As I’ve often mentioned, I first became interested in social science statistics 50 years ago, in the late summer of 1972, when preparing as a freshman to participate in high school debate on the 1972-1973 National Forensics League debate topic: “Resolved: That governmental financial support for all public and secondary education in the United States be provided exclusively by the federal government.”
Perhaps in the spring of 1973 (or in 1974), I can recall reading at the local library the September 1971 issue of The Atlantic Monthly featuring Richard J. Herrnstein’s landmark article “I.Q.”
Fascinating as it is, personally, I’m still uncertain about Herrnstein’s model of American social history.
Still, Herrnstein was clearly a great man. While he was dying of cancer in 1994, he wrote me two brilliant letters responding to the unpublished manuscript I had sent him of my “Why Lesbians Aren’t Gay” article that eventually became my first National Review article.
I was having a hard time getting it published, so, thinking it was quite good, I mailed it to famous intellectuals, many of whom graciously responded, such as Milton Friedman, who asked me how the existence of male homosexuality could be reconciled with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. (This remains a good question.)
But of all the respondents, Herrnstein’s responses were the most intellectually challenging.
I have to say that when I’m dying of cancer (hopefully, not for a long time—I almost died of cancer a quarter of a century ago and it wasn’t fun), I probably won’t respond with penetrating questions to nobodies sending me their manuscripts about random topics.
I can still recall my frustration that Herrnstein’s second letter crushed the speculative argument I had confidently made responding to his first letter. (I don’t recall precisely what our debate that he started in his first response was over—perhaps the prevalence of lesbianism among prostitutes, a topic on which, while I might be willing to theorize from first principles, I have zero firsthand experience.)
But a few months later, in September 1994, Herrnstein was dead, and then in October 1994, The Bell Curve was published.
But The Atlantic’s editors’ 1971 introduction to Herrnstein’s article was a big influence on me. Here it is:
I.Q. tests and their like have become controversial, in spite of the hundreds of millions of them still given annually around the world. Especially in racially mixed urban centers of the United States—in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia—just their use in public schools evokes increasingly adamant protest. Because there are statistically reliable differences in I.Q. between whites and blacks, between the privileged and the underprivileged, and among various ethnic minorities, some influential people argue that the tests retard the liberalization of American society.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court shares this view, as it recently proved [in Griggs v. Duke Power] by enjoining a firm from giving intelligence tests to potential employees. The Court ruled that since the menial jobs in question required virtually no intellectual distinction, the tests were serving to abet illegal discrimination, especially against blacks. Whatever one thinks of the merits of that decision or of the broader trend against mental testing, one may wonder why the issue itself has so suddenly arisen.
Three landmark social documents of the past five years—by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James S. Coleman, and Arthur R. Jensen—mark the critical stages as the concept of I.Q. has moved into its present embattled position.
Speaking on June 4, 1965, at Howard University, Lyndon B. Johnson warned that mere legislation, no matter how bold, was incapable of evening the score for American blacks. He alluded to the growing number of broken black families as a sign of troubles to come, even as new laws and ground-breaking court decisions were supposed to reduce racial disparities. On this occasion, he promised renewed efforts to redress the inequities, leading off with a White House conference on civil rights that coming fall. The President did not acknowledge at the time that his facts and recommendations were garnered mainly from a confidential report by Moynihan, who had been Assistant Secretary of Labor from 1963 to early in 1965. The Moynihan report came to light only later that summer, after riots in Los Angeles had vividly confirmed the increasing discontent of blacks in the cities. According to Moynihan, American blacks, suffering under the bitter, supposedly emasculating legacy of slavery, had evolved a matriarchal family structure which was seriously out of line with the rest of American society. Black children, and the adults they matured into, were consequently at a disadvantage in our primarily patriarchal culture. Much to the surprise of the government, the Moynihan report was vehemently rejected at the civil rights conference that fall.
The trouble, said civil rights spokesmen, was not in the black family but in white racism. Give $100 billion to clear up the city slums, said A. Philip Randolph, and the black problem will take care of itself. The Moynihan report, which Johnson and his advisers had seen as a significant step forward in racial understanding, was scorned as a new, “subtle” form of racism.
