamic relationships between the developing individual and the integrated, multilevel ecology of human development.  This approach to development is marked by a theoretical focus on temporally (historically) embedded person-context relational process; by the embracing of models of dynamic change across the ecological system; and by relational, change-sensitive methods predicated on the idea that individuals influence the people and institutions of their ecology as much as they are influenced by them. (ix)

Especially in its early phases, but also throughout the life course, human development takes place through processes of progressively more complex reciprocal between an active, evolving biopsychosocial human organism and the persons, objects and symbols in its immediate external environment. (xviii)

Within the bioecological theory, develoment is defined as the phenomenon of continuity and change in the biopsychological characteristics of human beings both as individuals and as groups.  The phenomenon extends over the life course across successive generations and through historical time both past and present. (3)
Enter, once again, and in a most unexpected context, the heavily edited and decontextualized Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (See René van der Veer and Anton Yasnitsky, Vygotsky in English: What Still Needs to Be Done).  Recent advances in evolutionary theory qua empirical research--see Whiten to the right--reinforce and expand the fundamental insights of Vygotsky.  The dogmatism of genetic reductionism is losing out to the empirically rich theoretical praxis of researchers in the field.  Whiten, Mitani, Boesch, and Gómez have demonstrated social learning rather than genetic transmission in primates.  Karl S. Berg has done this for parrots (see video of said parrots here).  (And now this: Crocodilians use tools for hunting.)  

In "Social learning and evolution: the cultural intelligence hypothesis," (Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2011) 366, 1008–1016) Carel P. van Schaik and Judith M. Burkart write that

The ‘Vygotskian intelligence hypothesis’ considers cultural effects on cognitive development, and assumes them to be unique to humans. However, several scholars have highlighted the presence of similar developmental effects in apes. Allan Wilson went further and suggested that these cultural effects could also have affected the evolution of intelligence in our lineage and others, an idea called the cultural intelligence hypothesis by Whiten & van Schaik. This hypothesis builds on a long tradition suggesting that social learning, and thus culture, may affect evolution, and can also be linked to Reader & Laland’s hypothesis that general behavioural flexibility, which includes social learning, may have favoured the evolution of intelligence.  (p. 1008)

This recent work of biologists, primatologists, anthropologists, archeologists and others has revolutionized our concept of culture.  The cultural intelligence hypothesis and its related concepts of the deep social mind and the second inheritance system destroy the shibboleths of dogmatic individualism and racism (because racism denies brain plasticity, phylogenesis, ontogenesis, history and culture) that permeate not only the semiosphere, but also the domain of academic writing.

This may seem to be a long way to go in attempting to understand Figure 1.  But without an understanding of how cognitive development occurs it is impossible to deal with the problematic posed by Figure 1.  In the United States policy discourse is based on a deeply entrenched set of presuppositions--the moral shibboleths and ontological presuppositions of popular culture, that constitute the deep structures of modern unreflective thought.  One of these is the Cartesian indidividual; another the myth of the given; and of course there is the pervasive racism as both epistemology and ontology.  These are the a-priori forms of commonplace cognition (this is apparently what Deleuze means by image of thought).  As long as these presuppositions shape the discourse on education, Figure 1 will remain  a mystery. On the other hand, the work mentioned on this page sheds light on the processes whose effects are represented by Figure 1.
from Andrew Whiten, Robert A. Hinde, Christopher B. Stringer, and Kevin Laland, eds., Culture Evolves (Oxford University Press, 2012)

 . . . social learning, traditions and other culturally related phenomena . . . have proved to be far more widespread across the animal kingdom than imagined a half-century ago, and more complex in their manifestations. . . . A rich variety of underlying social learning processes, strategies and behavioural consequences has also been identified. These discoveries are of considerable scientific importance from several perspectives. One is that the identification and understanding of this ‘second inheritance system’, operating in addition to and in interaction with genetic inheritance, has far-reaching consequences for our broader understanding of evolutionary biology. A second is that the nature of human culture becomes less mysterious as allied manifestations are charted among non-human animals and early hominins, and inferences drawn about the evolutionary foundations of humanity’s distinctive cultural faculties.

