For Whom the Bell Tolls

There are few topics that get folks as worked up these days as the notion that there might in fact be innate differences amongst people (or even worse, statistical differences between identifiable groups of people). You may recall that Harvard president Lawrence Summers was tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail for so much as suggesting that known differences in the distribution of various cognitive attributes in men and women might account for some of the unequal success of the sexes in the sciences.

One thinker who has been especially provocative in this regard is the Harvard-trained scholar Charles Murray, who endured a hailstorm of contumely for raising issues regarding the distribution of general intelligence in the book The Bell Curve. Like it or not, some people are simply more intelligent than others, by any reasonable criterion, and attempting to understand the underpinnings and implications of this simple, important, but apparently inflammatory fact would, one might think, be a useful program, and one that might benefit society generally.

This week Murray published a set of three essays in which he sets out to, in his words, “put the case for three simple truths about the mediating role of intelligence that should bear on the way we think about education and the nation’s future.”

In the first essay, Murray argues that due to the normal distribution of general intelligence, there will be some students who are never, no matter how well they are taught, going to master advanced intellectual tasks. He writes:

Some say that the public schools are so awful that there is huge room for improvement in academic performance just by improving education. There are two problems with that position. The first is that the numbers used to indict the public schools are missing a crucial component. For example, in the 2005 round of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 36% of all fourth-graders were below the NAEP’s “basic achievement” score in reading. It sounds like a terrible record. But we know from the mathematics of the normal distribution that 36% of fourth-graders also have IQs lower than 95.

What IQ is necessary to give a child a reasonable chance to meet the NAEP’s basic achievement score? Remarkably, it appears that no one has tried to answer that question. We only know for sure that if the bar for basic achievement is meaningfully defined, some substantial proportion of students will be unable to meet it no matter how well they are taught. As it happens, the NAEP’s definition of basic achievement is said to be on the tough side. That substantial proportion of fourth-graders who cannot reasonably be expected to meet it could well be close to 36%.

Murray continues:

This is not to say that American public schools cannot be improved. Many of them, especially in large cities, are dreadful. But even the best schools under the best conditions cannot repeal the limits on achievement set by limits on intelligence.

To say that even a perfect education system is not going to make much difference in the performance of children in the lower half of the distribution understandably grates. But the easy retorts do not work. It’s no use coming up with the example of a child who was getting Ds in school, met an inspiring teacher, and went on to become an astrophysicist. That is an underachievement story, not the story of someone at the 49th percentile of intelligence. It’s no use to cite the differences in test scores between public schools and private ones–for students in the bottom half of the distribution, the differences are real but modest. It’s no use to say that IQ scores can be wrong. I am not talking about scores on specific tests, but about a student’s underlying intellectual ability, g, whether or not it has been measured with a test. And it’s no use to say that there’s no such thing as g.

To say such remarks “grate” is a gracious understatement; there are those to whom the mere suggestion of such empirical possibilities is heresy, anathema, blasphemy, and Murray, along with Bell Curve co-author Richard Herrnstein, sociobiologist Edward Wilson, and others, have been harassed, slandered, threatened, and generally abused for their attempts to bring such ideas into the public conversation. Here’s a remark, again simply presenting a reasonable empirical possibility, that is likely to bring Murray not just intellectual criticism, but renewed ad hominem attacks as well, despite the sentiment expressed in the first sentence:

That says nothing about the quality of the lives that should be open to everyone across the range of ability. I am among the most emphatic of those who think that the importance of IQ in living a good life is vastly overrated. My point is just this: It is true that many social and economic problems are disproportionately found among people with little education, but the culprit for their educational deficit is often low intelligence. Refusing to come to grips with that reality has produced policies that have been ineffectual at best and damaging at worst.

The second and third essays begin with the assumption made in the first: that the varied distribution of intelligence in the population is simply a blunt fact, however uncomfortable it may be politically. If this is indeed the case, Murray writes, then it behooves us to adjust our approach to education accordingly. In the second essay, he suggests that there are many in four-year colleges who oughtn’t be there. And in the third, he calls for a change in the way we educate the intellectually gifted, and argues that they need to be taught wisdom (if indeed wisdom can be taught in school), and a sense that their intellectual gifts carry a responsibility as well. Here is a lengthy excerpt:

We live in an age when it is unfashionable to talk about the special responsibility of being gifted, because to do so acknowledges inequality of ability, which is elitist, and inequality of responsibilities, which is also elitist. And so children who know they are smarter than the other kids tend, in a most human reaction, to think of themselves as superior to them. Because giftedness is not to be talked about, no one tells high-IQ children explicitly, forcefully and repeatedly that their intellectual talent is a gift. That they are not superior human beings, but lucky ones. That the gift brings with it obligations to be worthy of it. That among those obligations, the most important and most difficult is to aim not just at academic accomplishment, but at wisdom.

The encouragement of wisdom requires a special kind of education. It requires first of all recognition of one’s own intellectual limits and fallibilities–in a word, humility. This is perhaps the most conspicuously missing part of today’s education of the gifted. Many high-IQ students, especially those who avoid serious science and math, go from kindergarten through an advanced degree without ever having a teacher who is dissatisfied with their best work and without ever taking a course that forces them to say to themselves, “I can’t do this.” Humility requires that the gifted learn what it feels like to hit an intellectual wall, just as all of their less talented peers do, and that can come only from a curriculum and pedagogy designed especially for them. That level of demand cannot fairly be imposed on a classroom that includes children who do not have the ability to respond. The gifted need to have some classes with each other not to be coddled, but because that is the only setting in which their feet can be held to the fire.