The Johnson Administration showed a surer grasp of racial dialectics in handling the Coleman report about a year later. This scholarly empirical study, conducted under the guidance of a Johns Hopkins professor of sociology, James S. Coleman, was originally authorized by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Office of Education was given two years to assess the inequities in American public schools, and two years, 4000 schools, 60,000 teachers, and 605,000 students later. Commissioner of Education Harold Howe announced the main findings. But the announcement was made the Friday afternoon in July preceding the holiday weekend, probably, as Senator Abraham Ribicoff (Democrat of Connecticut) later noted angrily, in an effort to minimize public attention. No doubt the government was uneasy about the findings. Blacks lagged behind whites in scholastic achievement at every grade level from first to twelfth, and the differences increased with age. Ordinarily, one might blame the general inferiority of segregated black schools for that difference, but the Coleman study sought without success any clear effect of school quality on scholastic achievement for white children. If schools themselves deserve the blame for the poorer performance of blacks, then why shouldn’t the whites be similarly affected? The answer seemed to be that there was some other difference between the white and black children besides their schools, and the tentative, guarded, and little-publicized hypothesis of Commissioner Howe and Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare John W. Gardner was that the difference was in the cultural surroundings at home—a touchy subject, as the reaction to the Moynihan report had amply shown.
Both the Moynihan and Coleman reports grappled with the idea that something within the black community itself was holding back its economic and educational advance. Neither report denied the clear evidence that racist customs and even laws were in large part responsible for the lag. But both reports noted that, for reasons not wholly understood, the removal of external barriers such as racist customs and laws did not always bring the promised improvement in economic and educational condition, presumably because of internal barriers—for example, family structure or cultural ambience. Such a presumption made both reports intensely unwelcome to civil rights interests. Understandably, anything that transferred the burden of melioration from whites to blacks was immediately suspect as racist. Both Moynihan and Secretary Gardner, the latter commenting on the Coleman report, blamed the cultural history of American blacks—which is to say, they blamed slavery—for those internal barriers. But the third and most controversial document—Berkeley professor Arthur R. Jensen’s article published in the Harvard Educational Review in the winter of 1969—faced head-on the possibility that blacks and whites differ in inherited intelligence. This difference, which shows up as the average difference in their I. Q. ’s, may be the extra factor which gives whites a statistical advantage in economic and educational competition in certain settings. Although Jensen did not assert that this had been proved, his consideration of it provoked so violent a reaction that the earlier reactions to Moynihan and Coleman seem polite by comparison. SDS was on the streets of Berkeley almost immediately with bullhorns blaring, “Fight racism! Fire Jensen!” Jensen’s classes had to meet clandestinely to avoid repeated disruptions by outraged activists. Some of Jensen’s colleagues at the University of California tried, unsuccessfully, to have him censured. His hate mail was voluminous. In apparent panic over the vehemence of the outcry, the Harvard Educational Review refused to sell reprints of the article to anyone (including Jensen) until they could be bound together with a number of criticisms of Jensen’s arguments. The Jensen report (as this article has come to be miscalled) dealt with intelligence and inheritance in general, not only with racial questions. Other writers in the past four centuries—from Thomas Hobbes to Konrad Lorenz—have agonized over the complex and fascinating interplay of nature and nurture in shaping man’s psyche. It is only lately in America that public discussion requires physical, not to mention intellectual, courage, for the subject is close to taboo. But The Atlantic believes that it is not only possible but necessary to have public discussion of important, albeit painful, social issues. The subject of intelligence is such an issue—important because social legislation must come to terms with actual human potentialities, painful because the actualities are sometimes not what we vainly hope.
— The Editors
The Editor of The Atlantic Monthly from 1966-1980 was Robert Manning, who’d been a cub reporter for UPI covering FDR, had been part of the JFK administration, and then led the Atlantic during the tumultuous Vietnam and Watergate eras.
Today, he’d be cancelled for crimethink about IQ and race.