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Bell Curve Liberals

How the left betrayed I.Q.

Alberto Pizzoli/Getty Images

Opposition to the use of I.Q. testing goes back as far as testing itself. Its practitioners have been accused of, among other things, misusing science to justify capitalist exploitation; allowing their obsession with classification to blind them to the huge variety of human abilities; encouraging soulless teaching; and, worst of all, inflaming racial prejudices and justifying racial inequalities. To this school of thinking, The Bell Curve was a godsend. Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein succeeded more effectively than even Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin in linking I.Q. testing firmly in people’s minds with spectacularly unpopular arguments: that different racial groups have different I.Q. averages; that America is calcifying into rigid and impermeable castes; that the promise of American life is an illusion. The more society realizes the dream of equal opportunities, the more it breaks down into incommensurate groups, segregated not just by the accident of the environment, but by the unforgiving logic of genes.

But there is another, more enlightened tradition in the history of I.Q. testing, a tradition that was once the darling of liberals. It linked I.Q. testing with upward mobility, child-centered education, more generous treatment of the handicapped, humane welfare reform and, above all, the creation of a meritocracy. Indeed, it could be argued that it is this enlightened tradition that reflects the real essence of I.Q. testing, uncontaminated by local prejudices and unscientific conjectures. In ignoring this, in demonizing the purveyors of I.Q., liberals have betrayed their own political and moral tradition.

This liberal incarnation of I.Q. testing can be seen at its most articulate and influential in England, where its exponents held sway over educational policymaking from the 1930s until the early 1960s. These I.Q. testers found their political inspiration in the meritocratic ideal, a revolt against patronage and particularism and a plea for individual justice. During the course of their attempts to wrest control of the civil service from the landed aristocracy in the mid-nineteenth century, Whig reformers such as Lord Macaulay, a historian, and Charles Trevelyan, a mandarin, argued that positions should be allocated on the basis of examination results and that the exams should be designed to test “the candidate’s powers of mind” rather than to “ascertain the extent of his metaphysical reading.”

By the twentieth century, the left took up this mission. During its early years, the Labour Party saw its main role as constructing a ladder of merit, stretching from the slums to Oxbridge and regulated by objective examinations, so that the able could find their natural level. Sidney and Beatrice Webb wanted to turn Britain’s educational system into a gigantic “capacity-catching machine,” capable of “rescuing talented poverty from the shop or the plough” and channeling it into the national elite. H.G. Wells argued that “the prime essential in a progressive civilization was the establishment of a more effective selective process for the privilege of higher education.” R.H. Tawney, the doyen of socialist educationalists, welcomed I.Q. tests for pointing to the huge number of talented working-class children who were overlooked in the existing system.

The psychometrists argued that I.Q. tests were powerful instruments of meritocratic reform. I.Q. tests were particularly useful in spotting promising working-class children held back in school by poverty in the home, and in providing them with a secure ladder up the social system. Far from being defenders of the status quo, the psychometrists believed in the inevitability of social mobility. The random element in Mendelian inheritance combined with regression to the mean ensured that children would differ in significant ways from their parents. The psychologist Cyril Burt calculated that, in order to ensure that people were doing the sort of jobs for which their abilities marked them out, almost one-quarter of their children would have to end up in different social classes from their parents. The really conservative theory of abilities is not hereditarianism, after all, but environmentalism: if parents can transmit all their advantages to their children, educational as well as material, then social mobility will always be something of a freak.

Perhaps the biggest practical experiment involving I.Q. tests occurred in Britain in the wake of the Second World War, and the result was a huge increase in social mobility. The Second World War generated a widespread feeling that, if Britain was to justify the sacrifices of its people and also survive as an economic power, it must turn itself into a real meritocracy. The 1944 Education Act tried to satisfy this feeling, decreeing that children should be educated according to their “age, ability and aptitude.” People across the political spectrum agreed that this did not mean sending all children to the same school, but rather, assigning them to schools suited to their particular talents.

Confronted with popular and ministerial pressure to recruit children on the basis of raw ability, Britain’s elite grammar schools increasingly turned to psychologists to refine their traditional examinations. By 1952 almost all local education authorities had incorporated an intelligence test into their selection exams. Even leftist critics of the tests were forced on close examination to admit that they were doing a good job. The psychologists Alfred Yates and Douglas Pidgeon, for example, argued that “the `examination’ in its best forms comes out as a highly reliable and remarkably valid instrument of prediction, considering what it is expected to do.” By relying on I.Q. tests, the grammar schools gradually transformed themselves into thoroughly meritocratic institutions, recruiting their pupils from an ever-wider section of society (outraged contemporaries complained that the schools were being flooded with “spivs” and “smart alecks”) and providing the chosen ones with a highly efficient escalator into the universities and the national elite.

Moreover, the I.Q. testers were determined to change the nature of Britain’s elite, not just to rationalize recruitment into it. They had no truck with the well-connected, muddle-headed, scientifically illiterate old fogies who dominated the establishment, and wanted to replace them with carefully selected and properly trained meritocrats. Passionate supporters of the moderns against the ancients, they argued that, if it was to have any chance of surviving as a serious country, Britain needed to put much more emphasis on teaching science. One of their greatest disappointments was that Conservative R.A. Butler succeeded in protecting the traditional grammar school curriculum, with its obsession with literary and classical education, from reform in the Education Act of 1944.

Unlike Murray and Herrnstein, the I.Q. liberals were enthusiastic about spending money on the welfare state in general, and public education in particular. They argued for raising the school-leaving age, improving teacher training, increasing the number of nursery schools, gearing instruction to the individual needs of “backward” as well as precocious learners and providing regular medical inspection for school children.

