The authors of The Bell Curve argue that genetically speaking, everyone is destined to remain in his or her place—with or without educational intervention.
On the day I finished reading The Bell Curve (1994), the headline in my hometown newspaper, The Milwaukee Journal, read: “Young poor hit record numbers” (Associated Press 1995). The story under the headline explained that 26 percent of all American children under the age of 6 now live in poverty (an all-time high) and that three-fifths of those children have working parents. Sixty-six percent of those poor families were headed by adults who had not finished high school.
For most people, a sensible response to the conditions described would be to better educate people living in poverty and then provide them with genuine economic opportunity. By contrast, the authors of The Bell Curve, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, would argue that such a response, though well intentioned, should be rejected. Why? Because, in their words, “For many people, there is nothing they can learn that will repay the cost of the teaching.”
Herrnstein and Murray would view the Milwaukee Journal article as further evidence that the cognitively weak are sinking to the bottom of American society. Their book maintains that wealth and intelligence are now being combined and concentrated, a departure from prior times, when intelligence was widely distributed across all social classes. The clear implication: We must learn to value one another despite our cognitive differences, but must not for a moment think we can create a more egalitarian society through social policy or educational intervention.
The authors further argue that
it is justified to pay the high-IQ businessman and engineer more than the low-IQ ditch digger, producing income inequality, because that's the only way to make the economy grow and produce more wealth in which the ditch digger can share.
(The book is silent on the matter of what to pay low-IQ executives and engineers or how to treat unproductive people who possess great wealth.)
The assumption in The Bell Curve is that an IQ score is not only a genuine reflection of intelligence, but that virtually every social ill imaginable is a reflection either of low IQ or public policies that have failed to take into account the immutability of IQ.
Dumb and Getting Dumber?
The Bell Curve's discussion of the relationship between IQ and out-of-wedlock births is particularly intriguing because of its reference to Great Britain. For the past 15 years, Great Britain has been the world's leading laboratory for social and economic policies of the sort Charles Murray continues to favor. Knowing this, I was surprised to read in his book that while in the United States, “the proportion of white illegitimate births (including Latinos) reached 22 percent in 1991,” in Britain, the ratio “hit 32 percent in 1992 with no signs of slowing down.” As recently as 1979, the white illegitimacy ratio in Great Britain was much lower than that of the United States.
Herrnstein and Murray described white illegitimacy as “overwhelmingly a lower-class phenomenon” and “a lower-cognitive-class phenomenon....” Applying their analysis to the explosion of out-of-wedlock births in Great Britain, it is tempting to speculate about how conservative social and economic policy has, in less than two generations, managed to lower the IQ of the entire nation so dramatically and to concentrate the dummies at the bottom so efficiently. It appears that the so-called “opportunity” society constructed by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party is transforming Great Britain from a nation of shopkeepers into a nation of ditch diggers at warp speed. Following the authors' logic, if this trend continues, by mid-century virtually every living soul in Great Britain will be illegitimate and dumber than a stump.
The IQ tests in which Herrnstein and Murray place such credence purport to measure a so-called g factor, indicating a single general mental ability. Is it possible that there is no such phenomenon? Is it possible that statistically unbiased tests can be culturally biased? Or, that there are better explanations for rising illegitimacy rates—for example, increasing poverty and low educational attainment? As Stephen Jay Gould (1994) comments, Herrnstein and Murray turn “every straw on their side into an oak, while mentioning but down-playing the strong circumstantial case for substantial malleability and little average genetic difference” in intelligence.
Giving Up on Education
The Bell Curve offers little hope that public education can alter the economic, social, or political stratification of American society. “An inexpensive, reliable method of raising IQ,” the authors say, “is not available.” Therefore, it is hardly surprising that they limit their suggestions for educational reform to calls for (1) dismantling programs intended to serve children living in poverty, (2) increasing spending on gifted students (where they believe the investment will pay off), and (3) implementing school choice policies (presumably to liberate intelligent kids from the dummies in the public school system).
Despite its portentous tone and plentiful statistics, The Bell Curve is revealed in its final chapter as a muddleheaded brief for the economic status quo and right-wing social engineering. The two authors portray themselves as bravely advancing ideas that have, in the past, been unutterable. In fact, they advance ideas that have been debated for years—and discredited. For those in doubt, I recommend Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (1981). This work is a powerful exposition of the issue of human intelligence and the history of attempts to measure it and draw conclusions about it.
The Bell Curve may serve many purposes for people with a right-wing ax to grind. However, it has little of help to say about how best to educate our children, how to live together, or how to consider with any subtlety the diversity we embody.
Associated Press. (January 30, 1995). “Young Poor Hit Record Numbers.” The Milwaukee Journal, A1 and A5.
Gould, S.J. (November 28, 1994). “Curveball.” The New Yorker, 139–149.
Gould, S.J. (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton.
Herrnstein, R.J. and C. Murray. (1994). The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: The Free Press.
Alex Molnar is Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, P.O. Box 413, Milwaukee, WI 53201. He is a consulting editor for Educational Leadership's “Contemporary Issues” section.