Education Commentary

Reacting to The Bell Curve

January 11, 1995 31 min read

As part of a continuing effort to sample opinion within the field on controversial topics, Education Week invited a number of educators and other closely allied specialists to write briefly on the impact of The Bell Curve, a book by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein whose conclusions on the relationship of race and social class to I.Q. have ignited fierce debate among scholars and the public at large. Beginning below are edited excerpts of some of the responses:

In an information society, attention is the rarest and dearest commodity. When there are so many demands for attention it is often the shrillest, or the most extreme, voices that get heard. Inordinate claims seem to be the strategy used by the authors of The Bell Curve to attract readers to issues such as race and I.Q. The impact upon children of the attention given these issues is both direct and indirect.

Although few adolescents and even fewer children have read or will read this book, they may well hear it talked about on the radio or on television, or by their parents, or by friends or by relatives. For some adults, the conclusions regarding race and I.Q. will only reinforce long-standing prejudices which are easily transmitted to their children. For other adults the conclusions are yet another instance of an abiding societal prejudice against blacks that is masked as social science. Adults of this persuasion will use the to-do about these issues as a warning to their children of what awaits them in the white world. With regard to direct effects, therefore, the issues raised by the book will probably further entrench parents and children in their existing prejudices.

The indirect effects of the issues raised by The Bell Curve may have even more pernicious consequences for children and youths. The authors’ data and conclusions, particularly those pertaining to the efficacy of educational remediation, could have important policy implications. Some legislators may use the book as a rationale for cutting back on programs for the disadvantaged. Other legislators may use the data to support their restrictive immigration legislation. Most of the indirect policy implications of the issues raised by Mr. Murray and Mr. Herrnstein are, therefore, likely to have a negative impact upon children and youths of color.

Social science is not objective. Unlike the physical sciences, where there is a clear separation between subject and object, in the social sciences the investigator is both subject and object. That is why it is so important for social scientists to be cautious when using mental-test data to reach conclusions about social issues. The Bell Curvereflects more than a lack of caution, it deliberately seeks to gain a popular audience for, and give scientific credence to, the voicing of the authors’ personal views of class, race, and I.Q. In so doing, they have done a disservice not only to children and youths but also to the discipline they represent.

David Elkind, professor of child study, Tufts University, Medford, Mass.

Children should be helped to learn that there are many kinds of “smarts.” I.Q., at best, measures only one. There are people who have a very high I. Q. but still cannot find their way out of a paper bag. Look around; you will see playground leaders who are not outstanding when it comes to math or crossword puzzles; people who are synthesizers, or artistically, intuitively inclined; those who are “street smart,” knowing how to get along and conduct business in Beijing, Moscow, Marrakesh, and Rio; those who know how to get people to work together in a place full of diversity.

Nobody has all of these “smarts,” or even most. There is no shame in scoring less high on one or more of these measures. It is a shame to brag and make others feel poorly when they score lower. And, above all, it is a shame for people not to make use of whatever talents they have.

What is profoundly wrong with The Bell Curveis that it makes I.Q. look as if it is the only smarts that counts. This is not the case for economic success, and the book is simply wrong when it suggests that low I.Q. may predispose someone to a life of criminality.

Values also count. A very smart person can be a very successful thief or drug lord who hurts and manipulates innocent people. Read City of Joy, a story of the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, reaching out and helping one another, sharing their last cup of rice.

We need to appreciate people who are decent human beings, who know how to console those who are distressed, who can be true friends, considerate playmates. It matters little how smart they are; it matters that the heart is in the right place, which is the last thing you can say about a book that argues we should abandon those people who need help more and rain that help down on those most richly endowed. \=para

Amitai Etzioni, president of the American Sociological Association and author of The Spirit of Community (Simon and Schuster, 1994).

My father, Sylvester W. Laffoon, was born in Terre Haute, Ind., in 1905 and graduated from Indiana State Teachers’ College in 1932 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education.

