Education Experts Assail Book on I.Q. and Class
A new book suggesting that America is becoming divided into a nation of cognitive "haves" and "have nots" came in for sharp criticism last week from a number of education experts.
The central premise behind The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure is that the nation is increasingly stratified by intellectual ability. It argues that a "cognitive elite" of highly educated politicians, professionals, and business leaders runs the country, increasingly isolated from a large and growing underclass that is far less intelligent.
"To try to come to grips with the nation's problems without understanding the role of intelligence is to see through a glass darkly indeed, to grope with the symptoms instead of causes, to stumble into supposed remedies that have no chance of working," the authors, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, write.
Perhaps most disturbing, however, are the book's contentions that blacks as a group are intellectually inferior to whites and that there is not much that education--or intervention of any sort--can do to close that gap.
"This says to policymakers who are about to try new programs or curricula that nothing's going to work because it's all in the genes," said one critic, Edward F. Zigler, a Yale University psychologist and a founder of the federal Head Start preschool program. "Well, that's nonsense."
The Bell Curve resulted from an eight-year collaboration between the late Mr. Herrnstein, a Harvard University psychologist, and Mr. Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank. Mr. Murray is best known as the author of Losing Ground, a 1984 book that called for abolishing welfare and other social programs.
Chock-full of statistics, the new, 860-page book, published by The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, has already attracted an unusual amount of attention. It and Mr. Murray have been the focus of cover stories in The New York Times Magazine and Newsweek. The Wall Street Journal devoted most of an editorial page to two essays drawn from the book, and The New Republic set aside almost an entire issue on the subject.
The Bell Curve is getting that kind of play in part because it reopens a decades-old scientific debate over the role heredity plays in intelligence. Few experts deny that intelligence is partly inherited, but they argue intensely over the degree to which it is and its significance.
More Than Genes
Mr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray estimate that as much as 60 percent of the difference between the intelligence quotient or I.Q. scores of whites and blacks is due to genes. They say East Asians--Chinese and Japanese--are "probably" smarter than whites.
And they use data from the National Longitudinal Study of American Youth to suggest that low I.Q. scores, regardless of racial group, are linked to all sorts of dismal outcomes in life, including high rates of out-of-wedlock births, poverty, and crime. The study is a federally sponsored survey of 12,866 young people begun in 1979.
But "it is not as simple as they think it is to explain the differences," said John Ogbucq sd, a University of California at Berkeley anthropologist who has studied academic achievement among minority groups.
Environment, culture, nutrition, and motivation are also crucial to determining scores on intelligence tests, said Mr. Ogbu and other experts.
Studies of working-class black and white families, for instance, have shown that the white families spend more time directly teaching their children numbers and letters before they start school. The black families, in contrast, emphasize social skills.
Mr. Ogbu also said the complex relationship between the dominant culture and minority groups needs to be taken into account. Minority groups that have not voluntarily become part of the United States--such as blacks or American Indians--resist learning the intellectual skills measured on those tests, he said.
"They interpret what is going on as forced assimilation," he said.
Mr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray "look at I.Q. tests as if they were a measure of bilirubin in babies or a measure of height," said Harold W. Stevenson, a University of Michigan professor who has conducted cross-national studies.
In his own work, Mr. Stevenson has revised intelligence-like tests to eliminate cultural biases and then given those tests to thousands of high school students in Asia and the United States. In two comparable cities--Minneapolis and Sendai, Japan--the students scored about the same.
The problem with all such tests, added the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, is that they take a narrow view of intelligence. They do not take into account what he calls musical or interpersonal or bodily kinesthetic intelligence, and they do not measure what other psychologists call practical intelligence or creativity.
Another criticism voiced by many experts is that while Mr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray contend intelligence scores measure an immutable quality of general intellectual ability, such scores have been rising over the last 25 years for both blacks and whites. And, indeed, on a number of other kinds of standardized, academic tests, the achievement gap between black and white students has even narrowed.
Mr. Murray was not available for comment last week. But, in their book, he and Mr. Herrnstein anticipated some of the criticisms.
They say the rise in test scores, for example, could be partly due to the so-called "Flynn effect." Named after the psychologist James Flynn, it refers to the tendency of I.Q. scores to drift upward every year the same test is in use.
"Couldn't the mean of blacks move 15 points as well through environmental changes?" the authors ask. "There seems no reason why not--but also no reason to believe that whites and Asians can be made to stand still while the Flynn effect works its magic."
They also say that I.Q. scores are a valid yardstick for measuring intelligence for two reasons. First, the scores correlate to later job performance and, second, they correspond to what "most people think of as smart."
The authors say the large role heritability plays in determining intelligence explains why many programs intended to raise the academic performance of poor and minority children have failed.
As proof, they cite studies showing that gains made by poor children in the Head Start program faded out after a few years, and they raise questions about other early-intervention programs that have been seen as successful, such as the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina.
But early-childhood experts said the authors' analyses fall short.
"This review is selective and biased," said Craig Ramey, the University of Alabama professor who directed the Abecedarian Project.
The project located pregnant women whose children would be at high risk for mental retardation and divided them into two groups. Both groups received a variety of medical and social services, but the children in one group went into a comprehensive day-care program from the time they were one month old until they were 5. By their 5th year, children in the experimental group were outscoring their control-group peers on intelligence tests, and those gains have held.
But Mr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray raised questions, for example, about the comparability of the two groups--questions Mr. Ramey said were answered in a 1992 paper the authors ignored.
As for Head Start, Mr. Zigler said the reason children in the program made large gains at first had more to do with social and motivational factors than any problems with the studies.
"If you ask a child in a slum a question, the first answer you get is 'I don't know,'" he said. "If you don't accept 'I don't know' you can get another 12 or 13 points." Besides, he added, "the goal of Head Start was to provide everyday social competence for children" and not necessarily to raise their I.Q. scores.
For their part, Mr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray have said they are not racists nor were they unaware their arguments would reignite debate.
They offer little in the way of remedies for the situation they describe. They do, however, make two suggestions for education: Allow parents greater choice in the schools their children attend, and target more funds to the most intellectually gifted students.
Ironically, both strategies have been criticized for contributing to societal stratification. Even so, the authors write, the gifted students are important "because our society depends upon them."