Andrew Whiten and David Erdal, "The human socio-cognitive niche and its evolutionary origins," Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2012) 367, 2119–2129

Hominin evolution took a remarkable pathway, as the foraging strategy extended to large mammalian prey already hunted by a guild of specialist carnivores. How was this possible for a moderately sized ape lacking the formidable anatomical adaptations of these competing ‘professional hunters’? The long-standing answer that this was achieved through the elaboration of a new ‘cognitive niche’ reliant on intelligence and technology is compelling, yet insufficient. Here we present evidence from a diversity of sources supporting the hypothesis that a fuller answer lies in the evolution of a new socio-cognitive niche, the principal components of which include forms of cooperation, egalitarianism, mindreading (also known as ‘theory of mind’), language and cultural transmission, that go far beyond the most comparable phenomena in other primates. This cognitive and behavioural complex allows a human hunter–gatherer band to function as a unique and highly competitive predatory organism. Each of these core components of the socio-cognitive niche is distinctive to humans, but primate research has increasingly identified related capacities that permit inferences about significant ancestral cognitive foundations to the five pillars of the human social cognitive niche listed earlier. The principal focus of the present study was to review and integrate this range of recent comparative discoveries.
What historical, evolutionary, developmental trajectory gets us to Figure 1? That is the question.  And let us be clear: the whole brouhaha over Figure 1 revolves around the development of the formal operational cognitive capabilities that are the sine qua non for modern work.  

Even though the scientific frame of mind (and this includes formal operational competence) is a recent development (Flynn)--a mere blip in the short span of recorded history--it represents an enormous developmental leap in cognitive complexity accomplished only in the last several centuries.  This leap into cognitive complexity involved the emergence of the formal operational cognitive modality that is the inner logic of scientific culture.  While this may have been achieved by a few within some ancient civilizations (see The Story of Mathematics; and The British Society for the History of Mathematics) and its emergence as an expanding public force began with the scientific revolution of the sixteenth century; this revolution of the mind took on a social and therefore political form with the Enlightenment, which, though confined at first to the salons and publishing houses of the enlightened aristocracy and the new middle class, soon captured "all the literate public that then existed" (Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment: and why it still matters, Random House, 2013, p. xv).

Thus, Figure 1 is about much more than schooling and test scores.  It is about cognitive development as an historical process, about the Enlightenment as an inflection point in that developmental process, and about the democratization of the Enlightement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  And it is also about one of Hegel's most important concepts: Bildung. This is the fundamental concept at the core of Activity Theory.  This concept is also central to Marx the Hegelian.*  But now this concept of Bildung is powerfully enhanced by Stephen Rumph's book, Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics (University of California Press, 2012):

In Enlightenment anthropology, mastery of signs went hand in hand with human progress, distinguishing civilized man from the primitive Naturemensch.  p. 9

Such a reading treats Mozart's symphony less as an act of communication and more as a process of cognition . . . the progress of knowledge toward ever greater distinctness of thought, toward an ever more refined analysis of our representations, is likewise a progress into language, a transition from perception and imagination to the manipulation of arbitrary signs in symbolic cognition . . .   p. 25

The mastery of signs, the manipulation of arbitrary signs in symbolic cognition--this is what is required of today's students, if they are to become modern workers in the twenty-first century.  (Consider Veblen's concept of the instinct of workmanship in this context.)

from Wikipedia (Bildung):

The term refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation, (as related to the German for: creation, image, shape), wherein philosophy andf education are linked in manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation. This maturation is described as a harmonization of the individual’s mind and heart and in a unification of selfhood and identity within the broader society, as evidenced with the literary tradition of bildungsroman.

In this sense, the process of harmonization of mind, heart, selfhood and identity is achieved through personal transformation, which presents a challenge to the individual’s accepted beliefs. In Hegel’s writings, the challenge of personal growth often involves an agonizing alienation from one’s “natural consciousness” that leads to a reunification and development of the self. Similarly, although social unity requires well-formed institutions, it also requires a diversity of individuals with the freedom (in the positive sense of the term) to develop a wide-variety of talents and abilities and this requires personal agency. However, rather than an end state, both individual and social unification is a process that is driven by unrelenting negations.

Terry Pinkard, Hegel: A Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 49-50; 269-275; 369-370; 486-487

Shlomo Avineri, Hegel's Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge University Press, 1972), pp. 77-78; 132-139; 144-147; 166

Franco Moretti, The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture (Verso, 2000)

Marshall W. Alcorn, Jr., Narcissism and the Literary Libido: Rhetoric, Text, and Subjectivity (New York University Press, 1994)
Before I came across Rumph's book I had already sketched out a page called Bildung: Was Mozart a Communist? There you will see an excerpt from a biography of Mozart coupled with an excerpt from my interview with Saul Wellman, a leading Michigan Communist in the late 1940s.  A concept of reason as a force with ontological implications (the passion of Bildung): Saul Wellman's comment was a leap out of his own social and discursive praxis of the mechanistic materialism of the times, a leap into an entirely different and uncharacteristic (for Communists) discursive plane.  The interview with Saul Wellman, conducted in the mid-1970s, has stuck with me for forty years.  It helped me clarify my own fly-on-the-wall experience of several Communist salons of the 1940s and 50s: their "social and discursive practices" (Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment, Cornell Univesity Press, 1994, p. 2).