John W. Lyda Jr., a retired professor from Indiana State, told me that my father took me to his psychology class in 1931 when I was 4 years old to be given an “intelligence” test to disprove the professor’s theory of Negro (that’s what we were called then) genetic inferiority. I scored higher than the white children tested. Dr. Lyda’s reply: “So much for genetic inferiority.”

Much to my sorrow, it takes more than facts to kill this myth of white superiority. Especially in times of economic need we find the rise of this brand of nativism. Most social scientists agree that intelligence has not yet been defined. In fact, some call it a non-operating concept. In spite of these caveats, though, social scientists continue to pretend that intelligence can be measured.

During my teaching lifetime, I have taught many African-American students labeled mentally retarded. Many of them have gone on to pursue graduate work in reputable universities with stringent entrance requirements. Intelligence has been barely identified. Our finite knowledge cannot with complete confidence say what a human being can and will learn given the right mix of effort, motivation, and enthusiasm.

African-Americans could not live on Northwestern University’s campus when I went there (1944-1947). Had there been no need for me to fight white teachers who thought I was inferior, I perhaps could have done greater things and achieved much more in elementary and secondary schools. I am grateful for the African-American teachers who saw me as an extension of themselves and taught me so much. And I thank those white teachers who dared to challenge The Bell Curvetheories which would, if practiced, have doomed me to a subhuman category.

Barbara A. Sizemore, dean of education, DePaul University, Chicago, Ill.

Nature magazine reported last year that listening to Mozart raises the I.Q. ‘s of college students. Recently I spotted a parents’ magazine setting forth “six ways to boost your child’s I.Q.” Both of my children took S.A. T. “cram courses” during high school. The point, of course, is that the presumed mutability of intelligence plays no small part in American popular culture, educational arrangements, public policies, and family lives.

Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein do not hold out much hope for mutability, nor--therefore--for interventions by parents, schools, or legislatures. And this is the one domain where I found their book less than persuasive. They’re certainly right about the powerful correlation between intelligence and success--and trouble--in contemporary society. The issue is whether all efforts to do something about intelligence are doomed by genetics. Perhaps not.

We know that a baby’s brain isn’t fully formed at birth. Much of its development--physiological, neurological, cognitive--occurs in the early months of life, and there’s good evidence that the extent of this development is influenced by experiences the baby has. Those can be changed.

Prenatal experiences make a difference, too. I’m not referring to conversations with one’s fetus, such as one checkout-counter magazine recommended to middle-class moms, but to things like drug and alcohol abuse and poor nutrition during pregnancy. These are, at least in theory, preventable. They’re not encoded in one’s genes.

Nor am I convinced that “intervention” strategies are entirely futile. Such thoughtful commentators as Douglas Besharov and E.D. Hirsch Jr. have cited evidence of programs, institutions, and experiences that appear to have greater and more lasting effects on cognitive functioning than The Bell Curve concedes. Mr. Murray and Mr. Herrnstein themselves mention a couple of these, notably adoption.

The more potent the intervention and the more sharply it is targeted on cognitive functioning, the more difference it may make. Some of the “break the mold” school designs being tried in the United States erase the ancient assumption that every child must make one “grade” worth of progress in 180 days of schooling. As the Asian proverb has it, “The slow bird must start out early in the morning.” With extra time (and high-quality teaching, suitable technology, etc.) there is no reason to assume that ambitious standards cannot eventually be approached by most youngsters. Because we don’t run schools like that today, however, their promise could not be captured in the data available to Mr. Murray and Mr. Herrnstein.

Chester E. Finn Jr., John M. Olin Fellow, Hudson Institute, Washington.

The Bell Curvehas once again plunged testing into the middle of a controversy. In the book and in the publicity about it, data from some of the Educational Testing Service’s tests are misused to promote a position about inherited and immutable racial inferiority that is scientifically invalid and which is personally abhorrent to me. As the president of the E. T.S., I am particularly disturbed that the authors treat the Scholastic Assessment Test as if it were an I.Q. test, which it clearly is not, and then use the results as if they provided proof of inherited intelligence, which is by any standard bad science.

