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Education; Assumptions Versus History

Education; Assumptions Versus History

by Thomas Sowell

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In the papers collected in Education: Assumptions versus History, Dr. Thomas Sowell takes a hard look at the state of education in our schools and universities. His imperative is to test the assumptions underlying contemporary educational policies and innovations against the historical and contemporary evidence.


In the papers collected in Education: Assumptions versus History, Dr. Thomas Sowell takes a hard look at the state of education in our schools and universities. His imperative is to test the assumptions underlying contemporary educational policies and innovations against the historical and contemporary evidence.

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Assumptions Versus History

By Thomas Sowell

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-8112-9


Race and IQ

Despite the bitter controversies over how to explain low IQs among blacks, no one has asked whether there was really anything to explain. Is there anything peculiar about either the level or the pattern of black IQs?

Extensive IQ data are available on white ethnic minorities around the time of World War I and in the 1920s. The U.S. Army conducted massive mental tests during World War I and considerable IQ data were gathered by civilian researchers during the years of controversy preceding the passage of restrictive immigration laws in the mid-1920s. To fill in the picture since the 1920s, a nationwide sample of more than 70,000 school records was collected by a research project which I directed at the Urban Institute. The various data sources all led to the same conclusion: The European immigrant IQs then were virtually identical to black IQs now. What is encouraging is that the low-IQ immigrant groups of the past now have IQs at or above the U.S. average.

Surveys in the 1920s of mental-test studies of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, such as Italians, Poles, and Greeks, showed their average IQs to be in the 80s, occasionally in the 70s. Data on Jewish-Americans were harder to find because the early researchers, during the controversies over immigration laws, focused on nationality groups. However, the U.S. Army tests showed soldiers of Polish and Russian ancestry scoring consistently at or near the bottom of the list of European ethnic groups, and it was known then that half or more of the Polish and Russian immigrants were Jews. This prompted a leading psychologist of that era, Carl Brigham (originator of the College Board Scholastic Aptitude Test), to declare that the Army tests tended to "disprove the popular belief that the Jew is highly intelligent." His observation was at best premature. Over the years, more than a fourth of all American Nobel Prize winners have been Jewish, even though Jews make up only about 3 percent of the United States population.

The Germans, the Irish, and other northern and western Europeans who had immigrated generations earlier than the southern and eastern Europeans had IQs around the American national average. The IQ differences between the older and the newer immigrant groups were widely noted at the time — and almost invariably attributed to genetic differences, rather than to the great difference in their number of years of exposure to American culture.

My surveys found that the IQs of later-arriving groups — Polish, Jewish, and Italian — rose over the decades until today they equal or exceed the national average. This historical pattern is not confined to minorities of European ancestry. Chinese- and Japanese-Americans also had lower-than-average IQs in earlier surveys, but today both exceed the U.S. average in IQ as well as in other socioeconomic indicators.

The average IQs of Italian-Americans and Polish-Americans have risen by 20 to 25 points from the time of the surveys conducted around World War I to the surveys conducted in the 1970s. This rise is greater than the current IQ difference — about 15 points — between blacks and whites.

Various other studies have shown IQs in the 80s for white groups in isolated communities in the United States, in socially isolated canal-boat communities in England, and among inhabitants of the Hebrides Islands off Scotland.

The IQs of Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans remain in the 80s, though both groups are recorded as predominantly white in the Census. Both Latin groups continue not only to suffer socioeconomic disadvantages, but, in addition, have a relatively slow assimilation of American culture. One indication of this is that most members of both groups report Spanish as the language spoken in the home — and those who do not have much higher incomes. Moreover, both groups have substantial movement back and forth between the United States and their Latin homelands. This also tends to retard assimilation of American culture.

