The Bell Curve (1994) by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which argued that IQ is destiny, was the most IQ-glorifying book since . . . well, ever. Now Mr. Murray has taken a big step away from his position in that book, yet he continues to glorify IQ.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Mr. Murray wrote an op-ed piece (“What’s wrong with vocational school?”) with which I mostly agree. His main point is that for most students, college is a waste of time. As a college teacher (at Berkeley), I have seen that all too clearly. Mr. Murray has an unfortunate way of stating his position. “A four-year college education teaches advanced analytic skills and information at a level that exceeds the intellectual capacity of most people.” I’d put it differently: A four-year college education teaches analytic skills and information at a level that exceeds the interest of most people. I am sure that if my students or anyone’s students were more interested in the material, they would learn it better. That most college students are not interested in the same things as most college professors is a good thing, economically speaking. A healthy economy is a diverse economy; a diverse economy requires a wide range of skills and knowledge, much wider than the narrow skills and knowledge possessed and taught by college teachers. But it is a bad thing for the students and teachers, who are trapped. They have to be there. I feel worse for the students, of course — they are paying to be there.
It isn’t complicated: IQ tests were designed to predict school performance. They do. People with higher IQs do better in school. To believe in the value of IQ is to believe in the school system it reflects. To glorify one is to glorify the other. Now Mr. Murray has taken a step away from one (the school system) but not the other (IQ). Well, nobody’s perfect.
Were I grading The Bell Curve, I would give it a B. The sad truth is that its basic conclusion, that a high IQ is really helpful, is entirely correct. A better book would have replaced the wacky genetic chapter with an attempt to understand why IQ matters so much. In a world where we place less weight on successful completion of college — the world that Murray now advocates — IQ will matter less.
In The Nature of Economies, Jane Jacobs pointed to the stultifying effects of discrimination. “Macho cultures typically have pitiful, weak economies,” she wrote. “Half their population, doing economically important types of work, such as cooking and food processing . . . are excluded from taking initiatives to develop all that work [e.g., open a restaurant] — and nobody else does it, either.” IQ discrimination is also stultifying. If our society did a better job of helping students who are not good at college — helping them find jobs where their abilities shine, instead of wasting four precious years of their lives — the entire economy would benefit.