Printer Friendly

'The Bell Curve': ringing in the contract with America.

This racially and politically divisive book offers a rationale for a conservative educational and social agenda.

The Bell Curve, the vigorously and frequently rancorously debated best-seller, allegedly documents the influence of measured intelligence quotient (IQ) on class structure in American life. But the thesis of the authors, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, is that IQ is determined largely by heredity, and that African Americans consistently score about 15 points lower than European Americans and just about everybody else. The latter finding has been known and accepted, while the former historically has been in dispute.

Nevertheless, using racial differences in IQ as a wedge, Murray is playing a key role in redirecting social and educational programs in this period of fiscal austerity and social mean-spiritedness (See Gingrich et al. 1994.) Although The Bell Curve is being coolly received in academic circles, it is being warmly embraced in the political arena, where it matters most.

Slick Treatise on Race

Ironically, the most vociferous opponents of The Bell Curve have not even taken the time to read it. They assert that because it is part of the historically racist folderol about white supremacy, there is no need to give the work credibility by reviewing it.

We take a different view. As ardent proponents of free speech and academic freedom, we generally concur with the distinguished economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell (1994) that "this is one of the most sober" books presenting a conservative perspective on race to be published in years. Like Sowell, we "don't agree with everything in it," very little, in fact, but also like Sowell, we believe "that is beside the point" (p. 38).

The Bell Curve is sober because it is slick. It disparages people of color - especially blacks - while expressing the greatest empathy for their intellectual and social condition. Most disturbing to us, however, is that Herrnstein and Murray essentially conducted secondary and tertiary analyses of other scholars' data, then proceeded to draw conclusions from these studies that the scholars themselves did not intend (Kamin 1995, Lane 1994).

The g Factor

There are many theories of intelligence, but Herrnstein and Murray endorsed a one-factor trait theory that British psychologist Charles Spearman developed in the early 20th century. He concluded that all intelligence is caused by a general underlying factor called g, and that the aim of intelligence tests should be to measure an individual's g factor (Gould 1981).

Spearman developed two correlational techniques to pursue research and to prove that the g factor was due primarily to heredity: (1) the Spearman rank-order correlation, and (2) factor analysis - a method of reducing a correlational matrix into a certain number of factors. Originally, factor analysis was developed as a statistical means of studying intelligence. In 1984, Anastasi pointed out that factor analytic studies have generated more than 100 factors related to intelligence (p. 384), putting Spearman's g factor on shaky grounds.

There are three major difficulties with the Spearman-Herrnstein-Murray concept of intelligence.

* First, intelligence is multidimensional; Anastasi (1984) and Gardner (1987, 1994) have conducted research demonstrating that humans are intelligent in many spheres.

* Second, factor analytic results tend not to cross-validate, which underscores the multidimensional nature of the IQ construct, especially environmental influences.

* Third, Spearman, Herrnstein, and Murray draw causal inferences from correlational statistical analyses. Methodologically, causal conclusions are best drawn through experimental studies in which subjects are randomly assigned to experimental and controlled conditions, and independent variables are manipulated accordingly.

Thus, employing correlational statistical techniques to draw causal conclusions about intelligence, without cross-validating the results, is the primary flaw in all of Herrnstein and Murray's findings (Gould 1981, 1994; Sapp 1993). Although they conclude that IQ is the primary determinant of one's place in American society, they collected no primary data to make their case.

Republican Platform Support Irrespective of these methodological transgressions and criticism of The Bell Curve in the academic community, Republican legislators at the national level and in several states are using it as a policy document.

In an earlier book, Losing Ground (1984), Murray advocated the dissolution of the welfare state because he viewed it as the primary culprit in perpetuating the complacency, low motivation, and low ambition he observed among black and disadvantaged citizens. Former President Ronald Reagan used the book as a policy tool to dismantle and/or reduce funding for many social welfare programs. Reagan also assigned the book as must reading for his cabinet secretaries and domestic policy advisors. Thus, Losing Ground was the first plank in Murray and his supporters' platform to change government's social welfare policy as we know it. The Bell Curve is the latest salvo.