The book’s conclusion that differences in test performance indicate immutable differences is a huge inference leap that goes far beyond what any data support. No one should be led to believe that such inferences are proven by test results or any other data.

The most dangerous role of the book is that it attempts to absolve us from dealing with fundamental issues of race, class, and poverty. There should be no doubt scientifically that we can do more to increase the learning of all children. The only question is our commitment to do so. This book provides supposedly scientific excuses to avoid this commitment, and as a result can have dangerous social consequences. The 20th century has given us ample examples of how the acceptance of bad science inevitably leads to bad public policy.

A key role for the E.T.S. in this debate is to point out how testing results have been misused in The Bell Curveand to keep public attention focused on the critical social and educational issues. The fundamental issue is how to support the increased learning of all children in this nation through constructive educational and social policies. By developing better educational services and assessments, we at the E.T.S. believe we are playing an important role in helping our society make a more effective and deeper commitment to all the children.

In the midst of scurrilous arguments, we must keep our sights on the real challenge.

Nancy S. Cole, president, Educational Testing Service, Princeton, N.J.

Since I’m a headmaster, people ask me what I think about this new controversy over the inheritance of I.Q. The I.Q. wars are an odd revival of 19th-century science philosophy--for example, logical positivism--with its attendant faith in the tabulation and statistical manipulation of facts. Frankly, I’m busy thinking about something else. I’m happy to refer people who would like to visit a more contemporary science of intelligence to the excellent work of Harvard University’s Howard Gardner, who, 10 years ago, pretty well blew the I.Q. model of intelligence back to the 1880’s where it belongs. For those who prefer outdated science, I recommend the study of phrenology, which has to recommend it better illustrations, funnier metaphors, and zanier categories, with the added advantage of being, quite literally, touchy-feely.

The something else I’m busy thinking about is the invisible inheritance of culture, an inheritance which defines for each member of a culture far more precisely what intelligence is than any phrenologist or I.Q. tester in a university laboratory could hope to do.

Culture is the belief context in which all our notions of success and failure are refined and defined. And culture--whether the national culture (I’m a good American, not an Anglophile), a regional culture (in New England, people call ahead before they “drop in”), a business culture (at I.B.M. we hire people this way), or a family culture (members of our family don’t use language like that)--is largely invisible. Ask someone to talk about their “family culture” and they will give you a blank look. Ask them to talk about a particular ethnic culture and you’ll be accused of stereotyping. You’ll be accused of stereotyping in part because you will be stereotyping. The common language we use for talking about culture has become vague and flabby from cultural disuse. We are members of a technically advanced culture that is comfortable with technical language about “facts” and numbers, but is incompetent in any discussion about contexts. Oddly, we have turned that incompetence into a piety, fastidiously avoiding any discussion about our respective culture as somehow vulgar, vague, or even “politically incorrect.”

Bell-curve scientism is really only an avoidance conversation--a symptom of the hold positivism has over us and a symptom of our fear of cultural ambiguities, indeed, our fear of culture.

Bruce E. Buxton, headmaster, Falmouth Academy, Falmouth, Mass.

Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein suggest that blacks are doomed to lower education and low-paying jobs because they tend to score lower on intelligence tests. They say there’s little to be done to change their fate. I don’t buy it.

Their conclusions, based on a faulty hypothesis and questionable research methods, contradict more creditable studies and all that I’ve observed in my 23 years in urban schools. If The Bell Curvequalifies as science, it’s the science of politics.

One problem is that it fails to account for the effects of poverty, violence, crime, malnutrition, discrimination (including cultural biases in I.Q. tests) and other social ills that disproportionately afflict black children. We in Dade County, Fla., have myriad programs to mitigate these effects, programs proven to work.

Another flaw is that the book tries to simplify something beyond simplification. Other studies, such as those by Howard Gardner and James Comer, make the case that I.Q. is not fixed at birth and that intelligence comes in different forms. Their independent findings seem closer to the mark, an elusive target. Human intelligence is simply too complex, too intangible, too variable, too incomprehensible (even to the exquisite human mind) to reduce to mathematical and quasi-scientific formulas.

