About the Book

About the Book

The results of the 2019 NAEP* tests found that 61 percent of 12th graders reported that they had applied to or been accepted at a four-year college. But only 37 percent performed well enough in math and reading to be ready for freshman college courses. NAEP associate commissioner Peggy Carr said, “Students were very clear that they didn’t know or feel confident in some basic skills when it comes to reading, or being able to conduct some basic math operations.”

Excerpts from Education Week, November 18, 2020, p. 3. *NAEP = National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The Aptitude Myth is a book for Americans who worry about how well today’s youth are being educated. It’s also a history book.

Now you might think that a history book couldn’t possibly also be a book that addresses a worsening crisis facing our children today and into the foreseeable future.

But it can be…at least when the crisis concerns education. And especially when it concerns our children’s mastery of essential skills – such as the STEM* subjects – which, for decades, has been poor in comparison with that of students in several other nations.
*STEM: science, technology, engineering, math

The Aptitude Myth reveals a rarely considered explanation for the decline in our children’s mastery, one that’s rare because it’s outside the awareness of virtually all Americans.

That’s because it derives from Americans’ customary ways of thinking about children, parenting, learning, and teaching. These ways of thinking originated far away and very, very long ago. Yet, even today, they guide many Americans’ thinking! So it’s important to examine why they originated and how they came to be widely accepted.

When the details of the origin and spread of these archaic ways of thinking are understood, they are seen as grounded in the imaginations of people who lived some 2,500 years ago!

What are these ancient, imagination-based, and yet customary ways of thinking?

Many Americans assume that each newborn baby arrives with a fixed, inelastic set of mental abilities, and that those inborn abilities very largely govern the ways in which, and the extent to which, that child will succeed in school.

In other words, many assume that innate abilities, such as those measured by aptitude and I.Q. tests, set outer limits on how well a child will be able to perform in the classroom.

But that’s not all. It’s further assumed that attempts by adults to compel a child to expand his or her mental abilities will be ineffective. In fact, such attempts are likely to be counterproductive because – or so it’s assumed – intense effort and persistence by a child in pursuit of academic mastery actually endanger his or her well-being.

In many other regions of the world including East Asia, many people assume that a child is born with mental abilities plus a capacity for intense effort and perseverance. They believe that a child’s performance in the classroom is very largely governed by his or her own effort.

This discrepancy in how people in different world regions think about children’s capacity for classroom learning has been known to social scientists for decades. It is not under dispute.

If you’re intrigued by the question of how Americans
came to hold that inborn aptitude is the driver of
classroom success, then come along on the historical inquiry
provided by Dr. Cornelius Grove in The Aptitude Myth.


The Aptitude Myth tells the story of how Americans came to inherit an antiquated mindset. It’s a story about aspects of Western civilization beginning in the times of Pythagoras, way back in ancient Greece. The story becomes more detailed as events unfold during the past six centuries, starting when Johann Gutenberg revolutionized printing. It’s a story about what parents and citizens very long ago – people much like you and me – were thinking about how best to raise and educate children.

It’s equally a story about fascinating dramatis personae whose names you’ll recognize, such as William Wordsworth, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Aristotle. It’s also about equally compelling but lesser-known characters such as Francis Bacon, Johann Pestalozzi, and Col. Francis W. Parker. But no one gets more attention than a highly influential 19th century public personality you might never have heard of: Herbert Spencer.

Here’s a brief preview of what is revealed by The Aptitude Myth:

Beginning with the ancient Greeks and on through the early years of the 20th century, Western thinking about children and learning was grappling with challenges that had little relevance for children’s mastery of the STEM subjects and other academic skills. Instead, thinkers were trying to devise solutions for theoretical – usually, theological – problems raised by the assumptions they had made about the “givens” inborn into each child.

