Practice makes perfect: David Brooks accepts logic of progressive reform

New York Times (NYT) columnist David Brooks may not seem the most likely advocate for a major expansion of federal job training and education programs. But, intentional or not, that's essentially what the conservative pundit was doing last week with a column about the new science of success.

As Brooks pointed out, recent research by K. Anders Ericsson and the late Benjamin Bloom, among others, has deepened our knowledge of what factors predict proficiency, excellence, even genius. The work of the pair is summarized in two books, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, both of which received major shout-outs from Brooks. The gist of the research (and Brooks's column)? Genetics, including IQ and talent, are important determinants of success, but no more so than lots and lots of practice. Plain and simple, top performers spend many more hours rigorously learning and honing their craft.

Nurture wins

Brooks clearly identified with the Puritan work ethic inherent in the books' message. However, in doing so, he may have inadvertently given a boost to one of the biggest items on the liberal agenda.

See, there's a school of thought -- to which Brooks himself has sometimes seemed to ascribe -- that wants to write off a segment of the American public: Not smart enough. They lack skills. They lack the preferred characteristics. Their surroundings put them at a disadvantage, so they're not eligible. They just wouldn't be right for the job. And on and on the mantra goes.

This attitude has always struck me as, minimally: 1) a violation of the American system of equal opportunity and a legitimate chance for all; and, at worst: 2) discriminatory.

As Brooks so graciously points out, though, there's now even more scientific research confirming the importance of practice, which, as anyone would agree, is really only a very tiny step removed from job training, skills training and education.

Now that we know with scientific certainty how critical these factors are to success, you can be sure that advocates for those who have traditionally been denied training and education will put increasing pressure on public policymakers to guarantee that they receive it. Unlike past periods, the less-trained and -educated are not going to be denied; many voted for the first time in 2008, and they'll be voting again in 2010, 2012, 2014 and beyond -- and in greater and greater numbers.

If it looks like the nation is well into the reform era, in other words, guess again. The reforms, economic and otherwise, have only begun. Just ask David Brooks.

Financial Editor Joseph Lazzaro is based in New York.

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