Education Customized to Your Genome is Coming, But I Don’t Know How I Feel About It
As an avid reader, I pride myself on staying abreast of the latest advances in every human endeavor, especially education. So when I read a magazine article that discussed how researchers are using genetic data from students to personalize their education, my curiosity was piqued. However, at the same time, the ethical implications of using eugenics in the field of education mortified me. As an African American man, I have studied the insulting eugenic research that was used to back up claims that black people were just not as intelligent as the other races.
Before I totally dismissed the idea, I decided to read the article in its entirety before making assumptions. It seems that researchers are attempting to personalize learning by giving schools the ability to create individualized curriculum programs based on a student’s DNA profile.
I came to the conclusion that just like its predecessors, this new wave of eugenics has the potential to perpetuate reckless and harmful thoughts and conclusions about the genetic heritability of intelligence. Even if the scientist’s intentions are pure, we need to discuss how educational policy and law should regulate this new era of genetic forecasting.
What will we see in the next decade?
Over the last decade, studies in human genomics have flourished. The subfield of educational genomics attempts to isolate and identify the genetic factors that determine individual differences in achievement, motivation, behavior, and intelligence. As we alluded to earlier, trying to link genetics and intelligence is a dicey subject.
Recent genetic studies have found correlations between intelligence test scores and certain genes, with more than 500 genes having a purported influence on intelligence test scores. Historically, similar types of studies have been used to suggest that certain races are genetically predisposed to be intellectually superior, while others are genetically predisposed to be intellectually inferior. Thankfully, these studies were debunked and proven to be untrue, but still, their legacy lives on, with many people believing them to be sound.
Recent genetic studies of educational genomics do not attempt to prove there is a specific gene or a genetic factor that influences learning ability, or that their research can explain the complexity of the learning process. Also, isolating someone’s genotype, which is a person’s complete genetic makeup, and correlating it to intelligence, learning or student outcomes is too complex for education researchers to unravel.
Education genomics today tries to find patterns in the genetic data of millions of people in the hopes that they can use this information to explain how genetics influence our cognitions, behaviors, motivation, etc.
Where educational genomics has a chance to do some good
Proponents of educational genomics argue that there is nothing nefarious about their research and that it can be used to personalize the teaching and learning process to respond to each student’s unique needs. I admit that this is an intriguing concept, and if it is genuine, then I could see where it could do some good.
The idea of “precision education” has started to disseminate itself among researchers who engage with education, psychology, neuroscience, and genomics. In turn, they are using this information to fully understand how the human brain learns new ideas and skills. This concept of precision education is part of the growing field of brain science, which seeks to develop a nuanced understanding of the teaching and learning process by using studying and researching the human mind, brain, and genome.
I am excited to see how education genomics will be used to usher in a new phase of evidence-based policies and practices in education. One new development in educational genomics that I find particularly interesting is “genome-wide polygenic scoring” (GPS). A polygenic score is derived by isolating and analyzing a large number of genetic markers in an attempt to predict a specific psychological or behavioral trait.
Thanks to the increased computer processing power of the modern world, it may soon become possible to predict academic achievement in schools. This turning point in education genomics is still in its infancy, but it shows lots of promise, although it may be decades before this method is perfected. I have read studies that claim to have perfected this ability, but the data tells me otherwise.
The collateral damage of educational genomics
Whenever a field of inquiry grows at a rate that outpaces regulations, laws, and policies, there is a chance for gross abuses. On the one hand, the field could help to personalize and differentiate instruction, but it could also lead us to perpetuate a trope and narrative that intelligence is fixed and solely determined by your genetics. This could lead to a dystopian education system where students are separated based on their genetic profiles, which will preclude them from having their actual abilities and efforts supported or recognized.
The scenario reminds me of the movie Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. The film presents a dystopian look inside of a future society dominated and driven by eugenics, where children are created through genetic selection to ensure they have the best hereditary traits of both parents. The film’s lead character is Vincent Freemen, played by Hawke, who was conceived the old fashioned way and fought to overcome genetic discrimination to fulfill his dream of going into space. The film espouses concern over the field of eugenics and the possible consequences that scientific advances can have on our society.
Also, the idea of education genomics is not without its issues. There is a reason to believe that intelligence tests based on genetics may be woefully flawed. Also, the predictive power of methods such as GPS is extremely weak. And when dubious research creates a public frenzy, shady companies come out of the woodworks trying to make a quick buck.
This is certainly occurring in the field of educational genomics and eugenics, as commercial companies are already selling DNA tests that misleadingly promise to predict the future intelligence of the owner of the assessed genome. This type of testing may take our attention away from the things that truly shape intelligence, including nurturance, school and teacher quality, diet, childhood trauma, stress, etc.
A more pressing concern arises as parents might want to use this information to predict a child’s future academic and physical abilities, and “artificially select future generations.” This is already being done by parents worldwide but on a small scale. Eugenic researchers seem to be obsessed with finding the genetic code for high IQ.
This creates a scenario were selective-intelligence could be used by world leaders to create a society of “Übermensch” (supermen). This term was coined by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Hitler, in turn, used the concept of the “Übermensch” (Superman) to describe his idea of a biologically superior Aryan or Germanic master race; a racial version of Nietzsche’s Übermensch became the central philosophical basis for National Socialist ideas.
The reality of it all is that the concept of using educational genomics to personalize education is still in its infancy. We are right to remember the dark past of educational genomics and eugenics, as those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat it. There is a need for regulated, empirical research to be performed on the field’s viability as well as the potential grim consequences of its work.
We need to ensure that we understand how the genetic datafication of student potential will affect how students are treated and influence their self-esteem and motivation. If we are not careful, educational genomics could become a repeat of the Rosenthal-Jacobs Study, that ended in students performing according to self-fulfilling prophecies (Pygmalion Effect), or the expectations of their teachers.