Comparison of any minority with the national average can be very misleading unless one realizes that this "national average" is itself a product of widely varying averages for different groups, whether racial, regional, or economic. Moreover, a group that has a rise in its absolute economic condition should not be expected to raise its IQ unless it has also risen relative to the position of the general population. Black and Hispanic minorities have had no substantial relative socioeconomic rise before the present generation. It should be some time before dramatic IQ changes can be expected, but there are already some indications that this is likely. For example, black orphans raised in white families have an average IQ of 106 according to a recent study by Professor Sandra Scarr of the University of Minnesota. In addition, several all-black schools I have studied have consistently equaled or exceeded national norms on mental tests. One such school, in Washington, D. C., had an average IQ of 111 in 1939 — 15 years before the Supreme Court and the sociologists declared that separate schools are inherently inferior. That school happens to be within walking distance of the Supreme Court, which virtually declared its existence impossible.

Professor Arthur Jensen claims that what is peculiar about low black performance on mental tests is that it is lowest on abstract material — that is, material not dependent on specific cultural information and therefore not explainable by "cultural deprivation." Powerful as this evidence might seem at first, a glance at the history of other low-IQ groups at various times and places shows a very similar pattern of poor performance on the abstract portions of mental tests.

In 1917, a study of various immigrant groups on Ellis Island found that they were particularly deficient on the abstract sections of mental tests. Four years earlier, the noted psychologist H. H. Goddard had summarized his experience there by saying flatly: "These people cannot deal with abstractions." Similar results were found for white children in isolated mountain communities, among rural working-class children in England, and even among Chinese-Americans during their early years in this country. The case of Chinese-Americans is striking because recent studies show them doing their best on the abstract portions of mental tests, and they are prominent among American scientists and mathematicians.

Another way in which patterns found in black mental-test scores differ from the national average is that black females consistently score higher on mental tests than do black males. This has been true for decades and for a variety of mental tests. By contrast, among high-IQ individuals in the general population, the sexes are almost equally represented (with a slight male advantage), but the persistent female advantage among blacks becomes even more pronounced at the higher IQ levels. Studies of black children with IQs of 120 and above have found from three to five times as many girls as boys at these levels. Since blacks of both sexes have the same genetic background, there is obviously some unexplained influence here. But before trying to explain this apparent peculiarity, it should first be determined whether it really is a peculiarity of blacks.

There are few data available on differences in mental-test performance between the sexes during the immigrant era. But Jewish mental test scores during that period showed females generally scoring higher than males. In England, working-class girls score higher in mental tests than do working-class boys, even though there is no such difference among the higher classes, which have higher IQs. My own data for Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans — whose IQs still range in the 80s — show a small but persistent higher IQ among females.

There is considerable evidence of greater resistance to environmental influences among females from all races and classes. Infant mortality, for instance, is always higher among boys than girls in every social class and in every culture. Epidemics kill a higher proportion of men than women. The death rate among survivors of the nuclear blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was higher among men than women. Indeed, this pattern extends not only across the human race but among mammals in general.

If differences in mental-test performance between the sexes are simply part of the general, biological pattern of greater female resistance to environmental forces, it has weighty implications. It is an important piece of evidence that a low IQ is an environmental phenomenon, which is why males are more affected by it. No alternative theory seems to explain why this difference should be peculiar to low-IQ groups. Among black orphans raised in white families, no such pattern was found. Higher female performance is no more racial than the average IQ level of blacks.

Those who want quick and simple answers often act as if mental tests must either measure innate intelligence or else such tests are "irrelevant" or "biased" against the culturally deprived. But if tests are viewed not as quasi-magic panaceas but as limited tools for limited purposes, they can be judged by how well or how badly they serve various specific purposes, compared to other ways of serving those same purposes. In short, tests cannot be measured against perfection but only against alternative methods of detecting talent and predicting performance in an academic setting, on the job, or elsewhere.

Every school or college has its examples of students who scored low on mental tests but performed well in their academic work, as well as examples of high-scoring students who simply never produced up to expectations, or even up to prevailing norms. This merely establishes the imperfection of mental tests. The real issue revolves around the available alternatives.