I.Q. testers also tended to be passionate devotees of child-centered education. Though they are often associated with classification and selection, the tests in fact embodied a much broader theory of aptitude development. Their earliest supporters were relentless critics of traditional pedagogy, complaining that it was designed for the convenience of adults rather than the needs of children, and arguing that teaching should be based on the unfolding abilities of children, as revealed by I.Q. tests. Alfred Binet invented I.Q. tests to identify slow-learning children who were having a miserable time trying to keep up with more able contemporaries. One of the first to popularize I.Q. tests in the United States was Granville Stanley Hall, the pioneer of the child-study movement and an enthusiastic advocate of child-centered education. Jean Piaget used I.Q. tests to explore children’s idiosyncratic views of the world. Progressive teachers turned to them in their battle against giant classes and stuffy teaching methods.

Until the 1950s these psychologists found their most passionate supporters on the left and their bitterest opponents on the right. Labour intellectuals such as R.H. Tawney pointed to intelligence tests to prove that Britain was being disgracefully profligate with the talents of its population. T.S. Eliot argued that an educational system that sorts people according to their native capacities would disorganize society and debase education, breaking the bonds of class and tradition and creating a society of mobile, atomized individuals. Edward Welbourne, a particularly crusty Cambridge don, was even more direct: confronted with the news that a student was interested in I.Q. tests, he snorted, “Huh. Devices invented by Jews for the advancement of Jews.”

Why were Britain’s intelligence testers so much more palatable than their American colleagues? Partly because they were outsiders, marginal to Britain’s snobbish social and scientific establishment. British psychologists turned to I.Q. tests precisely because they thought that the establishment’s traditional methods of spotting talent—examination essays, Latin translations, viva voce examinations-—were hopelessly biased in favor of the well-taught rather than the promising poor. In America, psychologists were loaded with scientific honors and academic resources. In Britain, they were starved of resources and shunted aside.

Britain also boasted a group of first-rate biologists, such as Lancelot Hogben, J.D. Bernal and J.B.S. Haldane, whose sympathies lay distinctly on the left. They wielded huge influence with both the scientific establishment and the popular media—Haldane, for example, was both a fellow of the Royal Society and a hyperactive newspaper columnist—and they ensured that anybody who wanted to pronounce on controversial questions such as the relationship between race and intelligence had to pass the highest possible test of intellectual rigor and scientific probity. Significantly, the most bigoted British intelligence testers fled to the United States: William McDougall, a psychologist with something of a fetish for blond, blue-eyed types, left Oxford for Harvard, and Raymond Cattell, who argued, in print, that the race was being swamped by “sub-men,” later followed him to the States. (Cattell lives in the United States still; a list of supporters of The Bell Curve in The Wall Street Journal included his name.)

Yet, for all their progressive sentiments, the intelligence testers fell afoul of two of the most powerful constituencies of the postwar left: the communitarians and the egalitarians. Communitarians such as Michael Young, the author of the 1945 Labour manifesto and now ennobled as Lord Young of Dartington, argued that the 11-plus, an I.Q. test taken by all of Britain’s 11-year-olds, was breaking down working-class communities and churning out alienated, confused, anxiety-ridden scholarship winners. Indeed, his 1959 indictment of intelligence testing, The Rise of Meritocracy, foreshadows many of the central concerns of The Bell Curve, arguing that, as society becomes more efficient at allocating positions according to ability, the elite lose any sense of social responsibility (after all, they have nobody to thank for their success but themselves), and the poor lose any sense of self-respect.

Egalitarians argued that individual differences are the result of social circumstances rather than genetic inheritance, and that comprehensive schools would produce a much more equal society. After a long struggle between meritocrats and egalitarians for the soul of the party, Labour finally came down on the side of egalitarianism in the mid-1960s, with Labour Minister Tony Crosland declaring that he would not rest until he had destroyed “every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland.”

Yet the Labour Party’s rejection of meritocracy has hardly been a success. Communitarianism embodies a nostalgic quest for a lost world, before social mobility turned neighbors into strangers and village greens into asphalt jungles. It also smacks rather too much of the traditional Tory complaint about people not knowing their place. Egalitarian reforms have also proved strikingly counterproductive. The comprehensive schools, introduced by the Labour government in the 1960s, have replaced selection by ability with selection by neighborhood, hardly a triumph for social justice. When Conservatives tried to reintroduce selection by ability in Solihull in the mid-1980s they were met with howls of protest from middle-class parents, who argued that they had paid inflated prices for their houses so that they could get their children into good schools, and didn’t want their children’s school places commandeered by riffraff.

Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to look again at the more enlightened tradition of intelligence testing. The more insightful on the left, led by U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, but including the British Labour Party’s new leader, Tony Blair, have realized they need to rethink ideas about the state. In a world of gigantic capital flows and globe-spanning production networks, the left has no choice but to abandon its traditional belief in picking industrial sectors or industries to support. Instead of investing in winning companies, the state should make sure it invests in winning people: ensuring that the educational system spots outstandingly promising children and allows them to make the most of their talents.

Given this agenda, the left can hardly afford to ignore I.Q. tests, which, for all their inadequacies, are still the best means yet devised for spotting talent wherever it occurs, in the inner cities as well as the plush housing estates, and ensuring that that talent is matched to the appropriate educational streams and job opportunities. The left, indeed, should be up in arms about The Bell Curve. But they should be up in arms because Murray and Herrnstein have kidnapped what ought to be one of the left’s most powerful tools for opening opportunities, and have tried to turn it into an excuse for closing doors.