83 Bell Curve Liberals: How the Left Betrayed IQ
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83 Bell Curve Liberals: How the Left Betrayed IQ ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE Opposition to the use of IQ testing goes back as far as testing itself. Its practitioners have been accused of misusing science to justify capitalist exploitation; allowing their obsession with classification to blind them to the huge variety of human abilities ; encouraging soulless teaching; and, worst of all, inflaming racial prejudices and justifying racial inequalities. To this school of thinking, The Bell Curve was a godsend. Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein succeeded in effectively linking IQ testing firmly in people 's minds with spectacularly unpopular arguments: that different racial groups have different IQ averages; that America is calcifying into rigid and impermeable castes; that the promise of American life is an illusion. The more society realizes the dream of equal opportunities , the more it breaks down into incommensurate groups, segregated not just by the accident of the environment, but by the unforgiving logic of genes. But the history of IQ testing contains another, more enlightened tradition, one that was once the darling of liberals. It linked IQ testing with upward mobility, child-centered education , more generous treatment of the handicapped, humane welfare reform and, above all, the creation of a meritocracy. Indeed, it could be argued that it is this enlightened tradition that reflects the real essence of IQ testing, uncontaminated by local prejudices and unscientific conjectures. In ignoring this, in demonizing the purveyors of IQ, liberals have betrayed their own political and moral tradition. This liberal incarnation of IQ testing is most articulate and influential in England, where its exponents controlled educational policymaking from the 1930s until the early 1960s. These IQ testers found their political inspiration in the meritocratic ideal, a revolt against patronage and a plea for individual justice. While attempting to wrest control of the civil service from the landed aristocracy in the mid-nineteenth century, Whig reformers such as Lord Macaulay, a historian, and Charles Trevelyan, a mandarin, argued that positions should be allocated on the basis of examinations designed to test "the candidate's powers of mind" rather than to "ascertain the extent of his metaphysical reading." By the twentieth century, the left took up this mission. During its early years, the Labour Party saw its main role as constructing a ladder of merit, stretching from the slums to Oxbridge and regulated by objective examinations, so that the able could find their natural level. Sidney and Beatrice Webb wanted to turn Britain's educational system into a gigantic "capacity-catching machine," capable of "rescuing talented poverty from the shop or the plough" and channeling it into the national elite. H.G. Wells argued that "the prime Originally published in The New Republic, February 17, 1995, at p. 22. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material 516 Adrian Wooldridge essential in a progressive civilization was the establishment of a more effective selective process for the privilege of higher education." R.H. Tawney, the doyen of socialist educationalists , welcomed IQ tests for helping the huge number of talented working-class children who were overlooked in the existing system. The psychometrists argued that IQ tests were powerful instruments of meritocratic reform , especially useful in spotting promising working-class children held back in school by poverty and providing them with a secure ladder up the social system. Far from being defenders of the status quo, the psychometrists believed in the inevitability of social mobility . The psychologist Cyril Burt calculated that, in order to ensure that people were working to their best abilities, almost one-quarter of their children would have to end up in different social classes from their parents. The really conservative theory of abilities is not hereditarianism but environmentalism: if parents can transmit all their advantages to their children, then social mobility will always be something of a freak. Perhaps the biggest practical experiment involving IQ tests occurred in Britain after the Second World War, and the result was a huge increase in social mobility. The Second World War generated a widespread feeling that, if Britain was to justify the sacrifices of its people and survive as an economic power, it must turn into a real meritocracy. The 1944 Education Act decreed that children should be educated according to their"age, ability and aptitude." People across the political spectrum agreed that this did not mean sending all children to the same school, but rather, assigning them to schools suited to their particular talents. Confronted with pressure to recruit children on the basis of raw ability, Britain...