 Reason as a force with ontological implications, the mastery of signs as a new animal power, and as an historical force to be reckoned with.  (Nietzsche) Looking for the motives of Cartesian individuals, historians always get it wrong.  Look at the forces and processes at work.  Look at the interaction of habitus, context, and the Will to Power.  (Bourdieu + Nietzsche)

The Wellman interview was one of two hundred interviews I conducted in the Detroit area with UAW veterans of the early organizing efforts of the early 1930s to early 1940s.  These interviews were conducted during the mid-1970s.  But it was not until I began in 2011 to listen to these tapes that I realized there were Deleuzian moments, thought-provoking encounters, in the dialogic situation of the 1970s interviews.  My interviews at that time could be described as a tedious barking up the wrong tree: the tree of culture (Kleppner, The Cross of Culture); and the barking of one enslaved to "the philosophy of representation characterized by the primacy of the concept." (See Deleuze-Bryant.)  As it turns out, the best parts of these interviews were comments that revealed things that I then could not then conceptualize.  And what is most striking about many of these interviews is that it was the interaction of habitus, context, and the Will to Power that made them intelligible.

How is all this relevant to understanding Figure 1?   By referencing the Wellman interview and my own immanent domain (the Enlightenment salons of 1940s and 1950s New York) I do not mean to imply that one cannot become formal operational outside a "leftist" context--unless by leftist we mean what Glenn Beck means in this story--Glenn Beck: We should all get along but progressives should be hunted down like Nazis--then the answer of course is yes. Formal operational competence on a large scale is the signal achievement of Progressivism at the level of the state (Singapore Politics Under the People's Action Party; Finnish Lessons; Bad Samaritans: the Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism).

 And it is indeed the case that the inner logic of socialism as cultural and psychological dynamic was an explicit desire for intellectual development--in late nineteenth century Russia it was called becoming conscious (Zelnick, Smith, Fraser; Ranciere for early nineteenth century Europe).  And, in Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics, although Rumph does not use the language of developmental psychology, he is certainly talking about formal operational thought. That is, recalling Genovese above on the obstacles to achieving formal operational competence, Rumph is illuminating the problematic represented by Figure 1.  

To be a nation of the first rank in the twenty-first century, mass education on the university level and the emergence of an intellectual cadre equal to the demands of advanced capitalism is the existential sine qua non.  

*"'Species-Being' and 'Human Nature' in Marx", by Thomas E. Wartenberg, in Human Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1982), pp. 77-95
An artist's interpretation of the hominins that lived near the Sima de los Huesos cave in Spain
from Baffling 400,000-Year-Old Clue to Human Origins  

 Saul Wellman, Robert Thomson, and David Doran at Fuentes de Ebro during the Spanish Civil War
But for now let us remain focused on the Evolutionary, Historical, Developmental, and Psychological Perspectives that help us understand Figure 1.

Flynn (at the right) misjudges the extent to which the Enlightenment triumphed in the late eighteenth century, but this misjudgement helps us to better understand Figure 1, and the difficulties faced by progressive educators such as Marc Tuckman and Passi Sahlberg.  Closer to comprehending the nature of present "differences in cognition across cultures, social groups, and domains of practice" [Yrjö Engeström and Reijo Miettinen, above] is Sophia Rosenfeld's A Revolution in Language: the Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France.  An excerpt is given at the right.  The enormous gulf in cognitive performativity between the masses and the moderns that she describes still exists (e.g., see the movie about Sarah Palin, Game Change, while keeping Rosenfeld's text in mind).  This gulf is what I referred to above, a gulf to which many faculty in my college reacted with perplexity and dismay. It is the gulf that Flynn refers to in What is Intelligence? (see second Flynn excerpt at the lower right).  One begins to understand the origins of this gulf and the difficulty of overcoming it by keeping in mind Genovese's distiction ("Piaget, Pedagogy, and Evolutionary Psychology"):

Biologically primary abilities are acquired universally and children typically have high motivation to perform the tasks involving them.  In contrast, biologically secondary abilities are culturally determined, and often tedious repetition and external motivation are necessary for their mastery.  From this perspective it is understandable that many children have difficulty with reading and higher mathematics (p. 63).  p. 131

Whiten and his associates might object to the possibility of genetic reductionism in this distinction, but from the standpoint of the point I am trying to make this is immaterial, for it is the connection between culture and motivation that is critical. Chase, The Emergence of Culture (below right) makes just this point.  And the point he makes is fundamentally Vygotskian.

