What does genetics mean for educational equity?

yohoprashant, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
yohoprashant, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Some people think it’s dangerous to talk about the genetics of education, while others see this field as full of promise. In any event, responsible communication and better collaboration are essential.

Education is supposed to be an equalizer. It should provide all children, regardless of where they come from or their family income, with access to high-quality resources and opportunities. This is part of the American dream. Yet the vision of a meritocracy in which everyone is given the same “fighting chance” to climb up the social ladder is just that – a vision. There is ample evidence of racial and socioeconomic disparities in the United States.

Education is no exception. Racially defined minorities and low-income students are consistently left behind, educated in poorer quality schools by less experienced teachers. Teachers are more likely to perceive these students negatively and as less capable than their peers. Education has not functioned as the equalizer it should be.

The growing body of genetic data concerning such areas as educational attainment, cognitive ability, ADHD, and dyslexia raises important questions about equity in education.

“The anxiety and discomfort that accompany social science genomics are born out of an ugly history of misinterpreting and misusing research results.”

Today, social science genomics researchers use genome-wide association studies (GWAS) to explore a host of social behaviors and outcomes, although it is important to note that these studies identify correlation rather than causation. Their findings are garnering increased public attention, triggering a growing public conversation and debate over the social and ethical implications of such research. The anxiety and discomfort that accompany social science genomics are born out of an ugly history of misinterpreting and misusing research results concerning intelligence, heredity, and eugenic social policies.

Genetics of education

Especially given the historical context, responsible communication of social science genomics research results and their implications is important. Research into the genetics of education may have a number of applications. Genetic data on education-related behaviors might be used to personalize education or perhaps to tell us more about the different environments individuals are exposed to. However, there are those who fear that we may be entering into a new era of eugenics.

“Down what path will contemporary social science genomics research lead us? Will it reinforce these walls, or help to dismantle them?”

As a sociologist, I have long been interested in how human societies create, embody, and legitimize differences. On the one hand, they celebrate differences and the unique nature of each individual. On the other, they use these differences to validate systemic and structural inequality. They use them to build walls, whether physical or metaphorical, between ourselves and “the other.” Down what path will contemporary social science genomics research lead us? Will it reinforce these walls, or help to dismantle them?

Adversarial collaboration

As genetics becomes more prominent across scientific domains and in public life, it will be increasingly important to tackle the difficult questions and engage with the public about the implications of scientific findings. I advocate for adversarial collaboration, which is a mechanism for communicating research in social science genomics to the public in a responsible way. It brings together individuals from different, and at times opposing, disciplines and viewpoints to form a partnership dedicated to joint research. The focus is on encouraging richer collaborations between researchers that will result in better communication with the public about study findings and their implications.

“It is important to expand these kinds of efforts in order to ensure that genetically informed research is not used for racist, classist, or inequitable purposes.”

My own attempt at adversarial collaboration was a long process that focused on producing work that was accessible to multiple audiences. It meant taking seriously the opinions and expertise of the individuals involved, even when disagreements arose.

My co-authors and I found that adversarial collaboration helps researchers from different disciplines recognize their blind spots and produce more responsible research that both anticipates possible misuse (is proactive) and reacts against misinterpretations (is reactive). It is important to expand these kinds of efforts in order to ensure that genetically informed research is not used for racist, classist, or inequitable purposes.

Weekly newsletter