An example is “Original Sin,” a belief that formerly led adults to employ a harsh, severe style of parenting and teaching. This example illustrates that although such beliefs often are attributed to ancient texts (in this case, the Bible), they are not merely topics for scholarly debates. They actively motivate individual behaviors and community-wide practices.

Through a chain of reasoning about “givens,” educated people came to fear that, because children are mentally fragile – or so they believed – a child’s sustained focus on academic learning would lead to his or her permanent psychological and even physical debilitation. For example, during the 19th century it was seriously argued that intense study by girls led to enfeebled health, flat-chested figures, and sometimes a life of celibacy!

Western preoccupation with “givens” also fostered the belief that each child is born with a fixed set of mental abilities – his or her “potential” – that simply cannot be transcended by anyone’s effort. Child, parents, teachers – all are reduced to merely passive roles.

(If you’re familiar with the work of Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck, her “fixed mindset” is what we’re talking about here.)

The belief in fixed inborn abilities gained credibility because it originated in ancient Greece, where it had been promoted by the highly influential Aristotle. It remained credible throughout the Middle Ages and into the 18th century Enlightenment. During the 19th century, it was spread and strengthened by British philosopher and public speaker Herbert Spencer, who was widely admired in the United States.


Part 1, “European Antecedents,” recounts events in Europe and answers the question, When, why, and how did Americans’ current ways of thinking originate?

Part 1 begins by discussing how Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers in ancient Greece imagined children’s mental development. Explored next are several transformations in Western thinking between the 15th and 18th centuries that were driven by public personalities such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and that culminated with the poetry of the Literary Romantics including William Wordsworth. Also highlighted is a widely followed Swiss educator, Johann Pestalozzi. Part 1 ends with an inquiry into Herbert Spencer’s influential beliefs about education.

Part 2, “American Responses,” traces the myth of aptitude as it makes its way into our own nation, answering the question, How did Americans apply the European ways of thinking, and why?

Part 2 first discusses how notions of child-rearing were evolving prior to the Civil War, with special attention to the views of educator Horace Mann. Next comes a recounting the social and intellectual currents sweeping American thought following that war. Part 2 ends by investigating three “metamorphoses” that transformed U.S. education as the 20th century began: (a) socially efficient education, (b) child-centered teaching, and (c) the triumph of the myth of aptitude, signaled by the first administration of the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1926.

Part 3, “Tomorrow’s Opportunities,” leaves history-telling behind and explores this question: Can we transcend our inherited mindset to give mastery the highest priority?

The first of two chapters reviews the archaic belief we’ve inherited; recalls key events from the foregoing chapters; and reminds us that during 2,500 years of Western history, children’s mastery of school subjects was rarely anyone’s top priority. The final chapter replaces the ancient beliefs with seven fresh assertions about “how the world works” – scientifically sound, transformative values and goals for us to apply whenever we think about children, parenting, learning, and teaching.

The seven fresh assertions foretell the focus of Dr. Grove’s next book, The Drive to Learn: What the East Asian Experience Tells Us about Raising Students Who Excel (2017). Learn more at TheDriveToLearn.info.


Here on this website are 15 genealogical charts collectively entitled “Tracing the Path of a Modern American Paradigm.” Arranged in historical order, the charts trace spread of eight “Key Beliefs” that are successively introduced in the text. The Key Beliefs originated with…

  • Pythagoras [6th century B.C.E.]
  • Plato [5th century B.C.E.]
  • Aristotle [4th century B.C.E.]
  • John Calvin [16th century A.D.]
  • The Empiricists: Francis Bacon, John Locke, Isaac Newton [17th century]
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau [18th century]
  • Martin Luther & the Social Contractists: Locke, Rousseau, François Quesnay [17th–18th centuries]
  • Herbert Spencer [19th century]

These genealogical charts enable the reader to gain greater clarity regarding the historical origins, and the development over many centuries, of the imaginative ancient beliefs that underlie many of today’s debates about children, learning, parenting, and teaching.

Click HERE to be taken to the 15 genealogical charts.