Michael E. Staub: Ghosts of Bell Curves Past

The Mismeasure of Minds by Michael E. StaubToday we welcome a guest post from Michael E. Staub, author of The Mismeasure of Minds:  Debating Race and Intelligence between Brown and The Bell Curve, just published by UNC Press.

The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision required desegregation of America’s schools, but it also set in motion an agonizing multi-decade debate over race, class, and IQ. In this innovative book, Michael E. Staub investigates neuropsychological studies published between Brown and the controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve. In doing so, he illuminates how we came to view race and intelligence today.

The Mismeasure of Minds is available now in both print and ebook editions.

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Ghosts of Bell Curves Past

It is an anniversary unlikely to prompt much celebration: The Bell Curve turns 25 in 2019. Published in the early autumn of 1994, and co-authored by psychologist Richard Herrnstein (who died the same month the book appeared) and political scientist Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, swiftly took America by storm. The book – no light read by any stretch – leaped into the best-seller list, selling 400,000 copies in its first two months after publication. Just as significant was that the book received the sort of wall-to-wall coverage publicists only dream about, even as it provoked (also helpfully, at least for marketing) the most contentious of cultural controversies. Not since Daniel Moynihan published his report on the black family close to a generation earlier had the country seen such an embittered dispute over how and why poverty was so deeply racialized in America.

The Bell Curve is remembered – and reviled – for a key set of interwoven propositions: that intelligence tests provide an excellent means of cognitive assessment; that IQ tests are not biased against minorities; that differences in IQ do exist within racial or ethnic groups, but also that differences in IQ exist between racial and ethnic groups; that these group differences in intelligence were likely due far more to “genetics” and much less to “environment”; and that the average IQ for white people was 100, while the average IQ for African Americans was 85. The Bell Curve also – and just as perniciously – proposed that “racial differences in intelligence” had tremendous consequences for public policy. The book argued that it was an error to invest so heavily in compensatory educational programs for low-achieving students, since these students were unlikely to benefit meaningfully from these expenditures. It was not, Herrnstein and Murray maintained, that a high IQ guaranteed success in life, or that a low IQ preordained defeat. Rather it was that there existed a strong correlation between one’s IQ and one’s rung on the socioeconomic ladder. Therefore U.S. society had evolved, “naturally,” it might be said, into a hereditary meritocracy. According to The Bell Curve, policy makers and educational reformers had to come to grips with the consequences of this scientific truth.

As a nation we are far from done grappling with the “ghosts of bell curves past” (as Stephen Jay Gould put it). The direction of causation that has long linked poverty with low scholastic achievement still confounds us. There remains an urgent need to remind ourselves that it is poverty that disproportionately results in lower academic achievement, not low IQ that disproportionately leads to poverty.

I will not here rehash the case against The Bell Curve. (Readers may seek out the revised 1996 edition of Stephen Jay Gould’s masterwork, The Mismeasure of Man, and the epilogue that ably and succinctly takes down Herrnstein and Murray for the biological determinism they so eagerly promoted.) Rather I will observe that as a nation we are far from done grappling with the “ghosts of bell curves past” (as Gould put it). The direction of causation that has long linked poverty with low scholastic achievement still confounds us. There remains an urgent need to remind ourselves that it is poverty that disproportionately results in lower academic achievement, not low IQ that disproportionately leads to poverty.

Making the direction of this causation clear has been a central mission of Harvard’s National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. The council has long argued that “brains are built over time,” and that poverty itself is a “toxic stress.” The implementation of early intervention educational programming represents an ethical and moral imperative – not to mention a public health necessity.

The difficulty is that the racial logic advanced by The Bell Curve has never really gone away. Zombielike, it has ambled on. A full quarter-century after it appeared, The Bell Curve continues to exert an outsized – if often unacknowledged – influence on policy debates surrounding race and intelligence. Questions about the nature (and nurture) of intelligence (and its often coded relationship to race) still bedevil us today. Will a discovery of “hard scientific proof” that poverty damages a child’s brain settle these questions? It is not likely, a point researchers of socioeconomic disparities in neurocognitive development have begun – however reluctantly – also to acknowledge.

What can be done? The answer has long been understood, if more seldom stated openly. See for instance the career of African American social anthropologist and psychologist Allison Davis. Davis wrote already in 1948 that if educators truly wanted to see tangible improvements in “the personality development of Negro adolescents,” it would be required “to reorganize the social and economic structures” of the U.S., since only such an economic restructuring would “decrease the social wastage of human lives in our society.” Flash forward seventy years: Then as now, debates over race and intelligence remain debates over racial capitalism. Only with the demise of structures that have historically denied full access to economic and social advancement to all may we finally witness the rotted corpse of “bell curves past” with a stake through its bloody heart.

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Michael E. Staub is professor of English and American studies at Baruch College, City University of New York and author of Madness Is Civilization: When the Diagnosis Was Social, 1948-1980.