The Great Sorting

The first mass administrations of a scholastic -aptitude test led with surprising speed to the idea that the nation's leaders would be the people who did well on tests

IN the April, 1948, issue of a publication called The Scientific Monthly an article appeared under the title "The Measurement of Mental Systems (Can Intelligence Be Measured?)." The authors, W. Allison Davis and Robert J. Havighurst, were well-known liberal educators; Davis had written a book about the plight of young Negroes in the South, called Children of Bondage, and was one of the first black professors ever to get a job at a white university; Havighurst had recently worked as a consultant to the president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant. The authors believed that intelligence tests were a fraud -- a way of wrapping the fortunate children of the middle and upper-middle classes in a mantle of scientifically demonstrated superiority. The article considerably troubled Henry Chauncey, the head of the fledgling Educational Testing Service.

Even in 1948 the debate over IQ tests, which were not yet fifty years old, had an eternal quality. The leading intelligence-testing researchers tended to be true believers who thought they had found a way to measure the one essential human ability -- what the British psychometrician Charles Spearman, in a famous 1904 article, called "the general factor," or g. Most psychometricians considered intelligence to be a substantially inherited, biologically grounded trait.

The overall results of intelligence tests have always produced a kind of photograph of the existing class structure, in which the better-off economic and ethnic groups are found to be more intelligent and the worse-off are found to be less so. In his book analyzing the results of the intelligence tests that the Army had given recruits during the First World War, for example, Carl Brigham, an early psychometrician and the father of ETS's leading test, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, reported that the highest-scoring identifiable group was Princeton students -- this at a time when, by today's standards, Princeton was a den of carousing rich boys.

One of the main findings of American intelligence testing in Brigham's day was that immigrants were less intelligent than native-born Americans, with the most recent crop of immigrants being the least intelligent ever. The highest-scoring group today is Jews, but in 1923, when most American Jews were recent immigrants, Brigham reported that "our figures ... would rather tend to disprove the popular belief that the Jew is highly intelligent... " Aggregate IQ-test results have always been held up as proof of the innate mental superiority of some ethnic groups over others; among the g men, eugenicist policies like stringent immigration restrictions and measures to discourage reproduction among people with low IQ scores have long found advocates. A taste of this view, in an especially ill-tempered form, can be had from a letter that Ben Wood, another founding father of testing and by then a crotchety old man, wrote in 1972 to someone at the Educational Testing Service:

It may be said in all soberness that professional "reliefers" and most other indigents who produce children thereby commit crimes against humanity which are fully as serious as many acts now considered felonies. They have no moral right to produce such children, and therefore should have no legal right to immunity from punishment that constructively "fits the crime," such as some form of painless sterilization of both guilty parents, which would be permanent....

By the 1920s, not long after the introduction of IQ tests, a sweeping liberal critique of them had appeared. Its three main tenets were: first, that the tests were measuring cultural conditioning rather than a biological trait; second, that there was no such thing as g -- a single human ability more important than all others -- but instead a group of human abilities; and third, that IQ tests could be misused to classify millions of young people as mentally inferior and so to deny them opportunity. To liberals, IQ tests mostly measured the taker's education and language fluency, which explained why poor people and immigrants tended to score so low.

Not all critics of the idea that intelligence is inherited and immutable were psychometrically illiterate save-the-world types. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in The Mismeasure of Man, several of the fathers of intelligence testing, including Lewis Terman, H. H. Goddard, Carl Brigham, and even Charles Spearman, backed away from their g enthusiasm over time. Brigham, especially, became a vituperative critic of g. From the standpoint of ETS, perhaps the most important of the g critics was Louis Leon Thurstone, of the University of Chicago. A former assistant to Thomas Edison and a founder of the Psychometric Society and the journal Psychometrika, Thurstone was so austerely dedicated to his work that he had a blackboard mounted in his house so that he could conduct seminars. Thurstone believed that human intelligence consisted of several distinct factors rather than any single one, and he helped to develop a technique called factor analysis that would enable this truth to be expressed statistically.

But at the time of the founding of ETS, in 1948, the IQ debate was dormant. IQ testing had been a major public issue in the early 1920s and would later become one again, but for some time there had been no great controversy about it. Congress passed laws severely restricting immigration in 1921 and 1924, with the result that people stopped worrying that the country was being flooded by the mentally inferior. During the Depression perhaps a third of all Americans were poor -- it was difficult to chalk up to feeblemindedness the difficulties of so many people. And Adolf Hitler's embrace of eugenics put the movement in a bad light.

Presented by

Nicholas Lemann

"The Atlantic has a national constituency of readers who are interested in high-quality writing about what's going on in the country and in the world," says Nicholas Lemann, "not just in politics and economics but also in their own personal lives. The Atlantic is a single source they can really trust to give them what they want."

Over the years, Lemann has written cover articles on the underclass, the War on Poverty, and the history of standardized testing in the United States. The articles on the underclass were "field tests," he says, for his best-selling book The Promised Land (1991), which received virtually unanimous acclaim from a spectrum of sources. The book established him as a sought-after commentator on race relations and other fundamental aspects of American society. "Thanks to Lemann, white America will never be able to think about the ghetto poor in quite the same way again," Esquire observed.

Lemann joined The Atlantic Monthly as national correspondent in 1983. His first cover article, "In the Forties" (January, 1983), introduced a striking portfolio of photographs that, Lemann wrote, "have the power to suggest the finality with which the life of the nation changed in a generation."

Lemann has also written numerous pieces in The Atlantic Monthly on subjects spanning national and local politics, education, television, and biography. He has contributed numerous book reviews and, in the Travel section, has guided readers through the past history and present beauty of the Catskill Mountains.

Lemann was born and raised in New Orleans. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1976 with a degree in American history and literature. Before joining the staff of The Atlantic Monthly, he worked at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and The Washington Post.

Adults Who Live In Treehouses

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In