Only in this context--the connection between culture and motivation--can we begin to make sense out of Figure 1.  And only if we face up to the reality of the gulf, as Yrjö Engeström and Reijo Miettinen do, can we begin to understand Figure 1.  What emerges from this way of thinking through the data represented by Figure 1 is the impossibility, under any conceivable combination of circumstances and policies, of the masses of Americans traversing this gulf and becoming formal operational. Everything real in America today is working to the opposite effect.  First and most important is culture, culture as sets of zones of proximal influence, from the macro-level (mass media and its performers), to schools as zones of proximal influence that vary widely, and to the micro-level (household, neighborhood).  What I mean by a zone of proximal influence and by a set (or package) of such zones can be indicated most effectively by jumping right into an empirical field and proceeding immanently.

The empirical field is the set of Intel Science Talent Search Finalists for 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.  (I have not included the results for 2013.)  Click on any of the years and you see a list of finalists, a brief desciption of their projects, and other information, including the names of their parents.  Most of the parents could be tracked down through a variety of Google searches.  This is what I found:

Children of highly educated scientists and engineers, academics, and professionals (mainly doctors and lawyers) from secular households and affluent, cosmopolitan communities completely dominate the lists of 40 finalists. Children of capitalists are absent, as are children of upper mangement from both the corporate and the service sectors.  Children of everyone else are also absent.  While two thirds of finalists are of Asian background, more interesting is the deconstruction of the "white" minority. The result of such a deconstruction eliminates the salience of racial and ethnic categories, replacing them with the concepts of bioecological systems theory.  

Not to put too fine a point on it, these high school students had been immunized from birth against the " . . . the dangerous, down-dragging currents of the age" (Nietzsche, Will to Power, p. 515): not only the melange of anti-intellectual cultures on the right that nearly dominate the semiosphere and reinforce and legitimize local barbarisms of family and neighborhoods (ressentiment), but also the more insidiously anti-intellectual regressive narcissism of consumer culture.  Instead, the Intel finalists were exposed to a set of reinforcing zones of proximal influence that maximized Bildung as cognitive development.  

The white minority can be broken down into four categories: severely, really, merely, and nearly white. The severely and really white are entirely absent from the Intel Finalists lists, while the merely and nearly white students on these lists are virtually indistinguishable from the Asian finalists within the conceptual framework of Bioecological Perspectives on Human Development.  Thus, we may dispense with primitive "concepts" such as tiger moms; and we can note the intellectual poverty of neo-racist texts such as Nichlas Wade's, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (2014).  [see this Review; and for a state-or-the-art survey of current scientific thinking on the subject, see Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age (Studies in Medical Anthropology: Rutgers University Press, 2008)]

It is already clear that in the U.S. fundamentalist whites and blacks (and many working class Catholics) have been disgorged from the project of modernity, and now constitute, by twenty-first century standards, a barely literate mass, concentrated in the central cities, inner suburbs, small towns, and the rural heartland, and removed in toto from the possiblities of cognitive development implied by the term "education."  In this context read "Books, and Compassion, From Birth" (New York Times 4-4-14).  One can see how useful the concept of zone of proximal influence is, and how complex and fraught with danger is the process of cognitive development.  (One should also read the comments on this article for insight into the cognitive processes of those who submit comments.)

As the old America--Christian America--dies a sociocultural death*, it is being replaced by newer populations capable, for now, of cognitive development--see "Asian workers now dominate Silicon Valley tech jobs" (San Jose Mercury News, 11-30-12.)

*see The Immigrant Advantage, by Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times of May 24, 2014.
popular, pre-operational and concrete operational thought

from James R. Flynn, "The 'Flynn Effect' and Flynn's Paradox" (Intelligence 41 2013)

Everyone concedes that people altered when the Enlightenment banished a mindset that tried animals in court and believed in witches.  Did this alteration in mind stop dead in 1900? (p. 857)

from Sophia Rosenfeld, A Revolution in Language: the Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France (Stanford, 2001), pp. 150-51

"As the Abbé Grégoire warned his fellow deputies, 'this inevitable poverty of language, which confuses the mind, will mutilate all your addresses and decrees.'  In a political system built upon a series of mental abstractions, popular linguistic confusion, according to this reasoning, was and would continue to be one of the principal sources of political and civil discord. 