Murray had first sought to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of government social programs - such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Head Start, and Job Corps - by using numerous graphs, tables, and statistical analyses to drape a cloak of academic respectability over this commonly held conservative notion (Gould 1994, Ryan 1994, Viadero 1994). After a respectable hiatus, he recruited Herrnstein, a respected Harvard psychologist and scholar who died shortly before publication, to work with him to attack the people whom these social programs were viewed as serving ("Bell Curve" Agenda 1994, Staples 1994).

In the current era of deepening social and economic anxiety, this dubious statistical link has served as the basis for what some consider paternalistic and punitive social polices. For example, in the aftermath of The Bell Curve pronouncements, two school choice approaches have been marketed more aggressively as the saving grace for urban America's poor: publicly funded vouchers that can be used to attend private and religious schools, and for-profit educational management companies. As many rush to do something different for those defined as members of the "cognitive underclass," they are ignoring research data on the failure of both educational alternatives. There appears to be an emerging conservative consensus that any educational reform will do, since "these people" are unlikely to benefit from any kind of investment.

This push for privatization is coming primarily from socially and financially conservative urban mayors and business leaders, as well as from school superintendents who have failed to improve educational outcomes for the poor students of color in their charge. Individually and collectively, they have advocated contracting out educational services and establishing privately run, but publicly funded, charter schools. Although they claim empathy for the plight of the minority poor, their real agenda appears to be to disinvest in public education while turning the schools into profit centers (Farrell et al. 1994, Farrell and Johnson 1995). By using Murray's findings as a rationale for their reforms, they absolve themselves of blame for any negative consequences: these students, after all, are genetically predestined.

Murray, meanwhile, has become a well-paid American social policy guru. He is thumbing his nose at his critics all the way to the bank.


Anastasi, A. (1988). Psychological Testing. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan.

The "Bell Curve" Agenda. (October 24, 1994). The New York Times, p. A12.

Farrell, W. C. Jr., and J. H. Johnson, Jr. (January 7, 1995). "The Privatization of Public Education." Milwaukee Courier, p.4.

Farrell, W. C., Jr., J. H. Johnson, Jr., C. K. Jones, and M. Sapp. (1994). "Will Privatizing Schools Really Help Inner-City Students of Color?" Educational Leadership 52, 1: 72-75.

Gardner, H. (1987). Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (Winter 1994). "Genes, IQ, and Social Class." Rethinking Schools 9, 2: 15.

Gingrich, N., D. Armey, and House Republicans. (1994). Contract with America. New York: Time Books.

Gould, S. J. (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Gould, S. J. (November 28, 1994). "Curve-ball." The New Yorker: 139-149.

Kamin, L. J. (1995). "Behind the Cure." Scientific American 272, 2: 99-103.

Lane, C. (December 1, 1994). "The Tainted Sources of the Bell Curve." The New York Review of Books: 14-19.

Murray, C. (1984). Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980. New York: Basic Books.

Ryan, A. (November 17, 1994). "Apocalypse Now." The New York Review of Books: 7-11.

Sapp, M. (1993). Test Anxiety: Applied Research, Assessment, and Treatment Interventions. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.

Sowell, T. (December 1994). "Can We Have Intelligent Discussion about Intelligence?" The Wisconsin Review: 38, 41.

Staples, B. (October 28, 1994). "The Scientific War on the Poor." The New York Times, p. A18.

Viadero, D. (October 26, 1994). "Education Experts Assail Book on I.Q. And Class." Education Week, p. 5.

Walter C. Farrell Jr. is Professor, Department of Educational Policy, and Community Studies, and Marty Sapp is Associate Professor, Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling Area, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI 53201.

James H. Johnson Jr. is E. Maynard Adams Professor, Departments of Geography and Sociology, and the Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27514. Cloyzelle K. Jones is Professor of Education, University of Michigan, Dearborn 48821.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Farrell, Walter C., Jr.; Johnson, James H., Jr.; Sapp, Marty; Jones, Cloyzelle K.
Publication:Educational Leadership
Date:Apr 1, 1995
Previous Article:Scales of inequality.
Next Article:Who is backing 'The Bell Curve?'

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters