The long smoldering debate over the role that environment plays in intelligence was reignited by researchers at University College London who found that IQ is more malleable than previously believed. Although genes still play a powerful role, biology is not destiny. Experience has the potential to alter the brain by affecting neural synapses (“As Brain Changes, So Can IQ,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 20).
That view was notoriously challenged in 1994 by the publication of The Bell Curve (Simon & Schuster, 1994) by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. They placed overwhelming reliance on the biological basis of intelligence and the unavoidable limitations it creates. Their view was called pseudoscience by those who believed that success in the real world is based more than on word-smarts and number-smarts - the traditional metrics of intelligence. Howard Gardner is one prominent critic. He has identified ten forms of intelligence to date. Even Woody Allen has weighed in on the subject by quipping that success in life is often a matter of just showing up every day.
Actually, the biological basis of intelligence came to the fore in the person of Sir Francis Galton. Inspired by his cousin Charles Darwin, Galton developed a “science” in the mid 1880s that he called eugenics. His beliefs arrived in the U.S. in 1904 when biologist Charles Davenport established the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island for research and policy planning. But its Eugenics Research Office was shuttered in 1939 after a special committee backed by the president of the Carnegie Institute issued a scathing report citing the insufficiency of the research. For a detailed account of the eugenics movement, I recommend Harry Bruinius’s Better for All the World (Vintage Books, 2007).
The belief that IQ is malleable has far-reaching implications for public schools. Unlike private schools that can choose which students to enroll, public schools are confronted with a wide range of abilities and aptitudes. As a result, they are challenged to meet the needs and interests of students in ways that private school teachers are not. Even when genes are responsible for the differences within a particular population, they imply little about differences between populations.
By failing to acknowledge the distinction, reformers mislead the public about the academic achievement gap. Given the natural distribution of intelligence, the best we can hope for is that similar proportions of racial groups will be proficient and that similar proportions will be below proficient. In other words, the distributions of achievement will be more alike - but never exactly the same.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.