How did these well-placed intellectuals know that many ordinary people failed to comprehend the language of the Revolution?  For the Abbé Grégoire, it was a matter of common sense.  Like the savages of late eitheenth-century travel literature, peasants--the often illiterate speakers of foreign idioms, dialects, and ungrammatical French--were widely thought to have great difficulty generalizing their ideas or forming clear conceptions of abstract, nonmaterial terms.   Indeed, Voltaire's conclusion that 'more than half of the habital world is still populated by two-footed animals who live in a horrible condtion approximating the state of nature. . . barely enjoying the gift of speech' retained its force.  Consequently, even when the population in question was the vast rural citizenry of France, its ability to understand the key debates and decrees of the Revolution was assumed to be extremely limited.  As the Abbé Sernin bluntly states before the Convention, 'Artisans and people in the countryside, although elevated by the law to a new level of Liberty and destined to fill the most important positions in the State, these men are, for the most part, still deaf and mute' when it came to any public functions that they might be called upon to play.

. . . reports . . . often contained ominous tales of public incomprehension of the formal language of France's laws and constitution.  A correspondent from the department of Seine-et-Oise, for example, wrote to express his fear that the young children he regularly heard reciting the Declaration of the Rights of Man from memory did not actually understand what they were saying: "I am sadly convinced by questions which I have posed to the oldest among them that they understand the significance of none of the words used in it.  I have reproached their fathers in a fraternal way for not bothering to explain these words to their children.  They have replied that they do not understand any more than their children and that they themselves need someone to explain these words to them as well."  Similarly, a schoolmaster from Fourny wrote to La Feuille villageoise to say that every Sunday he read this journal aloud to the local peasants and answered, to the best of his abilities, their frequent questions about vocabulary that they did not comprehend.  But, he complained, he was afraid that he was spoiling the journal's lessons and deceiving his disciples, because "I often encounter words that I know only a little or badly."  Unfortunately, the words that the schoolmaster failed to grasp ranged from "democracy" and "coalition" to "analysis" and "metaphor."

from James R. Flynn, What is Intelligence?  Beyond the Flynn Effect (Cambridge Univesity Press, 2009):

Our ancestors in 1900 were not mentally retarded.  Their intelligence ws anchored in everyday reality.  We differ from them in that we can use abstractions and logic and the hypothetical to attack the formal problems that arise when science liberates thought from concrete situations.  Since 1950 we have  become more ingenious in going beyond previously learned rules to solve problems on the spot.  pp. 10-11

The scientific ethos, with its vocabulary, taxonomies, and detachment of logic and the hypothetical from concrete referents, has begun to permeate the minds of post-industrial peoples.  This has paved the way for mass education on the university level and the emergence of an intellectual cadre without whom our present civilization would be inconceivable. 29

Science altered our lives and then liberated our minds from the concrete.  This history has not been written because, as children of our own time, we do not perceive the gulf that separates us from our distant [circa 1900] ancestors: the difference between their world and the world seen through scientific spectacles. . . .  As use of logic and the hypothetical moved beyond the concrete, people developed new habits of mind.  They became practiced at solving problems with abstract or visual content and more innovative at administrative tasks." 172-174
As Alcorn (Narcissism and the Literary Libido) puts it:  

from Marshall W. Alcorn, Jr., Narcissism and the Literary Libido: Rhetoric, Text, and Subjectivity (New York University Press, 1994), pp. 37-8

Different self-structures . . . are the consequences of particular selves responding to the cues of culture.  Particular selves therefore internalize unique social ideals, unique self-images, and uniquely encountered particular role models.  The individual self thus plays its own role in the development of self-structure at the same time that this role rresponds to the larger system of a particular culture.  In all cases, the social rewards provided by a culture regulate those libidinal investments that contribute to a suitable self-structure [,] and within each social context, there develops a reciprocal relation between the fictional self a culture imagines and the real shape of a particular lived self-structure.  

This is why, if we are to decipher Figure 1, Hall and Alcorn are indespensible.  Here's a concrete example:

Remember the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court?  In the media she was presented as a child who grew up in the South Bronx and overcame adversity to be all that she could be.  Her parents were presented as poverty-stricken Hispanics, her neighborhood as a crime-ridden ghetto.  Actually, her father was a tool and die maker, her mother a registered nurse.  The two housing developments in which she grew up were built by the left-wing clothing unions; and the culture that permeated those developments--the set of reinforcing zones of proximal influence--was also my own immanent domain, into whose "social and discursive practices" I was born.  Her success was typical of that upwardly mobile socialist working class environment, not the kind of out of body experience the media portrayed.

(Read the Richard Feynman entry in Wikipedia for a glimpse into a time when such optimal zones of proximal infuence were more widely distributed.  See also World's Most Wired Teenager, a story about one of the Intel finalists, where you get a good look at a zone of proximal influence.  And see The Lowland, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, that is much more than a mere story.)

