The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life is the latest in an intermittent series of works that have emerged in psychology since the turn of the century which argue for a strong relationship between genetics and intelligence. The book tries to demonstrate that intelligence is unequally distributed among ethnic groups and that genetic-based group differences in intelligence rather than environmental influences are responsible for the country’s class structure. While the book offers little in the way of new ideas (no social scholar refutes the idea that intelligence has some genetic base or that ethnic groups score differently on intelligence tests), it stands out as the most elaborate discussion of the relationship between intelligence and social class to date. The authors go further than any of their predecessors in arguing that social consequences—upward mobility as well as social pathologies—are directly linked to “cognitive ability.” The book is controversial because these ideas, put together, argue for an inherent racial inferiority and an overrepresentation of social pathology among African Americans and Latinos. The book comprises an introduction and four distinct but related parts, with the first three providing the foundation for the policy recommendations proposed in the final section.
Herrnstein and Murray’s introduction offers several important premises to their thesis that intelligence is an inherited and dominant force in the lives of human beings. It begins with an essential but brief and incomplete discussion of the conceptualization and measurement of intelligence. The authors’ preference for a classical model of intelligence is itself controversial. Classicists presume that intelligence represents a “general intellectual ability” whose structural components can be measured by short paper-pencil tests and reflected in a single score. This may be the most serious flaw in the book. Intelligence scholars have yet to agree on what intelligence is, let alone how it is most effectively measured. Robert Sternberg’s 1986 study of intelligence, for example, emphasizes the cognitive processes inherent in problem solving and creativity. In his 1983 study, Howard Gardner proposes seven intelligences or “ways of viewing the world,” including linguistic, logical-math, spatial, musical, body- kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Different cultures may require and therefore emphasize different abilities, resulting in some forms of intelligence having greater value than others. Sternberg’s and Gardner’s models of intelligence differ from those presented by the classicists and necessitate more complex and individualistic methods of measurement. While Herrnstein and Murray do briefly describe competing schools of thought in the field of intelligence and examples of particular models, they do so far too casually and incompletely, given their thesis. Their focus on the IQ score then, as the best measure of intelligence, directly contradicts more than “popular” or “fashionable” opinion. It is also significantly at odds with the ideas of eminent scholars in the field.
Part 1 of the book, “The Emergence of a Cognitive Elite” (chapters 1 through 4), establishes support for the relationship between intelligence and social mobility by describing the formation of a new class: the “cognitive elite.” According to the authors, one consequence of the social policies that began in the 1950’s was substantial growth in the college population. Increasingly efficient ability testing widened the pool of prospective students so that intelligence became a more significant screening mechanism than social class. Thus, with the advent of group ability testing, college became a reality for members of the working class and middle class. As the brightest (top-scoring) students were attracted to and concentrated at a handful of elite schools, they began the experience of cognitive stratification, an isolation of the most intelligent individuals in society from the less intelligent, which would continue and intensify in the occupational world. Why should this pattern of isolation continue into the job market? Because, the authors argue, intelligence operates as a screening mechanism here as well. The most elite occupations require higher education, which is limited to the most elite minds. The authors attempt to attribute cognitive success almost exclusively to raw intelligence rather than training, but do so ineffectively, often times inferring, speculating, and offering inappropriate initial assumptions about educational experiences in the United States. Indeed, they virtually equate early educational experiences across social classes and ethnic groups, dismissing the effects of private education, advanced placement classes in select high schools, and other social differences that have been documented as important prerequisites to high scores on aptitude and ability tests.
Since the authors believe that intelligence is largely inherited (rather than simply partly inherited), they predict that economic pressures will only intensify cognitive stratification and segregation, resulting in greater opportunities for a narrower segment of the population: the cognitive elite. They also introduce the reader to their political agenda when they criticize existing prohibitions against hiring based on intelligence testing. Arguing that intelligence is related to efficiency and productivity at all occupational levels, they propose that America and its citizens would be better served if employers were allowed to hire primarily from among the brightest applicants. In short,The Bell Curve is a political response to social policies the authors find objectionable. They end this section of the book by suggesting that it may be undesirable to have the cognitive elite continue to form the social policies by which the rest of society must live because less bright people may neither understand nor be capable of adhering to them....
(The entire section is 2445 words.)