Class Notes

Nature, Nurture, Fortune, Will

By Paula Marantz Cohen | January 31, 2012


Last spring, I put the following terms on the board at the end of my Shakespeare class and asked students to vote on which term they felt was most important:







These terms are not easily defined, and Shakespeare uses them loosely.  Fortune, which could be simplified as luck, good or bad, overlaps with nature, since innate variables like intelligence, gender, and physical health all are a matter of luck. By the same token, will overlaps with both fortune and nurture, since what we can will and what we want to will are functions of what we are born with and how we are taught to think about the world.

Still, we all understand the basic meanings of these terms. Nature is your biological inheritance; nurture, the upbringing you’ve had; fortune, the events that happen to come your way; and will, what you make of what you are dealt. (Someone in the class said that I had left out God—which could fall under nature or even fortune, if you stretched things, but which also seems distinct—and so, I added it to the list, though out of a class of 47, it received only one vote.) The results were as follows: 5 votes for nature; 11 for nurture; 4 for fortune; and 27 for will.

Here then was a group of 18-22 year olds with a sense that they could shape their own destiny. My students are not from a privileged demographic. Some are first-generation college students, many of whom either came to this country from elsewhere as young children or are the children of immigrants. They tend to be career-oriented—most do a five-year B.S. or B.A. degree that includes two six-month periods of paid work in their major field. I wonder if the sense that they control their destinies is a function of their careerist orientation, a more general function of their age, or an enduring aspect of the American Dream that still prevails even in difficult economic times.

But the last postulate was contradicted, or at least complicated, by a recent trip to China, where I made a documentary film about Chinese higher education. I had the occasion to ask a small group of Chinese students the same question that I had asked my Shakespeare class. I put the four terms, translated into Chinese, in front of five undergraduates at Peking University. Of the five, only one chose nurture as the most important term; the rest chose will. Though a much smaller sample than my Shakespeare class—and Peking University is one of the most elite universities in China—the response still strikes me as significant. These students also believed they controlled their destinies. It would be interesting to revisit both groups 10 years from now to see if their answers will have changed.


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