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by William H. Benson

March 16, 2000


     Recently, I came across The Bell Curve, a 1994 book by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, in which they argued most forcefully that intelligence is the decisive dividing force in social statification.  They point to the elite who work their way clear to the right on the Bell Curve and enjoy the benefits of American society.  Those then with increasingly low intelligence find themselves clear to the left on that same Bell Curve and reap lesser rewards.  Intelligence, Herrnstein and Murray propose, is the engine that pulls the train of social mobility.

      Those are interesting thoughts; however, I would argue that this is not such a recent phenomenon.  Two centuries ago America concluded that our society’s best rewards should belong to those with the intelligence, or, a better word–brainpower.  Our society then set up a series of chutes and gates that herd the best and the brightest students through high school, into the best colleges, and then into the best jobs where they can climb the ladder.  Social mobility, and to a certain degree even social justice, in America is predicated upon IQ.

     And yet, the difficulty is that the gates are continually getting narrower and narrower.  Colleges demand higher and higher grades, SAT/ACT scores, and class ranks, and then they expect almost superhuman achievements in extra-curricular activities.  Add in the hyper-accelerating costs required once through the gate, and you can have a frustrating, even a pressure-cooker, situation.  The less-driven students just exit the chute, opting for an easier path.  They give up.  And then the disappointment if not allowed through the gate is most severe.

     In last week’s Newsweek a U.S. Department of Education employee, Clifford Adelman, suggested that the strongest predictor of college completion/success is determined by how rigorous and challenging the students’ high school courses are, no matter what grades they received.  He pushes hard for the nationwide adoption of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

     “When well taught,” he says, “such courses put students in the position of setting up their own experiments, searching for their own specialized materials.  You don’t necessarily learn that in a regular high-school course.”

     If intelligence is truly the determining factor in social advancement, then is it “fair” that Mother Nature dictates where any of us fall along that Bell Curve?  Philosophers have endlessly debated this question–the fairness issue;  Karl Marx answered the question, “No, it wasn’t fair.”  He yearned for social equality–a narrow rectangle or even a single point rather than the smooth Bell Curve.  To him it just did not seem right that those with the brains should, generation after generation, run off with all the marbles.

     And what about the other factors besides intelligence that contribute to social standing, such as work habits, persistence, luck, risk tolerance, or initial economic position?  Of course, these attributes play a role, but all of them stacked together would probably not exceed the crucial part that IQ plays.

     On this day, March 16, in 1802 President Thomas Jefferson signed the law that established West Point–the U. S. Military Academy on the banks of the Hudson River.  This was one of those first steps the nation took in democratizing education and establishing a meritocracy; only those with the ability were allowed to attend West Point.  Up until then higher education was only offered to those who could afford it.


     The story of higher education in the U.S. during the twentieth-century is one of the great American success stories.  The U.S. has led the world in opening colleges to a mass population of young people who have the ability–regardless of creed, gender, financial resources, or other restrictive requirements.  College is the place where people with high intellect excel and people with low intellect fail.  When America opened itself to higher education, it opened up as well a revolution in the way the American population sorted and divided itself.