How Important is IQ?

I teach at UC Berkeley. A few years ago I had an eye-opening experience about college teaching and evaluation. I was teaching an undergraduate seminar on depression. For the term project, I allowed/required students to do anything they wanted related to depression, so long as it was off campus and not library research. One student chose to give a talk to a high school class about depression. This would be unremarkable except that she had severe stage fright. The thought of speaking in front of any group terrified her. Every step of planning and doing the talk was very hard. But she managed to do it. In her term-project paper she wrote, “I learned that if I really wanted to, I could conquer my fear, and do what I needed to do” — among the most stirring words I have ever read.

Her work until then — class participation, writing assignments — had put her in the bottom half of the class. Yet her term project showed her to be resourceful (using the term project assignment in a useful way) and courageous (making herself do something that scared her). She chose the assignment that revealed these qualities. Ved Mehta, the writer, who is blind, spent his early years almost entirely within a small school compound. One day he was taken to the beach. He was astonished how freely he could run around. “The school compound . . . suddenly shrank in my mind, like a woollen sock . . . which became so small after [the housekeeper] washed it that I could scarcely get my hand in it,” he wrote in Vedi. As I read my student’s description of what she had done, I saw how narrow and restricted my usual assignments and my usual way of evaluating students had been.

I am sorry that Charles Murray, Bell Curve coauthor, has apparently never had a similar experience. In an op-ed (“Aztecs vs Greeks”) in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, alas, he made clear his belief that persons with a high IQ are more important economically and culturally than persons with a lower IQ. “We live in an age when it is unfashionable to talk about the special responsibility of being gifted,” he wrote — “gifted” meaning “high IQ.” He used the phrase the gifted. The gifted? If there are thirty or fifty or a thousand different useful sets of abilities, to single out one of them — the one that produces a high score on an IQ test — makes no sense. It’s like referring to the sentence. That makes no sense. There are many useful sentences. We need all of them.

Persons with a high IQ do better at certain jobs, no doubt; but Murray fails to realize that such jobs are a tiny fraction of our economy and that discrimination against any group — failure to help any group develop their skills — is economically damaging because it reduces economic diversity (Jane Jacobs’ point). Murray thinks we should treat high-IQ kids better. He fails to see that it is not people with high IQs who are under-served by the present system; it is everyone else — everyone with other gifts. Plenty of jobs demand resourcefulness and courage, for example, qualities that are probably uncorrelated with IQ, as my student emphasized to me. Both resourcefulness and courage are required to start a new business, which is the most economically important job of all.

Andrew Gelman’s reaction to similar ideas. More about Charles Murray, IQ, and education. A paper of mine about encouraging diversity in learning.

13 Replies to “How Important is IQ?”

  1. I think Bill James would agree with you. He’s written a lot about the ability of good managers to get the best out of their players rather than focusing on a single skill. (He also labeled intelligence and foot speed as the two attributes that are helpful both in offense and defense.)

  2. Your example is an inspiration, but I think you push it too far as a contra-IQ argument. My guess is that most of the students at UC Berkeley have an IQ of 120 or more (top 10% or better). To say that a student with a presumed IQ of 120+ conquered her fears and did something wonderful is, in Murray’s words, “an underachievement story, not the story of someone at the 49th percentile of intelligence.”

    The best (and also saddest) case I’ve seen for the overall importance of IQ is at La Griffe de Lion, where he supports his claim that “In market economies, per capita GDP is directly proportional to the population fraction with verbal IQ equal to or greater than 106.” See

  3. Boalt, the law school at UC Berkeley is now conducting a study in a similar vein. They are testing, checking references, etc., of law grads, to see which qualities make the best lawyers–and how they correlate (or don’t) with grades and standardized testing.

    Public education and (more so) private education is almost entirely focused in getting high school students into college. We’re in the information age, so maybe that’s good. But nobody is paying attention to the kids (and the rest of us) who would be better served by students learning and practicing necessary skills and vocations that don’t require a college degree. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Also, what Sean said in the previous comment. It speaks volumes that you live in that Factor X world and appreciate the value of our diversity.