So what’s the value of intelligence tests? Taken among many indicators, they are useful as guides to ranges of abilities. Taken alone, they’re nearly useless. Offered as justification for pigeonholing individuals and yoking entire races, they’re dangerous.

Octavio J. Visiedo, superintendent, Dade County Public Schools, Miami, Fla.

The Bell Curveuses the tools of social science and a seemingly dispassionate analysis of evidence to draw conclusions so mean-spirited that they’d make Newt Gingrich blush.

To support their proposition that I.Q. cannot, as a practical matter, be significantly changed, the authors confront a number of studies claiming the opposite. They correctly note that the strong early effects on I.Q. of the Perry Preschool Project and of Head Start in general fade out in the early elementary years. They acknowledge the more lasting effects of the Abecedarian early-intervention program and of the Milwaukee Project, but throw up a few selective citations criticizing aspects of these experiments. In fact, there is a broad consensus among researchers in support of the idea that the kind of intensive, long-term intervention applied in these and other early-intervention programs can have lasting and important impacts on I.Q. and on school success. Mr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray present a back-up argument that even if they are effective, programs like the Abecedarian and Milwaukee models are far too expensive to use on a broad scale. Perhaps they are, although savings in special-education costs and other long-term costs of school failure almost certainly offset program costs. However, both models addressed the most difficult populations (children of retarded, impoverished mothers) precisely to show what could be done under the most extreme circumstances. For more ordinary disadvantaged populations, less expensive interventions have also been shown to be effective.

High I.Q. is not the goal of schooling. We want children who can read, write, compute, solve problems, and use their minds well. We have much evidence that this is an attainable goal for virtually all children. For example, longitudinal studies of Reading Recovery show that high-quality tutoring of at-risk 1st graders can insure success in reading for almost all students. Longitudinal studies of our own Success for All program, which provides innovative reading programs, tutoring, and family-support services to high-poverty elementary schools, also show that virtually every child can read. These programs are funded by reallocations of Title I and special- education funds, not by massive additional outlays.

The solutions to the problems of American education do not lie in policies designed to reduce the number of children in poor families. They lie instead in policies designed to reduce the number of children in poor schools. The steady increases in the academic performance of African-American and Hispanic students over the past 20 years, evidence from longitudinal studies of early-intervention programs, and a substantial body of other evidence shows that the school performance of minority children can be far greater than it is today. We can, if we wish, choose to have a society in which all children perform at the levels we now expect of our brightest. The Bell Curvesays we can’t, feeding a defeatism and meanness of spirit that will be self-fulfilling if it causes us to give up just at a point when, in fact, we have rapidly expanding knowledge of how to insure success for every child.

Robert E. Slavin, co-director, Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s conclusion, I am convinced, is based on false premises. Contrary to the claims of the authors, it has not been proven that intelligence can be measured accurately by standardized tests. Furthermore, scores on I.Q. and S.A.T. tests are very much affected by language and cultural experience. The authors fail to understand the complex psychosocial consequences of societal forces--including firmly entrenched classism and racism--particularly on African-Americans. And contrary to the belief of the authors, these pressures even have an effect on African-Americans who are not themselves living in poverty.

It has only been since 1954 that all Americans have had a right to “equal education"--which is still not equal and often of substandard quality in low-income communities. And regardless of socioeconomic status, black youths’ self-esteem is constantly under attack, and their ability to learn is constantly questioned. Given these circumstances, it is a testament to the intelligence of these children that they are testing within only one standard deviation from whites.

Even Mr. Murray and Mr. Herrnstein concede that African-Americans have made improvements in I.Q. scores over the decades due to socioeconomic gains. Yet the authors still present arguments that advance a reactionary political agenda which would further decimate programs that are working to even the playing field.

What are the implications for educators? Ironically, the authors themselves make my point very eloquently (although they retreat from their own statement): “Take two handfuls of genetically identical seed corn and plant one handful in Iowa, the other in the Mojave Desert, and let nature (i.e., the environment) take its course. The seeds will grow in Iowa, not in the Mojave, and the result will have nothing to do with genetic differences.”

Those of us who care about America’s future must continue to seek to provide educational environments which enable children to blossom to their full potential. The alternative--throwing up our hands in hopelessness--guarantees disaster for all of us.

Evelyn K. Moore, executive director, National Black Child Development Institute Inc., Washington.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure that I was going to read The Bell Curve, because I wasn’t about to give Charles Murray any of my money, yet I couldn’t bring myself to steal the book. But my 16-year-old daughter, who is white but attends a Washington high school that is 95 percent African-American, decided after a classroom discussion that she needed to read the book--and that a visit to the bookstore with my credit card would make that possible. At that point, I gave in and started reading. Here’s my response.

Most people in America don’t need The Bell Curveto tell them that there is a gap in academic achievement between poor or minority students and other students. And if you ask why, as I often do in my travels, they are only too happy to tell you: Something is wrong with the kids or their families. Americans believe that all children are taught the same things, but that some--especially minorities and the poor--simply manage to learn less. The main message of this book--the message that we have tried but simply can’t teach these kids to use their minds--simply reinforces the myth.

One of the saddest things about all this is that most educators have stood idly by while this myth has taken root. We’ve allowed the children to be blamed, even though the fault most often lies with us--and this outrageously inequitable system that we maintain.

Talk about a bell-curve mentality: I can’t even count how many times that principals of extremely low-performing urban schools have told me--after I spent a day observing boring, low-level teaching in their schools--that their students are performing “about where urban students generally should be expected to perform.” Or how many times--after watching a 4th-grade teacher explaining to her inner-city class the equivalent of how the sun comes up in the morning and goes around the earth--I’ve had that teacher blame the children for low test scores. Or how many times I’ve heard minority high school students forced to take three years of “Fractions Without Denominators” get blamed for poor performance on the state mathematics test that assesses knowledge of algebra and geometry.

We know damn well that Mr. Murray and Mr. Herrnstein are right about how important it is for young people to learn to use their minds well--and dreadfully wrong in their assertion that we have tried but failed to figure out how to teach African-Americans, Latinos, and others who supposedly have “limited cognitive ability” to do so. Where we have really tried--where we have invested what really matters, including good teachers, rich curriculum, and challenging texts--the students prove over and over again that they can indeed achieve at very high levels. The problem is that, in most places, we don’t even try.

Maybe, just maybe, all of the play that this rather sloppy book has received will force more of us to tell the American people the truth about this--and convince more of us to act to eliminate the practices that produce bell curves.

Kati Haycock, director, Education Trust, American Association for Higher Education, Washington.

The authors’ suggested educational policies are condescending and paternalistic in the extreme, and would exacerbate social, economic, and racial divisions that threaten to tear our society apart.

The data we have collected for the children in our school do not support the association of advantage, intellectual ability, and achievement represented in The Bell Curve. We do not believe that I.Q. is an appropriate measure of ability in young children, nor do we assume that we should direct our efforts toward children with the greatest potential. We provide intellectual stimulation for all of our children, and our own assessments show that, despite their economic and social disadvantage, the strength of our children’s acquired literacy skills depends more on the timing and quality of instruction and the applicability of the curriculum to the child’s needs than it does on the child’s ability level. We know that the earlier we see the children, the more chance we have to affect their performance, but that we can also affect the learning performance of older children.

If our children continue to progress at the current rate, their I.Q. scores, should they be measured later, will be higher than the generations before them--not because we’ve increased their inherited capacity to learn, but because we’ve provided them with the intellectual stimulation and learning strategies that allow children to score high on such tests. But higher I.Q. scores are not our concern. We don’t teach children to score high on tests. We teach them to succeed.

Laura Bell, research associate, Beginning with Children Foundation, New York City.

The Bell Curvemakes the following argument: We have focused our national resources on low-income and minority students through such programs as Title I and Head Start. These programs have not solved our educational problems. We should, therefore, reduce federal aid to low-income schools and redirect the funds to other priorities.

The argument is one of many myths set forth in The Bell Curve. It both seriously misrepresents the allocation of education resources among rich and poor schools in the United States and ignores the significant achievement gains that have been made.

