I believe in g. That's the g that denotes general cognitive ability, or general intelligence, among people with more gthan me. (I know that is ungrammatical, but we people of limited intelligence cannot resist a chance to rhyme.)
I have to start by asserting my belief in g, that I think some people are born smarter than others, or risk being excoriated as a feeble-minded relativist by the many e-mailers who get excited whenever the subject of intelligence is raised.
Why am I wandering into this ethereal topic? I can't stop thinking about the three op-ed pieces on education and intelligence that Charles Murray had in the Wall Street Journal last month.
Murray is one of the most interesting bad boys of the American intelligentsia. He regularly tweaks conventional views of social and educational progress. His three "On Education" pieces in the Journal are worth discussing not only because parts of them are infuriating, a Murray trademark, but also because they point toward new ways of thinking about schools that even Murray's many adversaries might embrace.
His first piece,
I would modify that sentence by inserting the words "in low-income neighborhoods" after the words "public schools," but that is a quibble. Murray says there are two problems with this argument favored by me and many of the teachers I admire: (1) there is no research to indicate if the large number of students who have failed to reach proficiency in reading and math is the result of bad teaching or low student IQ, and (2) the argument that schools can be vastly improved is based on "the false assumption that educators already know how to educate everyone and that they just need to try harder."
Those don't look like big problems to me, particularly when Murray starts backpedaling. He still seems to feel the bruises from his mostly losing battle to defend his provocative and best-selling 1994 book written with Richard Herrnstein, "The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life." In these three pieces he is a kinder, gentler, more timorous Murray, conceding points to critics even before they reach for their billy clubs. In the first piece he undermines his own point about IQ affecting reading proficiency by noting that a girl with an IQ of 88, in the 20th percentile of intelligence, can be taught to be functionally literate and this "will have an effect on the range of jobs she can hold." I would be happy if schools were getting students like that up to functional literacy, but in many cases they're not.
He also doesn't do himself much good by attacking the notion that our schools once worked great. Anyone of any IQ who has looked at the data knows he is right to deride the myth of a golden age of education. But the fact that our schools have never been that good doesn't mean we can't improve them now, and he concedes that too. He says the effort to educate what he calls "children in the lower half of the intelligence distribution" in the 20th century "was one of slow, hard-won improvement." He tries to leave the impression that this shows how wrong we are to be optimistic about future achievement, but I will applaud slow, hard-won improvement any time.
At the end of his first piece he gets to what I think is the crucial weakness in his argument, at least as it applies to the issue on which I am fixated -- how to make schools better for poor kids. "It's no use to say that IQ scores can be wrong," he writes. "I am not talking about scores on specific tests, but about a student's underlying intellectual ability, g, whether or not it has been measured with a test. And it's no use to say that there's no such thing as g."
Sure. As I said, I too am a true gbeliever. The problem with Murray's argument is that schools exist in the real world, where people DO talk about "scores on specific tests." If we are going to add intelligence to our discussion of education, as he wants us to do, we have to see some data. Once we do that, Murray is in big trouble, because our struggles to improve schools look like a fun shopping trip to the mall compared to our struggles to measure intelligence in a useful way.
Murray can cite a number of scientific studies of IQ correlated to success in education and in life. As a debating topic, the notion of focusing on intelligence in discussing education is fine. Murray never actually says in any of these three pieces that he wants IQ to be used to make policy decisions in schools. But many of the people who admire his thinking do, and would drag his ideas into circumstances where they could do harm. I hope in his next pieces -- reading Murray always whets my appetite for more Murray -- he will deal with this, and confront the mischief that often occurs when we human beings of limited intelligence try to use fancy psychometric devices in our classrooms.
When I was hanging around Garfield High School in East Los Angeles in the 1980s, trying to figure out how Advanced Placement teachers were having such success teaching low-income Hispanic children, I persuaded the principal to identify for me all the students in AP calculus who had been designated gifted by IQ tests administered in the second and third grades. Only about 20 percent of the calculus students had such a designation, and only half of them passed the AP exams, a lower percentage than the average passing rate for the class.
One of my favorite Garfield students, a quick-witted class comedian named Raul Orozco, remembered his second grade IQ test. The lady giving the test showed him a picture of a man on a bicycle next to a picture of a truck, and asked which was heavier. Like many highly intelligent children, he was overwhelmed by the possibilities. The bicycle might be made of lead. The truck could be papier-mâché. The man on the bicycle resembled Fats Domino. He said the man on the bike was heavier, and he was not designated gifted.
Even if you could create a sensible intelligence test and use it to decide which students to give more of a challenge, the system would still fall apart because of the difficulty of making decisions on the margins. Are you going to have one class for kids with IQ s over 100, and a less demanding class for those below that number? Is the 99-IQ student that much different from the 101-IQ kid? Defenders of IQ testing will say that schools don't have to be run like that, but Murray has just reminded us how much we have struggled to make schools better. We would be making that job more, rather than less, difficult by giving educators the idea they should make decisions based on the intellectual capacities of certain children, something most of us, including teachers, are not qualified to do.
Murray says he just wants to talk about this: "The aim here is not to complete an argument but to begin a discussion; not to present policy prescriptions, but to plead for greater realism in our outlook on education."
Good idea. He does a fine job getting the conversation going. He even says things that will surprise and frustrate people who, I would guess, have been fans of his plea for more attention to our most intelligent students. He praises the access such children have to good colleges and says "if the issue is amount of education, then the nation is doing fine with its next generation of gifted children" -- something with which many advocates for the gifted will bitterly disagree.
In his second piece,
In his third piece,
I like these ideas, as long as those tech schools and wisdom schools, fit for geniuses, are not closed to people who don't have a 120 IQ but think they can keep up with the eggheads.
As Murray knows, there is no chance any American government or major institution is going to impose admission requirements based on IQ. Even Harvard, Yale and Princeton don't do that. We learned long ago that if we give everyone a chance to become both smarter and wiser, many people with average IQ rise to the top and revitalize our lives with great inventions, music, art, political initiatives, businesses and schools.
In our society, and in our most productive schools, we have left the doors open for all. Rather than measuring how much gpeople have, we simply ask what they want, and show them how, if they work hard, they might get it. Are many of them smart? Sure. But it has proven better to let them show that by changing the world, rather than by filling out the right bubbles on an IQ answer sheet.