Boasian Headroom and the Achievement Gap
February 28, 2015

The achievement gap I most care about is the gap between what I actually do and what I could do under better circumstances, with better attitudes, with better self-knowledge. I refer to that gap as Boasian Headroom, after the American anthropologist Franz Boas. On the nature/nurture question, Boas heavily favored nurture. The term "headroom" literally means the amount of additional energy that speaker in a stereo system can receive without being damaged.

"Boasian headroom" is not meant to be a perfect concept, but it implicitly acknowledges two facts. One, we really can get better at a lot of the things we do. Two, opportunities for improvement are not infinite. It is a realist idea. If we are talking about race, it is a race-realist idea.

Black Americans, Black America have a lot of Boasian Headroom. The proper gap to address is the gap between where they are now and where they could be. Simply comparing Black America to White America only stirs up envy. It does not lead to any practical, positive programs for improvement. Thus, I read articles such as Closing the achievement gap requires resources (Jack McCarthy, San Jose Mercury News, Feb. 24, 2015) with great skepticism.

McCarthy saves the most idiotic sentence in his piece for the very last:

Investing in early learning to close the achievement gap before kindergarten is something everyone can agree on.
Huh? If we are talking about education, there is absolutely nothing that everyone can agree on. Look, if all the smart people who run education outfits could come up with some reasonably cost-effective way of taking large numbers of poor black preschoolers and getting them ready for kindergarten where they will do much better than they otherwise would, I'm all for it. Most white preschoolers don't need that kind of program. A program aimed at helping underperforming or at-risk white kids might be different than a program for black kids.

That is the huge problem with the McCarthy piece. The racial gap is the one that people care about, but the article does not contain a single mention of race or of racial differences.

In a racially uniform society, socially progressive individuals could coherently advocate policies that would improve conditions for the poor.

These days, every discussion about one thing seems to be really a discussion about something else. Our minds are filled with euphemisms, misdirections, illogical substitutions and adamantine taboos. We supposedly worship diversity but we can't talk about differences. We have a dominant intellectual class that is more stupefied every year than it was the year before.

So, education reform? I think John Lennon had it right on this issue. We better free our minds instead!

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