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Letter to the Editor, New York Times Book Review

Excerpts published 13 November 1994
Paul Grobstein

Malcom Browne thoughtfully, and critically treads the minefield of issues raised by three books reviewed under the general rubric "What is intelligence, and who has it?" (16 October 1994). However, in his concern to accurately portray the conflicting claims on this subject, Mr. Browne fails to question an underlying and unfounded belief common to all participants in the debate. By so doing, Mr. Browne also neglects to point out an opening by which we could all usefully escape the "unanswerable" (and irrelevant), and get on with the real tasks at hand.

A little personal background is germane. I come from Ashkenazi Jewish stock and, not surprisingly, do better than most people on "strongly g-loaded" tests. Also not surprisingly (I suspect), I do less well than many people at, among other things, giving parties (and running social organizations), playing basketball (despite having worked fairly hard at it), and making money. Finally, I am a biology professor in a prestigious college. Like most of my colleagues, I am increasingly encountering "learning disabled" students in my classrooms. I have also spent time teaching in urban precollege settings. Several weeks ago, I taught some classes in a Chapter 1 middle school, Chapter 1 being the designation of a school for children who score substantially less well than most on standardized exams.

What most impressed me about the middle school experience was that I would not have known the students were a preselected population had I not been told so. The students were curious, interactive, attentive, and critical (as well as indifferent and hostile) in the same ways as any other class of students I teach. And judging from letters I later received from the class, they took (and failed to take) things of use to them from the class in the same ways as well. In short, if the students were less good at something then most students, the only educationally relevant thing they were less good at, so far as I could tell, was the one that put them in the class in the first place: they don't perform well on standardized tests.

I have learned two lessons from interactions with college "learning disabled" students. The first is the same lesson I just described: failure to perform well on standardized tests indicates failure to perform well on standardized tests. Period. It not only doesn't seem to correlate with ability to play basketball, organize people, or make money, it doesn't even seem to correlate with degree of curiosity or imagination or creativity or critical ability. What it does, however, seem to correlate with, in my experience (the second lesson), is a significantly diminished sense of self-worth, and associated feelings of anxiety about, and hostility toward, a world which makes important judgments about the worth and available futures of individuals based on standardized tests.

In short, I do not, from my direct experience, have any reason to believe standardized examination scores are strongly predictive of anything but future standardized examination scores. My direct experience does, however, say that examination scores, in a culture preoccupied with examination scores, are likely to be at least weakly predictive of the extent to which people feel valued by, and comfortably affiliated with, their community. Looked at from this perspective, it is no surprise that standard tests are not bad predictors of job performance (and, inversely, of criminality), and this weak correlation provides no evidence whatsoever for assertions that "g" is an essential survival characteristic in any general sense at all.

To put it slightly differently, the same correlation can be read either as an indication that evaluation by some single criterion suffices to predict success, or as an indication that the use by our culture of a single standard for evaluation makes lots of people unhappy enough so that they fail to become satisfied and productive members of our culture. This is the point missed by Mr. Browne. Technical arguments about their validity aside, one can read in exactly the same statistical observations either a need for ever greater efforts to force all individuals to attempt to conform to a single cultural standard of individual attainment, or an indication that, for the improved well-being of both the culture and its individuals, the time has (long since) come to give up the notion of a single cultural standard and replace it with an honest and rigorous respect for the obvious reality that different people are most capable of achievement in different (and equally valuable) ways.

Beyond the obvious, and my own experiences (which I'm sure are common to most teachers), there are a variety of additional reasons to accept the pluralistic reading. Not the least of these is that it would return debates about the relative contributions of genomes and environments in determining "g" to the specialized disciplines where they belong. The continuing evolution of the arguments is interesting as an intellectual inquiry (and particularly so to people who score well on "g-loaded" tests), but irrelevant to the social and political arena, where what is needed is not more and better understood "high g" people but more happy and productive people of a variety of kinds. Knowing a little biology may be additionally helpful in appreciating the pluralistic mandate. A common characteristic of all successful biological systems is that they reflect effective interactions among a large and diverse array of elements. Successful biological systems do not ever consist of interacting arrays of identical elements. Those fail.

Questions about the relative contributions of genome and environment to performance on "strongly g-loaded" tests (like most such questions in biology) are certainly difficult, and may well be "ultimately unanswerable" (since they are heavily dependent on context). Fortunately, they are also irrelevant to the more pressing task educational and social task at hand. For that purpose, we can comfortably forget them, and get on with the business of creating an educational system which gives each individual student what she or he needs as a distinctive and valuable individual.

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