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Reviewed by:
  • Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count
  • Cynthia Parr
Nisbett, Richard E. 2009. Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count. New York: Norton. $26.95 hc. 304 pp.

This remarkably readable book makes a case for revisiting the importance of IQ scores as measures of malleable intelligence. Through a rigorous, balanced examination of current research, social psychologist Richard Nisbett exposes flaws in the assertion that IQ is solely genetic; explores concepts of intelligence and achievement in U.S. society; and provides justification for effective interventions in schools, families, and cultural groups in order to increase intelligence. This book also provides a challenge for those [End Page 210] of us teaching college freshmen who seem to be struggling with many of the expectations of academic culture: to consider ways that we can encourage students to increase their own intelligence and therefore ask them to share significant investment in realizing course outcomes. Nisbett’s last line provides a foundation for this consideration: “Believing that our intelligence is substantially under our control won’t make us smart by itself. But it’s a good start” (199).

While Nisbett readily acknowledges that there are various types of intelligences that can affect academic achievement and several indicators of intelligence other than IQ tests, he provides extensive support for his own view that IQ scores, although imperfect, do provide a reliable sense of general intelligence as well as some prediction of life outcomes. He openly challenges popular interpretations of IQ scores—“inferences based on correlations” (32)—and addresses many of the assertions in Herrnstein and Murray’s classic, The Bell Curve, which positions IQ as predominantly genetic. Nisbett calls the book “highly pessimistic” and provides a technical refutation of “genetic determination” in his Appendix B, “The Case for a Purely Environmental Basis for Black/White Differences in IQ.” Nisbett’s thorough deconstruction of the “extreme hereditarian view” and his focus on the influence of culture and environment on intelligence invite evaluation of our day-to-day teaching practices.

At the same time, Nisbett’s discussion of cultural attributes raises a red flag. He suggests, for example, that “Easterners pay attention to a wide range of objects and events; they are concerned with relationships and similarities among those objects and events; and they reason using dialectical forms of thought, which includes finding the ‘middle way’ between opposing ideas” (162). Nisbett claims that attributes such as these contribute to higher achievement by Asians than their IQ scores would predict. Although Nisbett supports his observations about specific cultural groups, he still generalizes without acknowledging that he is doing so. His intention is clearly to emphasize and praise positive cultural attitudes toward education, but assigning those attitudes to specific groups threatens to create or perpetuate stereotypes. Knowing that an individual student has been raised to value education may in fact be beneficial to a professor, but assuming that a student’s membership in a cultural group correlates to his or her potential achievement level, no matter how high, is as problematic as assuming that an African American student, for example, is genetically assured of having a lower, unchangeable, IQ. Because the book lacks clarification in this area, it positions non-white cultural groups as “other” and lends credence to the argument that white, Eurocentric cultural bias does dominate the IQ testing process. [End Page 211]

The primary relevance of this book for me is in its title: how to help our students develop their intellectual abilities, whether measured by IQ scores or not. As we think about teaching individuals in our freshmen English Studies courses, for example, we recognize the diversity within our classes. Our students arrive with various intelligences, influenced not only by socioeconomic status, but also by cultural background, previous educational experience, psychological and spiritual contexts, and family and peer groups, all of which, according to Nisbett, can affect their IQ scores. As we introduce them to the critical thinking processes and conventions specific to English Studies, many freshmen struggle. It is too easy to label these students as “underprepared,” or unsuitable for college, lowering our expectations as we criticize their work. Nisbett reports that, while attending school...