The Sordid History of Human Intelligence Goes On

When Nobel-prize winning geneticist James Watson was quoted in the British press the other day saying that he held out little hope for the future of Africa owing to the inferior intelligence of Africans, he became just one more in a long line of prominent Americans who got caught in a knotty contradiction between what is acceptable for political and educational leaders to say about human intelligence and the policies those same leaders often practice.

Upon what scientific basis did Watson, the eminent scientist, make this claim about differences in intelligence between Africans and those of European descent? The "testing" says so, of course, by which he was referring to results of IQ tests, which measure what the psychometricians call "general intelligence." According to the theory, one's level of general intelligence predicts performances of all varieties, from academic success to career accomplishment.

Human intelligence testing has a long and sordid history in Europe and America going back to the turn of the last century when recent American immigrants, such Italians, Jews and Poles, were labeled feeble minded due to their poor performance on IQ tests. The true believers in the testing for native intelligence -- the most prominent psychologists of the era -- fostered the notion that the inferior IQ's of those recent immigrants were attributable to their absence of "Nordic" blood compared to the more intelligent peoples from England and Northern Europe who had immigrated to the United States generations earlier. Prominent academics, including Lewis Terman in particular, dismissed notions that measured IQ differences might have resulted from much longer exposure to American culture and language.

For his part, Watson is an expert in the structure of DNA, not human intelligence. Likewise, when former Harvard president Lawrence Summers suggested that women don't rise to the top of academic science because they were lacking in scientific and mathematical aptitude -- the "testing" says so -- he'd earned his academic reputation as an economist, not as an expert in human intelligence.

When the press pounces on these assertions of prominent academics who draw their overly broad conclusions about women in science, or the economic future of an entire continent, the perpetrators are quickly shot down and their public apologies soon follow.

And then, just as quickly, all is back to normal.

But normal isn't particularly appealing condition for educational or social justice. Watson's and Summers's prominence gave them license to say out loud, however suspect their claims, an often-hidden belief among the intellectual elite.

That back story, which in fact sustains the ideology of merit that the intellectual elite clings to in order to rationalize social inequality, is that certain classes of disenfranchised people owe their conditions to a lack of intellectual talent that allow one to gain academic and workplace success. How do we know this? The "testing" says so, of course.

While the American educational establishment now shudders at the impolitic utterances of a Watson or Summers, the fact is that mainstream educators remain wedded to intelligence tests and their close cousins to designate intellectual talent and to sort academic stars from the also-rans, whether the arena is admitting toddlers to a private pre-school in Manhattan or freshmen to an elite college or university.

The testing industry, keenly aware of the sad history of intelligence testing and the tendency of its test users to draw their universal conclusions based on the tests, steers clear of marketing their exams as IQ tests, aptitude tests, or intelligence tests. Once known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, for instance, the SAT is now simply the SAT. Long forgotten is the test's troubling kinship to the same IQ tests that once labeled Italians and Jews as feeble minded.

The use of such tests to sort the supposedly smart and talented from the not-smart and not-so-talented is so common in the United States that few parents and educators question the legitimacy of this practice -- particularly when these families occupy the top rungs of the social and economic structure.

To a far greater extent than in other advanced countries, American schools funnel schoolchildren into regular, advanced or slow academic tracks from an early age. Although educators now shun the term "tracking," the practice remains prevalent. Schools advocate for desegregation, and yet they routinely segregate children by race and class based upon how kids track into various curricular programs. These include gifted and talented classes and variety of other fast-track programs where admitted students are treated to small classes, enriched learning opportunities and the best teachers.

To an astonishing degree, selection to these programs is often based upon the results of IQ tests that systematically privilege the cultural capital that well-educated families pass on to their children. Is it any surprise then, that the lion's share of the intellectually gifted so designated emerge from families with great stores of cultural, economic and educational capital going back for generations? Consider Summers's own family. His parents were both Ivy League economics professors, and his two uncles, Robert Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow, were both recipients of the Nobel Prize in economics.

As for Watson, his academic pedigree isn't so impressive. The son of a Scottish-born tailor and an Irish mother who grew up in Chicago, Watson received an academic scholarship to attend the University of Chicago in 1943. It so happened that the University of Chicago had distanced itself from the movement championed by Harvard's James Bryant Conant and the College Board to make standardized aptitude testing, the Scholastic Aptitude Test in particular, the gold standard for picking and choosing academic talent for top colleges. Instead of a multiple-choice test, Chicago required applicants to sit for old-fashioned written examinations, evaluated by faculty readers.

That might have been a lucky break for Watson, a working-class kid, who got a chance to show his stuff based on what he actually knew, not based upon an aptitude test that correlated highly to one's position in the social and economic hierarchy. And lucky for us and for science that the education system gave him that chance.