  4. Murray is one of those who sees growing entitlement liabilities leading to national bankruptcy and civil disorder later in the century. I think you’ve got to interpret these articles through the prism of examining an entitlement program, with every young citizen entitled to tens of thousands of dollars of extra education and removed from the tax-paying workforce for an additional 4 years (important because of demographic narrowing also expected to occur, with each worker supporting one retiree through the social system).

  5. “One of the strongest characteristics of genius is the power of lighting its own fire.” -John W. Foster

    And, there is a difference between genius and high IQ which might not be recognized on such as a bell curve. The first cannot be measured by stick or stone, whereas the second might be graphed through (artificial) testing. The first is creative spirit, the open beach, the sight of one who is blind; the second is mere intellect, a school compound, the spatial qualities of a sock in the hand of a housekeeper (which needs the quality of the first to be alive).

    Your timid student lit her own fire that day and even warmed her teacher’s heart wtih it. She and her teacher experienced another kind of IQ that is born of the nobility of spirit, courage : “Inspiration Quota.” Poor Charles Murray. To me, Ved Mehta’s experience beach experience speaks more about “the encouragement of wisdom” than powering up and elitizing “the gifted” could begin to acheive.

    Years ago, I was employed in a public school’s administrative offices for a year or two, working with, among others, the administrator for the “gifted and talented” program. Although my son qualified for that program (“gifted” classes were newer in concept at that time), I decided against his participation, not because I wished to hold him back in any way, but because of the sense of elitism that I saw in the administrator, which is an insidious and ultimately destructive kind of self-esteem. To me (and at that time) it appeared that most gifts and talents, other than those charted by IQ, were not recognzied or addressed in the program. On the other hand, making fun and stimulating “imagination classes” or workshops available to any interested student can bring young creative geniuses out darkness and into light — and inspire “mediocre” thinkers to new heights. By providing integrative experiences that encourage creative thinking and doing — learning how to think and apply ideas in original ways, searching out what “wisdom” really is with practical application; exploring how various talents, skills, countries, cultures, eras, age groups, jobs, and so on, can integrate together or complement each other and bring about a wholeness. Such “classrooms” need be led, rather than taught, by those of that sort of genius, themselves. And would probably best be conducted at the beach…and at the mountains, ice cream parlours, animal shelters, art studios, labs, libraries, places of worship and shopping malls…

  6. Ah, well, to the embarassment of losing-it. ‘Twas meant to be one less “experience” and rather to say, “Inspiration Quotient.”

    As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not
    certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.

    -Albert Einstein

    while reading e-mail
    I phone my daughter’s number
    on the calculator

    (senryu)- dwb

  7. “best be conducted at the beach…and at the mountains, ice cream parlours, animal shelters, art studios, labs, libraries, places of worship and shopping malls.” I agree completely. That was the idea behind my do-anything-off-campus assignment: That there was a lot to learn in the off-campus world, that it was educational just being there. I think what happened — how much the students learned and how enjoyably they learned it — showed that this idea was right.

    The other thing I learned from my assignment, which isn’t reflected in what I wrote above, is that every student was different. An effective educational system I believe will allow great individualization of what is learned. I think that was the other reason my assignment worked so well. Reason 1: off campus. Reason 2: different for every student.

  8. I dont understand what the story of the timid student has to do with IQ. Except maybe that our primary and secondary education failed her because despite being smart enough to get into Berkely she was afraid to talk in front of a classroom. Which tends to reinforce Murray’s point that we aren’t doing a good job of educating the gifted.

  9. What does the story of the timid student have to do with IQ? Because school performance and IQ are closely correlated, and she was a relatively poor student, she probably had a relatively low IQ. But that relatively low IQ did not do her justice — she had outstanding useful abilities.

  10. I don’t see any point in refering to IQ as a special set of skills. Being smart won’t make you small, ugly or clumsy. And even the social skills normally increase with IQ.

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