Last week, Charles Murray, author of the controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve, opined on the pages of the Wall Street Journal on the topic of IQ and education. Published on consecutive days, Murray’s three-part series laid out an unsettling philosophy of intellectual determinism. “Intelligence in the Classroom,” “What’s Wrong with Vocational
School,” and “Aztecs vs. Greeks,” sum up Murray’s current thinking on IQ and achievement, along with his recommendations for change.
Murray’s views are inflammatory, to be sure. The lead-in to his first article is this: “Half of all children are below average, and teachers can only do so much for them.” In other words, kids who don’t have a lot of smarts (what Murray calls the “g” factor) have a ceiling on achievement above which they simply cannot go. Such views trouble educators, as well they should: After all, if IQ determines everything, why bother teaching?
Not surprisingly, Murray’s articles ignited a firestorm of blogging from Internet detractors. Education blog D-Ed Reckoning countered Murray’s premises with data from Project Follow Through, showing that low-IQ kids can learn and even go on to perform above the median. D-Ed Reckoning concludes that Murray’s attempts to deal with IQ abstractly are flawed since they do not take “into account the
failings of our horrendous education system.” Yes, students undoubtedly enter classrooms with different ability levels, but good teachers expect this and adapt their methods accordingly. Low-IQ students may learn slowly, but in the absence of neurological problems, they should go on to master basic K-12 academic material.
Murray’s second piece suggests far too many students are attending four-year colleges; he recommends that many instead head to vocational school. While this statement has merit, the concern lies with limiting the freedom for students who have lower IQs than what Murray deems appropriate, but can do college-level work. Blogger and self-professed overachiever Joanne Jacobs bristles at such patronizing views, suggesting both she and her daughter might not have had the opportunity to earn their Stanford
degrees if the Murrays of the world had their way. Clearly, the “g” factor simply does not take into account one’s intrinsic motivation or work ethic, qualities that enable “over-achievers” to perform at levels exceeding their IQs.
Murray’s final piece discusses the importance of teaching wisdom to students with high IQs, stating, “It is not enough that gifted children learn to be nice. They must know what it means to be good.” I have no qualms with this, save one: why limit the teaching and acquisition of wisdom to just those children with high IQs? If wisdom is indeed the beginning of knowledge as the ancients instructed us, then we should want every student, regardless of his “g” factor, to be wise. How else can we hope for a society in which goodness and democracy coexist?
By far the best response to Murray’s opinion pieces last week came from Arnold King, a high school teacher and Cato Institute adjunct scholar. King warns against the perils of “IQ-ism,” or reducing human talent to a “one-dimensional measure.” For one thing, such a philosophy of achievement often leads to tracking students based on IQ – a dangerous proposition. As to Murray’s comments that America’s colleges are overcrowded with students who don’t really deserve to be there, King has this to say: “As
an American, I see holding someone down with an artificial ceiling as a much more serious offense than extending a futile helping hand that fails to lift someone up.”
What’s the bottom line, then? It’s true that classrooms – just like society – tend to be stratified. When it comes to basic intelligence, some kids do seem to have all the luck. Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Hard work can (and does) change everything. As legendary business figure Harvey Fruehauf once said, “There’s no ceiling on effort!”
Lindalyn Kakadelis heads the North Carolina Education Alliance.