Political pundits have jumped all over Melania Trump for parts of her GOP convention speech that sounded very similar to one by Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic convention. Plagiarism is obviously wrong but in this case there is a bright side. Ms. Trump’s imitation shows the two political parties might actually agree on something.
And it’s not government policy.
As Ms. Obama phrased it in her speech (and which was echoed by Trump): “...we want our children – and all children in this nation – to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
This view of the inherent capabilities of children has become very popular as a way to reduce education inequality in the United States. It comes with slogans like “gritting it out” or “believing in yourself.” Or, as a line in the famous children’s book “The Little Engine That Could,” puts it: “I think I can, I think I can.”
Yet this approach requires something deeper than self-empowerment or positive encouragement. It rests on the idea that children, whether they are poor or live in a dysfunctional family, can rise above their circumstances by relying on something in everyone's identity.
A new study, published this spring by the National Academy of Sciences, hints at this mental reality. A team of researchers at Stanford University used nationwide data on high school students in Chile to find out why certain students from poor families were able to do as well in school as students from wealthier families. The defining difference: The poorer students believed that intelligence is readily available and can grow and be developed.
Or as the study stated: Such students “tend to see difficult tasks as a way to increase their abilities, and seek out challenging learning experiences that enable them to do so.”
Too many educators and parents believe intelligence to be a static given in each person. As The New York Times recently wrote: “Measurable intelligence owes something to genetic endowment but also depends heavily on environmental inputs, such as the number of words spoken to a child by her caregivers.”
This study, however, suggests intelligence is a wellspring to draw on, either by individuals who perceive it in themselves or who are coached into seeing it. Grit can help. The right teacher or parent can help. Being self-assured can help. But all these are amplified by understanding the idea of intelligence as abundant.
The study suggests that this approach may “alleviate poverty and economic inequality.” Perhaps that is one good reason why one of Trump’s speechwriters was so taken by Michelle Obama’s speech. The two parties have found common ground.