The history of Bildung is thus the history of a developmental process, a developmental trajectory, that only began with the Enlightenment.  Bildung is not a part of "human nature," unless by "human nature" one means the capacity for culture with a resulting ontogenetic as well as phylogenetic variation that is in logical contradiction with the usual implicitly genetic reductionist meaning of "human nature."  Chase (at the right) refers to the emergent properties of human culture. Bildung is an emergent phenomenon that is both more broadly social and more intensively individuational (Hegel).  
from Philip G. Chase, The Emergence of Culture. The Evolution of a Uniquely Human Way of Life (Springer, 2006)

Human behavior and ape behavior, like that of all mammals, is guided in part by ideas, concepts, beliefs, etc. that are learned in a social context from other individuals of the same species.  Among humans, however, some of these are not just learned socially but are also created socially, through the interactions of multiple individuals. . . .  Culture cannot be understood at the level of the individual alone.  Knowing the motivations and mental constructs of the individuals invlved may be necessary to understand cultural creations or cultural changes, but it is not sufficient.  It is also necessary to analyze the interactions of those involved.  In this sense, human culture is an emergent phenomenon in a way that nonhuman "culture" is not.  As Mihata (1997:36) put it,

what we describe most often as culture is an emergent pattern existing on a separate level of organization and abstraction from the individuals, organizations, beliefs, practices or cultural objects that constitute it.  Culture emerges from the simultaneous interaction of subunits creting meaning (individuals, organizations, etc.)

This emergent property of human culture has important implications.  It makes the nature of human social life different in fundamental ways from that of all other species (in spite of the continuities that also exist).  It makes it possible for groups of humans to coordinate their behavior in ways that are impossible for nonhumans.  It changes the relationship of the individual to the social group.  Because culture provides motivations for the behavior of the individual, it gives the group a means of controlling the individual that is absent among other primates.  Among all living humans, culture provides a (uniquely human) mental or intellectual context for almost everything the individual thinks or does.

On the study of culture and mind: Interview with Prof. Michael Cole, Europe’s Journal of Psychology 1/2011, pp. 8-16

Dominique Lestel, "The biosemiotics and phylogenesis of culture," Social Science Information & 2002 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi), 41(1), pp. 35-68.
The "individual" that emerges within the ontogenetic trajectory we call Bildung is or can be powerfully autonomous precisely because it is so profoundly social.   "The strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone" says Ibsen's Dr. Stockman.  But of course Dr. Stockman is not alone.  His praxis (the process of individuation that made him), after all, was shaped by the collective achievements of civilization and science, and it is as a highly developed organism, itself a most social and collective achievement, that Dr. Stockman stood up to the narrow interests and the self-centered provincialism of the local hierarchy.  Andrew Wilten writes of the deeply social mind of homo sapiens. The kind of individuation that produces a Dr. Stockman only further deepens and complicates the social mind.

Looking to the future, It is only theoretically the case that the development of formal operational competence is possible for all humans, and that policies can be developed that overcome the cultural historical obstacles to such development.  This was the mission of Finland's educational policy makers, who, among other things explicitly took into account class variations in developmental processes, and who developed policies to overcome the effects of class (PISA Report, Sahlberg, Finnish Lessons).  This is inconceivable in the United States of the twenty-first century.  This is inconceivable because policy as praxis rather than as rhetoric requires agency, and there are no real sociopolitical formations--no agents--capable of such praxis.  In regard to this question of agency consider The National Center on Education and the Economy.  This institution brings together some of the world's leading educators and some of America's major employers dependent on a skilled and educated workforce (unlike the hedge fund-backed reform organizations whose interest is entirely predatory), and has absorbed the lessons to be learned from the top performing educational systems. Nevertheless it is powerless.  It has no influence in the politics of education, and its viewpoint is excluded from the media, whose discursive parameters are set by the alliance of the GOP right and hedge fund-dominated reform organizations.  It can only look on helplessly.  When it comes to educational policy and discourse, the Stupid Party rules.
Mark S. Mizruchi, The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite (Harvard University Press, 2013)

from Selections from Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882/1887)

What will not be built any more henceforth, and cannot be built any more, is—a society in the old sense of that word; to build that, everything is lacking, above all the material. All of us are no longer material for a society; this is a truth for which the time has come. It is a matter of indifference to me that at present the most myopic, perhaps most honest, but at any rate noisiest human type that we have today, our good socialists, believe, hope, dream, and above all shout and write almost the opposite. Even now one reads their slogan for the future "free society" on all tables and walls. Free society? Yes, yes! But surely you know, gentlemen, what is required for building that? Wooden iron! The well-known wooden iron." And it must not even be wooden.
The objective of education is to overcome the gulf between the merely literate and the cognitively developed (Rosenberg, Flynn, Genovese), to transform barbarians into citizens fit for twenty-first century employment.  What this page argues is that the cultural, political and historical context in which development occurs is of far greater importance than is generally thought, and that writers such as Hall and Alcorn provide a way of thinking about psychological processes critical to the development of formal operational competence.  Absent this way of thinking we are whistling in the dark.

