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Measuring the Mind: Education and Psychology in England, c. 1860-1990.

Here comes Adrian Wooldridge, riding in on a world-wide wave of right wing sympathies. His very competent, very well-written book celebrates the return to respectability of some items that we have tended to assume were buried in history: intelligence testing, eugenics and Sir Cyril Burt.

The thesis of the book is that the British "psychologists who dominated educational thinking for much of this century were meritocrats rather than conservatives, and progressives rather than traditionalists. They combined a passion for measurement with a commitment to child-centred education" (pp. 16-17). Wooldridge thinks it is ahistorical to see Burt and his colleagues as political reactionaries, elitists, racists, and defenders of the class hierarchy. The interwar period can be better understood without this set of contemporary assumptions. The educational psychologists claimed that scientific IQ testing would guarantee social justice and open up education and its privileges to talent from all classes. The Galtonian view of heredity was that "regression to the mean" meant that highly intelligent parents would have rather less brilliant children, and dull parents rather cleverer children than themselves, making social classes fluid from generation to generation. In a world where merit was properly recognized, children from all parental backgrounds should have access to education and its social rewards. The psychologists themselves came from diverse class backgrounds to form what Wooldridge calls a "status group," sharing culture and values rather than their relationship to the means of production. As a group they had in common their intellectual ability as indicated by school prizes and success in examinations. Wooldridge suggests that they designed a system, the 11 + examination, that would pick out and reward hard-working obedient children like themselves. They were opposed by conservatives, people like T.S. Eliot, who thought that this automatic sorting process working afresh on each generation would lead to the disorganization of society and the debasement of the traditional education that he saw as the heart of western culture.

Wooldridge presents his educational psychologists as counter examples to our attempts at historical generalization: paradoxically, they were "liberals who believed in the inequality of man, progressives who believed in eugenic reform, hereditarians who believed in the welfare state and elitists who believed in relentless social mobility" (p. 219). They cannot, he suggests, be described as either left or right, and at one time or another have been claimed by both. Why, then have we come to see all hereditarians past and present as coming from the right, and IQ testing as confirming the gap between classes?

The answer, I think, is that as historians, we are heirs of the thirties. That decade saw the concerted attack on eugenics from the left. After the Second World War, the environmentalist critique of IQ tests followed the leftwing line of thought. Post-war educationalists came to feel that the tests were flawed, and that equality of opportunity would never be achieved by selection. Tests done at eight years of age were seen to predict elementary school performance quite well, but were very different from the results of the 11 + examination or from tests carried out later on. Class-related factors made themselves felt: middle class children moved along faster than the poorer ones, who fell steadily farther behind. School work was affected by physical and cultural conditions and the self-rolling prophesy of streaming. It became clear that performance in the tests was not independent of environmental factors as had been supposed, and filter, that selective access by a very few to elite secondary education perpetuated class differences rather than compensating for them.

Against this background, post-war historians of science and education came to assess the political and scientific effect of hereditarianism. During the seventies, historians studying the eugenics movement in Britain generally regarded it as a manifestation of class struggle. Brian Simon in The Politics of educational Reform (1974) pointed out that the scarcity of grammar school places in Britain meant that most children were deemed to have failed the 11 + examination. Leon Kamin in The Science and Politics of IQ (1974) wrote that there was no adequate evidence for the heritability of IQ within the white population, and to attribute racial differences to genetic factors, granted the overwhelniing cultural-environmental differences between races, was to compound folly with malice. Gillian Sutherland in Ability, Merit and measurement (1984) discovered that in Britain not all the local education authorities used intelligence tests, but many of those that did were using tests that would not have passed muster with the psychologists. Hereditarianism in general and IQ testing in particular were discredited by a cohort of educationalists, sociologists, and historians.

Recent reports, however, seem to suggest that IQ tests are coming round again. Richard Hernstein and Charles Mwrray's The Bell Curve and the work of the egregious Philippe Rushton all point to a recrudescence of hereditarianism, and IQ testing with it. A new study by Peter Saunders of Sussex University ("Meritocracy rules OK," Economic and Social Sciences Research Council Annual Report 1994-95) purports to show that the most significant factors in professional success are commitment at school, measured ability, and qualifications gained after leaving school. Saunders claims that, in spite of appearances, neither private education nor its concomitant, father's class, are statistically relevant, even though his own figures show that the chance of a professional career was three times better for children from professional families, compared to children from a family where the father had a semi- or unskilled job; and 75 per cent of children from private schools, compared with 42 per cent of those from state schools, went on to professional or managerial careers. His s conclusion is, "The middle class is much more meritocratic than is generally believed." Saunders's study is symptomatic. In the present climate of the triumph of the right, the elite end up elected.

All this may explain why historians have taken a critical view of hereditarianism, meritocracy and IQ testing, and why that may be changing. We are, after all, products of our own time. But we may not have understood as much about the figures of the past as we have been pleased to think. Adrian Wooldridge's insightful and detailed, and sympathetic, account is an important addition to the literature. This is a book that I really enjoyed reading.
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Author:Mazumdar, Pauline M.H.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1996
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