Yes, the playing field is uneven, but in precisely the opposite direction from the one described in The Bell Curve. As a nation, we devote the fewest resources to the most impoverished schools. It is not uncommon for per-pupil expenditures in affluent schools to be two to three times higher than in low-income schools. We are consistent in one respect: Children from families with the lowest incomes attend the most poorly funded schools.

Title I, while providing badly needed resources, does not make a dent in the per-pupil expenditure difference. This is because Title I represents only 3 percent of total funding for elementary and secondary education, and even these funds are widely dispersed to both rich and poor communities alike. Almost half of the elementary schools in the country with fewer than 10 percent poor children receive Title I funds.

Yet, The Bell Curveperpetuates the fiction that we have thrown money at “disadvantaged” students. It leaves the reader with the impression that low-income and minority students receive, because of perceived federal largess, more education resources than do affluent children. The fact is we have so skewed our public resources away from impoverished communities that we should question not why our minimal federal contribution has been unable to solve all our problems, but why so many low-income and minority students have somehow managed to overcome the substantially lower resources spent on their education.

Despite the financial disparities, minority populations have made extraordinary gains in less than two generations. In 1950, fewer than one in four blacks 25 to 29 years old had completed high school, and less than 3 percent had completed four years of college. By 1993, the high-school-graduation rate was close to 83 percent, and the college-graduation rate had risen to more than 13 percent. These educational gains are reflected in increased participation in professional, business, and political activity and in consistently increased test scores.

If we further reduce our investment in low-income schools, as The Bell Curve recommends, we create yet another financial barrier to continued gains for low-income and minority students.

Iris C. Rotberg, program director, National Science Foundation, Washington. (The views expressed are her own and do not necessarily reflect positions and policies of the N.S.F.)

The conclusion reached by L. Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray--that blacks are intellectually inferior--is, to be kind, misdirected. The argument should not be that African-Americans are born inferior. Rather, the conditions under which many poor urban black infants are brought into this world are so destructive that the disadvantaged newborn never has a real life chance.

The research findings are scattered but convincing. First, black infants are more likely to be born to very young, unwed mothers than are their white counterparts. Second, black pregnant teenagers are one-fifth as likely to get good medical care. Third, very young mothers, according to unicef, are six times more likely to have premature births, to deliver seriously underweight babies, and to witness the deaths of their infants at birth or during the first year. In 1993, unicef found that the United States was shamefully ranked 17th in the world for low birthweight--with about 7 percent of infants being born clinically underweight. This puts us behind Europe, Japan, much of the Middle East, Czechoslovakia, and Costa Rica.

But when black Americans’ births alone are considered, the U.S. ranking for low birthweight drops shockingly to 71st in the world--worse, for example, than Senegal, Cameroon, Madagascar, Egypt, Panama, Iran, and Zambia. Thus, the birth demographics--the intolerably high percentage of black young people having children--are both a cause of later problems and the result of earlier ones.

Mr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray proffer hereditary explanations for poor intellectual performance when social and medical ones are right under their noses. Imagine thousands of babies of very young, unwed mothers, born clinically underweight (less than 5.5 pounds or 2,500 grams), being reared by teenagers in conditions of poverty and instability. How can an infant born into these conditions hope to prepare for school?

Sadly, the “bell curve” arguments will continue to rage, only to distract us from attacking the real problems in a creative, meaningful way. We owe it to our children, our communities, and ourselves to put in the forefront the birth of healthy children, born to mature, caring, and able mothers and fathers. Girls and boys (future mothers and fathers) of all races and colors need homes, love, and support. They need responsible adults to look up to. They should learn to delay having babies until they themselves are no longer children.

