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Scales of inequality.

The Bell Curve's racist overtones have caused a furor, but the book's real (yet no less controversial) thesis is the economic and political consequences of intellectual segregation.

To try forming an impartial opinion of The Bell Curve at this point is like trying to find an unbiased juror for the O.J. Simpson trial - so much has been written and said about this book in the past month that one is forced to react to other people's reactions, rather than to what the authors have written. There has never been a book, in my experience, that in such a short time has caused so much distress among well-meaning people.

In conversations, on op-ed pages, on talk shows, one hears African-American intellectuals and committed liberals choke as they denounce the book as a fascist tract that should be ignored. The prominent reviews of it are seen as a media conspiracy aimed at destroying the precarious infrastructure of social welfare. Ad-hominem attacks against Charles Murray abound (the first author, Harvard psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein, died shortly before the book was released), suggesting that this "most dangerous conservative" is a cynical sensationalist who latched on to a best-selling topic because he could not find a decent academic job on his own merits.

A Cognitive Elite

As everybody by now knows, the furor is caused by the critics' claim that the authors have resurrected old and discredited findings about the lower IQ of blacks, have argued that the lower IQ is based on permanent genetic differences, and therefore that remedial programs such as Head Start and affirmative action in higher education or the workplace are a waste of money, because they can never overcome the genetic gap.

If this is what the book was about, the critics would be right to raise up in arms. And to a certain extent this is what the book says, and hence the critics are also, to a certain extent, right. But the racial argument is central to only two of the 22 chapters. The rest deals with the economic and political consequences of intellectual segregation in our society in much broader terms, implicating the white underclass as much or more than ethnic minorities.

A more balanced summary of the central argument of the book is that we are developing a "cognitive elite" of high-IQ individuals who are increasingly isolated from the rest of society - they go to the same few schools, they get the better jobs, they are merging with the wealthy strata, they marry each other - while at the bottom of the IQ distribution we are breeding a mass of losers who will eventually rebel, and will have to be put down harshly by the elite in charge. This scenario is not that much better than the racist one the critics are reacting against, but it is different, and it has enough credibility to demand serious consideration. Unfortunately, given the way the book has been positioned in the public discourse, such consideration now seems unlikely.

Schizophrenic View of IQ

Even with the most charitable interpretation it must be said that the authors are in large part responsible for this state of affairs. The book is profoundly schizophrenic with respect to its basic theme, namely, intelligence. In one chapter the authors bemoan the segregation of IQ among the elite. It was much healthier, they write, when one could find high-IQ individuals in every walk of life, from the cornfields to small-town shops. Now all the high-IQ people are at Harvard or Stanford, to the detriment of the quality of life in the rest of society. But then in the next chapter the authors complain that businesses cannot use IQ as a selection device, when doing so would save them billions of dollars. The authors don't seem to be aware of the fact that by setting up IQ as the ultimate measure of a person's worth, they are abetting the very trends they so regret.

The crucial question on which the furor revolves is whether IQ is really as rigidly set as Herrnstein and Murray argue, or more malleable, as many experts in the field claim. The fatalistic tone of The Bell Curve is surely unwarranted by the data. It is here that the ad-hominem claims of sensationalism against the authors appear most warranted. It is well known that intelligence is a function of what happens in the nervous system. It is well known that the nervous system is a plastic organ shaped over many months in the mother's womb, and then in the first years of an infant's life. What happens during this time - the diet, the exercise, the chemicals the mother consumes; then the early experiences of the baby - has an overwhelming impact on the child's future intelligence. It seems inconceivable that the authors should have downplayed the amount of positive change that intervention during this phase of life could make. This selective blindness lends itself easily to charges of cynicism and political manipulation.

A Moral Dilemma

At first I thought that I could review this book as I usually do, trying to learn from what may be true in it, and ignoring the rest. Life is too short, I find, to spend it criticizing what is useless; better to devote attention to what could be useful. But in the present case a moral dilemma arises. If the book is so hurtful to so many, could any of it be justified? As one colleague suggested somewhat hyperbolically, would it be right to assess objectively the claims of Hitler's Mein Kampf? Wouldn't serious consideration of such profoundly evil ideas only help their spread? On the other hand, suppressing the objective analysis of a book out of consideration for those who feel hurt by it flies in the face of freedom of speech, or at least of academic freedom. Which principle should take precedence in this case? I must confess, I am still confused.

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from the Sunday, November 6, 1994 edition of The Washington Post. Copyright [C] 1994 by Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, 5801 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL 60637, and author of The Evolving Self (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).
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Author:Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly
Publication:Educational Leadership
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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