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.

Charles Murray vs. Charles Murray

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.