All of the above is hardly far-fetched.  The excerpt from Ceci's On Intelligence: A Bioecological Treatise on Intellectual Development at the right describes what this page--and this site--is about.  What I do on this site is not original.  I am simply applying such thinking to areas that have been taboo.   Thus what is striking about the approach of the post-Vygotskians is its conservatism: its subordination to the sociotechnical needs of modern capital formations, and its theoretical inhibitions resulting from its inability to violate the sacred boundaries of consumerism, economic power, and culture.  That is, one does not question the crude materialism of desire; one does not question the postmodern capitalist hegemony; and one does not question racism.  

Even more painful is confronting the deep contradiction between democracy and development.  Developmentalism is elitist in that it aims to produce a higher-order cognitive class.  It is democratic in that it strives to create developmental pathways that directly attempt to overcome inequality and open the higher-order culture to everyone.  Can this really be done?

What is new in the postmodern era is first, an all-powerful culture of regressive narcissism, already alluded to, and developed further in another page (click on Desire).  This regressive narcissism is an anti-developmental force of enormous power.  This is why Hall et. al. is required reading.  One has only to watch today's reality shows (Jersey Shore, Maury Povich, the Kardashians) to see this cognitive degeneration unfolding right before our eyes.

But second, what is new is the way in which the age-old shit of ressentiment has been given new life, new forms, new incentives by a powerful financial-political apparatus that works over, works up, and legitimizes ressentiment as the dominant national culture and expands the reach of this gargantuan web of institutions and psychopathologies into politics, science, education,  social policy, and the networks of everyday life.  Ressentiment from the time of the First Crusade to the era of Fascism (Paxton) of which McCarthyism and the Tea Party are variations, is easy for anyone not an idiot to grasp.  (For starters, click on The GOP as the Stupid Party?  An Inadequate Conceptualization.  Then go to Ressentiment and the Mechanisms of Defense, and Elites in the Mobilization of Ressentiment.)  Ressentiment as a vastly expanded power on the scale seen in the United States is something new.

Thus, a striking difference between the United States and all other advanced nations is the presence of a quasi-hegemonic fundamentalist culture in the United States that is mobilized by powerful political and economic elites for political and economic purposes, dominating some and permeating all media, and shaping the semiotic contours of public discourse.  This negative developmental force is entirely absent in the top performing nations.

 [Review of Nichlas Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (2014); Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age (Studies in Medical Anthropology)]

Stephen J. Ceci, On Intelligence: A Bioecological Treatise on Intellectual Development, expanded edition (Harvard University Press, 1996)

The possibility that there exists a more restless relationship between intelligence and context, in which thinking changes both its nature and its course as one moves from one situation to another, is enough to cause shudders in some research quarters.  It represents a move toward a psychology of situations . . . xvi

The term intelligence is often used synonymously with "IQ", "g", or "general intelligence", especially in some of the psychometric literature. . .  however, the ability to engage in cognitively complex behaviors will be shown to be independent of IQ, g, or general intelligence . . . cognitive complexity will be seen to be the more general of the two notions and the one most theoretically important to keep in mind when referring to intelligent behavior. 22

The literature that we reviewed demonstrates that it is not sufficient for one to be biologically endowed with a cognitive potential and even to be exposed to appropriate opportunities for its crystallization: One also must be motivated to benefit from this exposure.  Performance is influenced by learning, refinement, shaping, etc., and the role of motivation cannot be ignored in such matters.  Extrinsic motivators (such as the value that one attaches to attaining success on a task), as well as intrinsic motivators (inculcated through various parenting styles, such as fostering autonomy, valuing schooling, and adopting a modern world view . . ) are equally important in shaping cognitive outcomes.  116

 . . . it would appear that no theory is capable of handling the diversity of findings reviewed earlier, unless it consists of the three prongs of biology, environment, and motivation.  An important feature of the bio-ecological framework has been to suggest mechanisms by which these three factors combine to produce contextually tied performances . . .  192

In closing, it is time to ask about the nature of the resources responsible for intellectual growth.  Past research on the influence of the environment has ducked this question, preferring instead to contrast global SES differences on IQ, surmising that some aspects subsumed under the SES rubric must be causative but never specifying what they might be.  In a recent article Uri Bronfenbrenner and I proposed specific mechanisms of organism-environment interaction, called proximal processes, through which genetic potentials for intelligence are actualized.  We described research evidence from a variety of sources demonstrating that proximal processes operate in a variety of settings throughout the life-course (beginning in the family and continuing in child-care settings, peer groups, schools, and work places), and account for more of the variation in intellectual outcome than the environmental contexts (e.g., family structure, SES, culture) in which these proximal processes take place.  Proximal processes refer to sustained interactions between a developing organism and the persons, symbols, and activities in its immediate environment.  To be effective, these processes must become progressively more complex and interactive over time. 244-5

Consider what Michelle Rhee's famous shibboleth "poverty is no excuse." The discussion of the effect of poverty on educational outcomes is virtually taboo in the United States, yet it is a fundamental concern of the OECD. Not only does the OECD take cognizance of the effect of socio-economic differences on cognitive development; they evaluates the effectiveness of OECD member nations' educational systems in narrowing the effects of such differences.   Anyone with a college education should know the terms dependent and independent variable, even if they never took a course in statistics.  Such basic statistics is in fact part of the Common Core Curriculum for Mathematics (Mathematics » High School: Statistics & Probability » Introduction).  Educational leaders, especially those who yak about test scores, should be expected both to understand this high school math and to be able to explain it in public.  Instead they dismiss and demonize it.  

This attests to something more than mere incompetence, and even to something more than mere subservience to powerful fanancial interests.  A war on mathematical reasoning has been institutionalized in the public sphere, as has a war on biological reasoning and a war on reasoning in climate science.  And I can attest from my years of classroom experience that this war against progressivism--if I may refer to the above mentioned Glenn Beck article--has established an unassailable beachhead in families and neighborhoods and churches throughout the old America.  Children from these environments are undermined in their cognitive development, as Figure 1 shows.

Continued in Further Thoughts on PISA Results

1.  OECD (2010), PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background – Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes (Volume II)

The weak relationship shown in Figure II.1.3 [click on above link and go to page 31] suggests that countries with similar levels of income inequality distribute learning opportunities very differently.  This finding is important as it shows that equity in educational opportunities can be achieved even where income is distributed highly inequitably. For example, in Iceland and Hungary, two OECD countries with a gini coefficient of around 0.29, close to the OECD average of 0.31, the proportion of the variation in student reading performance explained by the variation in students’ socio-economic background is 6% and 26%, respectively. A wide range of countries sits between these two extremes. Finland and Norway appear with Iceland in the top-right corner with below-average impact of socio-economic background on performance and below-average underlying inequality. Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg join Hungary in the bottom-right quadrant with above-average impact of socio-economic background and below-average underlying inequalities. Estonia, Greece, Israel, Italy and Japan appear in the top-left quadrant, with above-average underlying inequalities and a below-average impact of socio-economic background; while Chile, new Zealand, Portugal, the United States and Turkey appear in the bottom-left quadrant, where income inequalities are large and the impact of socio-economic background on learning outcomes is also large. p. 32.
1.  Cultural correlates to Figure 1

China: (Macao (SAR), Shanghai), Singapore, Hong Kong (SAR), Taiwan (Chinese Taipei), South Korea

2.  Political economic correlates to Figure 1

from Christopher M. White, A Global History of the Developing World (Routledge, 2014)

Unlike the Middle East and India, Chinese civilization does not derive its fundamentals from deities but from legendary humans considered responsible for major innovations. (p. 42)

On the Four Tigers' (Singapore, Taiwan [Chinese Taipei], South Korea, and Hong Kong) conditions for economic development: a. Asian model of development; b. culture: Confucianism and Buddhism (pp. 176-181), not Islam

xxx, Singapore Politics Under the People’s Action Party (
from Scientific American, "Antiscience Beliefs Jeopardize U.S. Democracy," Oct 16, 2012

Such positions could typically be dismissed as nothing more than election-year posturing except that they reflect an anti-intellectual conformity that is gaining strength in the U.S. at precisely the moment that most of the important opportunities for economic growth, and serious threats to the well-being of the nation, require a better grasp of scientific issues. By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation's founders, the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.

Industrial mishaps led to new health and environmental regulatory science. The growing restrictions drove the older industries in the chemical, petroleum and pharmaceutical fields to protect their business interests by opposing new regulations. Proponents of this view found themselves in a natural alliance with the burgeoning religious fundamentalists who opposed the teaching of evolution. Industrial money and religious foot soldiers soon formed a new basis for the Republican Party: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem,” President Ronald Reagan argued in his 1981 inaugural address. “Government is the problem.” This antiregulatory-antiscience alliance largely defines the political parties today and helps to explain why, according to a 2009 survey, nine out of 10 scientists who identified with a major political party said they were Democrats.

for the first time since the beginning of the Enlightenment era in the mid-17th century, the very idea of science as a way to establish a common book of knowledge about the world is being broadly called into question by heavily financed public relations campaigns.