Max Weiner, professor of psychological and educational services, and Bruce S. Cooper, professor of educational administration and urban policy, Fordham University, Bronx, N.Y.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the premise underlying The Bell Curveis the vast amount of media attention the book is getting. Mr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray are not the first to put so much weight on the role of heredity in intelligence, and they probably wouldn’t be the last to ignore the fact that although performance on I.Q. tests (the reliance on which in determining intelligence is questionable anyway) is influenced by heredity, intellectual characteristics are malleable; environmental factors also have a significant impact. They blatantly disregard the effects of culture and poverty and associated problems such as undernutrition, not only on intellectual performance but also on motivation, self-esteem, and overall sense of competence, all of which influence how well a child will perform on intelligence tests. \=para

Their argument isn’t scientifically rigorous and is likely to be dismissed by many educators and social scientists and would thus not have a lasting influence on children. Unfortunately, the book has been featured in such prominent publications as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Even if the media only point out the limitations inherent in the book, their coverage draws attention to it. There is danger here that many policymakers--already concerned about mounting deficits and questioning the most efficient use of public dollars--would use the book to bolster arguments for cutting back on social and educational services, which the authors irresponsibly contend do not work. It is a shame that Starting Points, published recently by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, didn’t get as much continued exposure in the popular press as The Bell Curveis receiving, for it documented quite clearly and convincingly how intellectual ability is indeed influenced early in life by stimuli and the environment, and it has shown how numerous interventions can make a difference in enhancing children’s ability to profit from academic instruction. \=para

Matia Finn-Stevenson, research scientist and associate director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Why are people buying The Bell Curve? Perhaps they need an explanation for our country’s increasing inequality that is consistent with their self-images as fair and democratic people. The Bell Curveoffers a facile theory about the intractability of our social problems. We are to understand that poverty is not primarily a matter of poor treatment or bad living conditions or social disorganization or educational inequality. The poor are poor because they are, well, poor. And we can’t expect it to get better in the future. As work becomes more technological and complex, the intellectually deficient will inevitably fall further behind. The book appeals because it absolves the “cognitive elite” of responsibility and justifies cutbacks in social and educational programs that could lighten their tax loads. Add to this the seduction of intimations of genetic superiority, and you have the formula for a best seller.

But the ultimate significance of “social-science pornography"Charles Murray’s own termis its power over its subjects. The public debate about intelligence shapes those at the wrong end of the bell curve. Expecting failure undermines confidence and sets up cognitive and behavioral dynamics that cripple learning. Recent research has shown that people taught to believe that intelligence is innate regard their difficulties as proof of their deficiencies, and thus give up quickly. The reverse is also true; people taught to believe that intelligence is constructed over time view failure or difficulty as information merely indicating the need for improvement or enhanced effort. “Intelligence” is not a fixed characteristic, handed out at birth; it can be built, through a combination of will, effort, and strategy. It must be developed--like any muscle--through practice.

Our research and practice demonstrates the truth of these ideas; use of proven pedagogical techniques by adults, and effective effort from children who have confidence in their own intelligence, often make dramatic difference in student outcomes. From Jaime Escalante’s and Bob Moses’s work in math instruction, to our own work with the Efficacy Institute and the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, there are hundreds of schools and programs that have disproved Mr. Murray and Mr. Herrnstein, often under the most adverse conditions of poverty and deprivation. But those who view people through the lens of I.Q. have more interest in ranking people than in educating them. By teaching those at the bottom of the I.Q. distribution--and of our social hierarchy--that they are innate failures, we excuse ourselves for giving up on them, and we teach them to give up on themselves, before they learn to learn.

The Bell Curveis dangerous because it could be self-fulfilling. By widely publicizing a belief in one class’s stupidity, it can generate negative social dynamics--a conviction among some that others are too stupid to keep up in the 21st century, and, with explicit encouragement from the authors, an increasing trend toward what might be called “cognitive segregation,” in the form of intensified demands for gifted and talented programs and private school vouchers for the children of the privileged. The likely result will be an intensification of attitudes, behaviors, and institutional practices that isolate and shame many people, programming them to give up. We thus condemn many to a permanent sense of inferiority, and doom our society to its present polarizing course.

Social-science pornography is anything but a victimless crime.

Jeff Howard, president, Efficacy Institute, and Robert Peterkin, director, Urban Superintendents Program, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1995 edition of Education Week as Reacting to The Bell Curve