150 Years Of The Atlantic November 2006

Education

This is the tenth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Jonathan Kozol, the National Book Award-winning author of several books on public education.
I.Q.
September 1971
By Richard Herrnstein

In 1971 the Harvard psychology professor Richard Herrnstein suggested that, contrary to popular opinion, educational opportunity in a meritocracy would result in more social stratification rather than less. He later went on to coauthor, with Charles Murray, the controversial Bell Curve (1994).

Classlessness is elusive because people vary and because they compete for gain—economic and otherwise. The tendency to respect, honor, remunerate, and perhaps even envy people who succeed is not only ingrained but is itself a source of social pressure to contribute to one’s limit … The premium given to lawyers, doctors, engineers, and business managers is not accidental, for those jobs are left to incompetents at our collective peril. There are simply fewer potentially competent physicians than barbers. The gradient of occupations is, then, a natural measure of value and scarcity. And beneath this gradient is a scale of inborn ability, which is what gives the syllogism its unique potency.

It seems that we are indeed stuck with the conclusion of the syllogism. The data on I.Q. and social-class differences show that we have been living with an inherited stratification of our society for some time. The signs point to more rather than less of it in the future … The opportunity for social mobility across classes assures the biological distinctiveness of each class, for the unusual offspring—whether more or less able than his (or her) closest relatives—would quickly rise above his family or sink below it, and take his place, both biologically and socially, with his peers.

If this is a fair picture of the future, then we should be preparing ourselves for it instead of railing against its dawning signs. Greater wealth, health, freedom, fairness, and educational opportunity are not going to give us the egalitarian society of our philosophical heritage. It will instead give us a society sharply graduated, with ever greater innate separation between the top and the bottom, and ever more uniformity within families as far as inherited abilities are concerned. Naturally, we find this vista appalling, for we have been raised to think of social equality as our goal. The vista reminds us of the world we had hoped to leave behind—aristocracies, privileged classes, unfair advantages and disadvantages of birth. But it is different, for the privileged classes of the past were probably not much superior biologically to the downtrodden, which is why revolutions had a fair chance of success. By removing arbitrary barriers between classes, society has encouraged the creation of biological barriers. When people can freely take their natural level in society, the upper classes will, virtually by definition, have greater capacity than the lower.

Volume 228, No. 3, pp. 43–64

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