Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

A few years ago a blunt and stunning passage by the late Australian philosopher David Stove caught my eye:

If you are recruiting potential basketball champions, you would be mad not to be more interested in American Negroes than in Vietnamese… Any rational person, recruiting an army, will be more interested in Germans than in Italians. If what you want in people is aptitude for forming stable family-ties, you will prefer Italians or Chinese to American Negroes. Pronounced mathematical ability is more likely to occur in an Indian or a Hungarian than in an Australian Aboriginal. If you are recruiting workers, and you value docility above every other trait in a worker, you should prefer Chinese to white Americans. And so on.

Stove’s words are typical of a thinker truly committed to discussing ‘the things we think but do not say.’ Critical, witty and clearly direct, not everything he wrote earned him prominence or broadened his legacy. ‘Stove,’ as American art critic Roger Kimball reflects, ‘would not have been made to feel welcome at many American colleges or universities.’

But his point didn’t ruffle me or stimulate offence – as so many are keen on doing today. It got me thinking about the idea of ‘aptitude’. Clearly, just by way of being human, we’re all born with an orientation toward some things over others. ‘Of course,’ writes the psychologist Carol Dweck, ‘each person has a unique genetic endowment. People may start with different temperaments and different aptitudes, but it is clear that experience, training, and personal effort take them the rest of the way.’

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