Sniff! Sniff? The odor and smells of racist thought – the modernist forms of Social Darwinism – are hangin’ round. And in some of the most interesting and influential places and forms.Recently, the illustrious Wall St. Journal (WSJ) ran three straight days of editorials about who should get to partake of our exalted Higher Education opportunities. Charles Murray – the sometimes extinguished purveyor of IQ (“The Bell Curve” – with R. Herrnstein, ’94) – seems to make the case that half of us are smarter than the other half. Smarter, that is, by our “nature,” born better, born worser; smart-stupid.

Too-tired mothers, not very involved or intellectual families, kids who don’t “appear” like your college stars, cultures of poverty, immigrants? Never mind!

Training for the menial, clean up the slop…not enough. Our schools have gone from not many, no child-labor laws, to universal schooling in less than a century. In that period, a few years of school transformed into high school for most, and college has become almost a necessity: K-16. Education, at least the credential, is now crucial for qualifying for decent paying jobs.

Who deserves…who deserves what? Murray simply assumes that the Bell Curve and IQ portray the human condition both correctly and adequately.

When the more mature amongst us were young, IQ was the mantra of once a year. Mensa was the gathering group of those who had the highest IQ’s. But the “Rosenthal effect” showed in 1978 that teacher’s expectations were very powerful in predicting and shaping IQ. And we no longer got “tested” very often. (Who gets to make up IQ tests, anyway?)

The truth? Or are we talking mostly politics, culture, history, class…? Lurking is Social Darwinism, the idea from a century ago and more, that much of life is predetermined. Going back to thinker who is most revealed in Murray’s push to teach the “Great Books” is Aristotle. We find in his politics which preach the necessity of monarchy to maintain the world in peace and politeness that: “some men are destined by nature to be kings, and others to be slaves.”

Don’t the rich deserve to be rich: smarter (and they work “harder”)! The survival of the socially “fittest.” (I don’t think so).

Democracy…under attack? Murray showed up on Bookspan about a year ago when Harvard’s beleagured late president – Larry Summers – played a similar card in claiming that men are a bit “smarter” than women…a very old story as well. This time Summers got fired. But the ideas lurk in these times of political oddness and unrest.

Whose America? Whose world? Who deserves what? Are we born free and equal, or are we “prewired?” The tabula rasa or Blank Slate which began American democracy: or arranged about the depiction which the Bell Curve conveys?

I think Democracy, however complicated and changing, is more human, more “interesting,” more of what schools and teaching are toward. Read Aristotle! – surely, but critically, and with a sense of what his ideas have wrought, and continue to ring in the Wall Street Journal…of all places.

Begin with the idea that we’re all (ALL!) born geniuses, and we’ll be teaching toward a common-good future. Inspire the future: that’s what we teachers try to do, as we try to inspire our kids to grow, and grow beyond today.

With the idea of IQ already having determined the future, we teachers are prone to celebrate those who already appear talented, and to neglect or dismiss those who haven’t already blossomed. This is a bad idea for future Democracy, and a negation of the joys of life…to come.

  • Harvey

    Everyone isn’t “born” a genius! The great violin teacher Suzuki said that all kids who speak/have language are geniuses. That’s because – the act and art of articulating and knowing language is much greater and more complex than playing the violin – which otherwise seems like a very great high art.

    If the kids don’t turn out to do well in school, reading, studies, etc., then it has mostly to do with social/cultural organization and practice, than with the abilities of the kids.

    We’ve way underestimated the complexity of the human body, and pay too much attention to looks, behavior, family lines…than to the abilities of each kid. Most of this has to do with the artificial philosophical split between mind and body, where we think smartness is all about the “mind.” That’s the history of ideas – which Jacob seems to enjoy – rather than trying to observe and learn how human beings are, their talents, possibilities, etc. “A long, and much too sad history,” I add.

    High time to study and appreciate each human, and to engage in teaching them via an ongoing dialogue in which the teacher attempts continually to search for the “best motivated self” rather than the one which focuses on current weaknesses of students and a society which looks to form and maintain a hierarchy.