This book is an interesting read for any laymen interested in intelligence in general, since Nisbett spends a good amount of time explaining different types of intelligence, various tests for intelligence, and their many advantages and flaws. He touches on the role of motivation in achievement, beyond sheer intelligence. The author knew that much of his readership, like me, would be interested for personal reasons, and so the entire last chapter is devoted to quickly and clearly outlining a variety of methods and activities that have been shown through scientific research to improve intellectual ability and performance.
Much of what Nisbett concludes and advocates would certainly be controversial in America's current, polarized political climate. A hefty portion of the book is spent explaining how the conditions of poverty result in a clear intellectual disadvantage:
"There is every reason to believe that the IQ and achievement gaps in the United States could be reduced if people of lower SES (socio-economic status) had higher incomes. Low incomes produce many problems, ranging from poorer nutrition and health, to more disruption due to moving from place to place, to lowered expectations for the rewards of education. In a vicious feedback loop, lower income brings lower academic achievement to lower-status American youth, which in turn lowers their value in the labor market, which results in continued lower SES.
"In a word, if we want the poor to be smarter, we need to find way to make them richer."
But Nisbett makes it clear that he is on the side of science, not any political agenda. Again and again he describes the lack of sufficient, rigorous research which includes proper control groups. And in talking about what works and fails in public schools, he laments that while teacher performance has been shown to make a difference (opposed to more degrees and certifications, and even experience beyond the first few years) teachers' unions have been a block to rewarding individual teachers for performance.
Toward the end, Nisbett even lays out a flat, cost-benefit conclusion regarding the benefits of social programs geared toward raising the intelligence and achievement of the poor:
"Even when benefits are calculated strictly to the taxpayer, in terms of education, welfare, and criminal justice charges saved, the costs of the most successful pre-kindergarten programs are repaid in time."
That Nisbett feels the need to lay it all this cold way further drives home the point that intelligence-is-genetic has seeped into the mentality of many, leading to real feelings of animosity toward the poor and resentment toward the programs which serve them.
Anyone sensitive to issues of race and culture will probably be at least slightly uncomfortable reading the chapters on the particular plight of African Americans and on Asian and Jewish advantages. But it is the sort of discomfort we all need to face if we are to confront the issues at hand and move forward in a direction that promotes greater equality and prosperity. Nisbett points out that taboos against discussing race and intelligence (initially in response to those who have argued that intelligence is mainly genetic) is part of what has caused research to stagnate in finding methods and developing programs that really work to remove disadvantages caused by discrimination.
While Nisbett is optimistic in his final conclusion, he doesn't sugarcoat the situation. The lack of sufficient, scientific research (and often the resistance to such research even being done in the first place!) is a serious problem, as is the complexity of the political, cultural, and social forces being dealt with. But the bottom line is clear: we can close the intelligence gaps between rich and poor, between certain minorities and the majority. We simply need the will to find out what works and what doesn't, and then carry out what does.