Education Opinion

The IQ Debate

By Walt Gardner — February 25, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Narrowing the academic achievement gap is high on the list of the Obama administration’s priorities. As a result, it’s only a matter of time before the debate begins anew over the role intelligence plays. If the past is any guide, however, ideology will once again eclipse science, making it exceedingly difficult for voters to sort out the findings.

The latest to enter the controversy is Zhao Bowen, often described as China’s Bill Gates (“A Genetic Code for Genius?” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 16). In the belief that the genetics of intelligence have been largely ignored, Bowen’s BGI, a private company partly funded by the Chinese government, is using more than 100 gene-sequencing machines to decipher about 2,200 DNA samples from America’s brightest people. He intends to compare the genomes of ultra-high-IQ individuals, including those with top SAT scores and those with doctorates in physics and math from elite universities, with the genomes of people drawn from the general population.

Bowen’s view echoes those of Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve in 1994, and Arthur R. Jensen in The g Factor in 1998. They place overwhelming reliance on the biological basis of intelligence and the unavoidable limitations it creates, asserting that efforts to significantly and permanently increase “g” are educational romanticism.

But the views of Bowen, Herrnstein, Murray, Jensen et al. are not original. They are built on those of Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, who introduced the notion of intelligence as an inherited trait in the mid 1880s. Galton coined the phrase “nature versus nurture,” and set out to prove that the former was more powerful than the latter. He discovered to his dismay, however, a phenomenon he termed regression toward mediocrity, which is now known as regression to the mean. It meant that children of geniuses may be more distinguished than average, but they are less distinguished than their fathers.

In contrast, Richard E. Nisbett, a cognitive psychologist who teaches at the University of Michigan, comes down hard on hereditarianism in his book Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Culture Count, not because he thinks it is racism clad in pseudoscience but because he rightly believes success in the real world is far more complex. Nisbett is not alone in this view. Howard Gardner, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, believes in the existence of intelligences beyond verbal and mathematical to include such things as musical, bodily and interpersonal. In Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice, he argues that usual notions of intelligence are outdated.

Teachers have long known this. Although word-smarts and number-smarts, the traditional metrics of intelligence, are important, they are unreliable predictors of future success in the workplace and in the personal lives of students. That’s because a host of other factors unable to be measured with precision comes into play in the real world. Contrary to conventional wisdom, some of today’s most successful and influential people have never excelled in numeracy and literacy. Instead, they possess other forms of intelligence that have enabled them to rise to the top. Moreover, no matter how blessed a person is in any one area, there is no dismissing the importance of persistence and resilience. As Woody Allen once quipped, success in life is often a matter of just showing up every day. That’s especially the case today during the economic crisis, when intelligence alone affords no immunity, notwithstanding advanced degrees from marquee-name schools.

Nevertheless, it was not so long ago that many experts still believed intelligence was about 75 to 85 percent genetically determined. Murray, the group’s de facto spokesman, however, goes even further, maintaining that intelligence is almost exclusively the result of the architectural and neural functioning of the brain. In his latest book, Real Education, he says that efforts to raise intelligence significantly and permanently are exercises in futility. Even the best schools under the best conditions cannot repeal the limits on achievement set by limits on intelligence.

Ultimately, however, what makes the issue of intelligence most controversial is its racial overtones. Given the natural distribution of intelligence, the best we can hope for is that similar proportions of black and white students will be proficient and similar proportions of them will achieve below proficiency as well. In short, the distributions of achievement will be more alike. However, I emphasize that no country in the world has ever come close to meeting the proficiency-for-all goal. That’s because a standard can either be minimal, which presents no challenge to average and advanced students, or it can be challenging, which is unachievable by most below-average students. It can’t be both. To proceed otherwise is quixotic.

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.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP