Narrowing the academic achievement gap is high on the list of the Obama administration's priorities. As a result, it's only a matter of time before the debate begins anew over the role intelligence plays. If the past is any guide, however, ideology will once again eclipse science, making it exceedingly difficult for voters to sort out the findings.
The latest to enter the controversy is Zhao Bowen, often described as China's Bill Gates ("A Genetic Code for Genius?" The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 16). In the belief that the genetics of intelligence have been largely ignored, Bowen's BGI, a private company partly funded by the Chinese government, is using more than 100 gene-sequencing machines to decipher about 2,200 DNA samples from America's brightest people. He intends to compare the genomes of ultra-high-IQ individuals, including those with top SAT scores and those with doctorates in physics and math from elite universities, with the genomes of people drawn from the general population.
Bowen's view echoes those of Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve in 1994, and Arthur R. Jensen in The g Factor in 1998. They place overwhelming reliance on the biological basis of intelligence and the unavoidable limitations it creates, asserting that efforts to significantly and permanently increase "g" are educational romanticism.
But the views of Bowen, Herrnstein, Murray, Jensen et al. are not original. They are built on those of Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, who introduced the notion of intelligence as an inherited trait in the mid 1880s. Galton coined the phrase "nature versus nurture," and set out to prove that the former was more powerful than the latter. He discovered to his dismay, however, a phenomenon he termed regression toward mediocrity, which is now known as regression to the mean. It meant that children of geniuses may be more distinguished than average, but they are less distinguished than their fathers.
In contrast, Richard E. Nisbett, a cognitive psychologist who teaches at the University of Michigan, comes down hard on hereditarianism in his book Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Culture Count, not because he thinks it is racism clad in pseudoscience but because he rightly believes success in the real world is far more complex. Nisbett is not alone in this view. Howard Gardner, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, believes in the existence of intelligences beyond verbal and mathematical to include such things as musical, bodily and interpersonal. In Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice, he argues that usual notions of intelligence are outdated.
Teachers have long known this. Although word-smarts and number-smarts, the traditional metrics of intelligence, are important, they are unreliable predictors of future success in the workplace and in the personal lives of students. That's because a host of other factors unable to be measured with precision comes into play in the real world. Contrary to conventional wisdom, some of today's most successful and influential people have never excelled in numeracy and literacy. Instead, they possess other forms of intelligence that have enabled them to rise to the top. Moreover, no matter how blessed a person is in any one area, there is no dismissing the importance of persistence and resilience. As Woody Allen once quipped, success in life is often a matter of just showing up every day. That's especially the case today during the economic crisis, when intelligence alone affords no immunity, notwithstanding advanced degrees from marquee-name schools.
Nevertheless, it was not so long ago that many experts still believed intelligence was about 75 to 85 percent genetically determined. Murray, the group's de facto spokesman, however, goes even further, maintaining that intelligence is almost exclusively the result of the architectural and neural functioning of the brain. In his latest book, Real Education, he says that efforts to raise intelligence significantly and permanently are exercises in futility. Even the best schools under the best conditions cannot repeal the limits on achievement set by limits on intelligence.
Ultimately, however, what makes the issue of intelligence most controversial is its racial overtones. Given the natural distribution of intelligence, the best we can hope for is that similar proportions of black and white students will be proficient and similar proportions of them will achieve below proficiency as well. In short, the distributions of achievement will be more alike. However, I emphasize that no country in the world has ever come close to meeting the proficiency-for-all goal. That's because a standard can either be minimal, which presents no challenge to average and advanced students, or it can be challenging, which is unachievable by most below-average students. It can't be both. To proceed otherwise is quixotic.