How Important is IQ?

I teach at UC Berkeley. A few years ago I had an eye-opening experience about college teaching and evaluation. I was teaching an undergraduate seminar on depression. For the term project, I allowed/required students to do anything they wanted related to depression, so long as it was off campus and not library research. One student chose to give a talk to a high school class about depression. This would be unremarkable except that she had severe stage fright. The thought of speaking in front of any group terrified her. Every step of planning and doing the talk was very hard. But she managed to do it. In her term-project paper she wrote, "I learned that if I really wanted to, I could conquer my fear, and do what I needed to do" -- among the most stirring words I have ever read.

Her work until then -- class participation, writing assignments -- had put her in the bottom half of the class. Yet her term project showed her to be resourceful (using the term project assignment in a useful way) and courageous (making herself do something that scared her). She chose the assignment that revealed these qualities. Ved Mehta, the writer, who is blind, spent his early years almost entirely within a small school compound. One day he was taken to the beach. He was astonished how freely he could run around. "The school compound . . . suddenly shrank in my mind, like a woolen sock . . . which became so small after [the housekeeper] washed it that I could scarcely get my hand in it," he wrote in Vedi. As I read my student's description of what she had done, I saw how narrow and restricted my usual assignments and my usual way of evaluating students had been.

I am sorry that Charles Murray, Bell Curve coauthor, has apparently never had a similar experience. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, alas, he made clear his belief that persons with a high IQ are more important economically and culturally than persons with a lower IQ. "We live in an age when it is unfashionable to talk about the special responsibility of being gifted," he wrote -- "gifted" meaning "high IQ." He used the phrase the gifted. The gifted? If there are thirty or fifty or a thousand different useful sets of abilities, to single out one of them -- the one that produces a high score on an IQ test -- makes no sense. It's like referring to the sentence. That makes no sense. There are many useful sentences. We need all of them.

Persons with a high IQ do better at certain jobs, no doubt; but Murray fails to realize that such jobs are a tiny fraction of our economy and that discrimination against any group -- failure to help any group develop their skills -- is economically damaging because it reduces economic diversity (Jane Jacobs' point). Murray thinks we should treat high-IQ kids better. He fails to see that it is not people with high IQs who are underserved by the present system; it is everyone else -- everyone with other gifts. Plenty of jobs demand resourcefulness and courage, for example, qualities that are probably uncorrelated with IQ, as my student emphasized to me. Both resourcefulness and courage are required to start a new business, which is the most economically important job of all.