The encouragement of wisdom requires mastery of analytical building blocks. The gifted must assimilate the details of grammar and syntax and the details of logical fallacies not because they will need them to communicate in daily life, but because these are indispensable for precise thinking at an advanced level.

The encouragement of wisdom requires being steeped in the study of ethics, starting with Aristotle and Confucius. It is not enough that gifted children learn to be nice. They must know what it means to be good.

The encouragement of wisdom requires an advanced knowledge of history. Never has the aphorism about the fate of those who ignore history been more true.

All of the above are antithetical to the mindset that prevails in today’s schools at every level. The gifted should not be taught to be nonjudgmental; they need to learn how to make accurate judgments. They should not be taught to be equally respectful of Aztecs and Greeks; they should focus on the best that has come before them, which will mean a light dose of Aztecs and a heavy one of Greeks. The primary purpose of their education should not be to let the little darlings express themselves, but to give them the tools and the intellectual discipline for expressing themselves as adults.

In short, I am calling for a revival of the classical definition of a liberal education, serving its classic purpose: to prepare an elite to do its duty. If that sounds too much like Plato’s Guardians, consider this distinction. As William F. Buckley rightly instructs us, it is better to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. But we have that option only in the choice of our elected officials. In all other respects, the government, economy and culture are run by a cognitive elite that we do not choose. That is the reality, and we are powerless to change it. All we can do is try to educate the elite to be conscious of, and prepared to meet, its obligations. For years, we have not even thought about the nature of that task. It is time we did.

Such remarks will, I’m sure, be sufficient to render Murray politically radioactive once again. But perpetuating intellectual taboos is not in society’s interests; as Churchill said, “you must look at the facts, because they look at you.” All too often, thinkers are vilified merely for raising legitimate empirical questions, and we can no longer afford such foolishness, if indeed we ever could.

Readers can find these articles here, here, and here.

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  1. He’d probably be arrested in Britain. Such are the times.

    Posted January 21, 2007 at 8:57 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Arrested? If he sets foot in San Francisco, or Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he’ll probably be shot on sight.

    Posted January 21, 2007 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  3. the one eyed man says

    This may shock you, but I actually agree with you here. I think it is incumbent on a university President to provoke debate, and it was shameful that Larry Summers lost his job by doing his job.

    (However, the remark about San Francisco is incorrect. If you go downtown to the Ho Chi Minh Pavillion and go past the Micheal Moore wing, right next to the Joan Baez statue, you’ll see that there is a different form of torture for people who espouse conservative ideology. Let’s just say that the term “pillow biter” comes to mind.)

    I recall an article in Psychology Today which said that there are more male geniuses than female geniuses. This is purportedly because male intelligence spreads more widely to both extremes, while female intelligence tends to be clustered more around the middle. There are also more male idiots than female idiots. (I will refrain from using the Bush administration as evidence of this).

    However, as interesting as this speculation may be, I’m not sure if it is actionable, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend testing this hypothesis with your spouse.

    Posted January 22, 2007 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    Well, that greater deviation of intelligence in males was exactly the point Summers was trying to make: there are both more extremely stupid males and more extremely intelligent ones than there are females, and because top-level science requires cognitive abilities that are way out on the thin tail of the curve, you’d expect to find more males there than females. This is a perfectly reasonable suggestion, one that might actually be the correct explanation, or at least part of it; and for this insight – the sort of thing that would be applauded if applied to any species other than humans – he was pelted with offal and frog-marched off the premises.

    Posted January 22, 2007 at 8:11 pm | Permalink
  5. the one eyed man says

    To quote Emeril: let’s kick it up a notch. Let’s suppose that you possessed data which proved that a certain race of people were less intelligent than the rest of humanity. To take it outside this realm, let’s suppose that you are a white New Zealander and could conclusively prove that Maoris have an IQ substantially lower than the white population. If you report your findings, you will make life even more difficult for a group of people who have enough difficulties already. It is hard to imagine any good coming from the revelation that Maoris are incapable of ratiocination (or whatever). Do you report your findings? Are there some scientific truths which ought not to be revealed?

    Posted January 22, 2007 at 11:30 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Well, Peter, that certainly does kick it up a notch, and is such a weighty and worthwhile question that I will put aside for now the many thoughts it provokes, and give it a post of its own, after some sober consideration. If I can stay sober.

    Posted January 23, 2007 at 12:05 am | Permalink

One Trackback

  1. By waka waka waka » Blog Archive » Izzes and Oughts on January 24, 2007 at 12:50 am

    […] In a comment on a recent post about intelligence and education, commenter Peter Kranzler asks: Let’s suppose that you possessed data which proved that a certain race of people were less intelligent than the rest of humanity. To take it outside this realm, let’s suppose that you are a white New Zealander and could conclusively prove that Maoris have an IQ substantially lower than the white population. If you report your findings, you will make life even more difficult for a group of people who have enough difficulties already. It is hard to imagine any good coming from the revelation that Maoris are incapable of ratiocination (or whatever). Do you report your findings? Are there some scientific truths which ought not to be revealed? This is, as intended, a difficult question, and shows the trap that awaits any of us who insist on too tightly coupling moral and political philosophy to empirical questions of human biology. […]