There are instances where a shrewd and involved teacher can hand-pick a talented or hard-driving student who will succeed despite low mental test scores. This only shows that a sufficiently large input of human judgment, insight, and intimate knowledge of the individual can substitute for test results and even do a better job. But the question is how rare are such Solomon-like people, and can we confidently pick them out any better than we can sort out the students? In a similar way, there may also be shrewd and insightful people who could judge guilt and innocence better than our elaborate criminal justice system. But in both instances, we rely on certain systematic processes instead because, in general, these processes produce better results than the arbitrary judgments of individuals. Moreover, in both instances the systematic procedures are supplemented by human judgments.

What about bias against the poor, the black, or the culturally-deprived? In one sense, that bias is admitted by virtually everyone, including Professor Arthur Jensen, who has conducted research to document it. A detailed study of IQ test questions would also suggest cultural bias. Tests that ask, "Who wrote 'Faust'?" or use words like "hither" and "ingenuous" are clearly testing information more readily available to middle-class children than to lower-class children.

Some critics regard class bias as invalidating IQ and other mental tests for all selection or prediction purposes. But the hard evidence shows that mental tests do predict the future academic success of students from a lower-class background as accurately as they predict the success of students from middle- or upper-class backgrounds. Although this might seem, at first, to contradict the evidence on cultural bias, in reality two very different things are measured here. The evidence on cultural bias deals with some measure of mental capacity at a given time, but prediction involves future performance over some span of years, and performance in this sense involves much more than raw brainpower: It involves self-discipline, attitudes, and a store of knowledge, among other things. To say that all measured differences besides differences in raw brainpower are "biases" is to ignore the important role of many other traits which may not be randomly distributed across social or ethnic lines. As someone has said: "Tests are not unfair. Life is unfair, and tests measure the results."

Tests are not meant to predict what would happen in a vacuum, but what will happen in the real world. The tragedy is when test results are used by people who blindly regard them as measures of innate potential, or who use them to justify providing inferior education to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. If biased people use mental tests to discriminate, eliminating the test will not eliminate the bias. Objective tests at least put some limits on their bias. Tests can be used to open up opportunities as well as to close them. Historically, standardized tests first opened up many of the top colleges in America to bright youngsters from lower-class backgrounds who had previously been passed over by traditional methods of selection. Alfred Binet, the originator of intelligence tests, used them to rescue individuals wrongly incarcerated as mentally incompetent.

Tests are not immune to misuse any more than any of the other features or artifacts of human life. Tests do not need to be held in superstitious awe, but neither do they need to be banned in superstitious fear.


Patterns of Black Excellence

The history of the advancement of black Americans is almost a laboratory study of human achievement, for it extends back to slavery and was accomplished in the face of the strongest opposition confronting any American racial or ethnic group. Yet this mass advancement is little discussed and seldom researched, except for lionizing some individuals or compiling a record of political milestones. But the story of how millions of people developed from the depths of slavery — acquired work skills, personal discipline, human ideals, and the whole complex of knowledge and values required for achievement in a modern society — is a largely untold story. A glance at the mass of human misery around the world shows that such development is by no means an automatic process. Yet how it was accomplished remains a matter of little concern — in contrast to the unflagging interest in social pathology.

One small, but important, part of the advancement of black Americans has been educational achievement. Here, as in other areas, the pathology is well known and extensively documented, while the healthy or outstanding functioning is almost totally unknown and unstudied. Yet educational excellence has been achieved by black Americans. Current speculative discussions of the "prerequisites" for the quality education of black children proceed as if educational excellence were only a remote possibility to be reached by futuristic experimental methods — indeed, as if black children were a special breed who could be "reached" only on special wavelengths. When quality education for black youngsters is seen, instead, as something that has already been achieved — that happened decades ago — then an attempt to understand the ingredients of such education can be made on the basis of that experience, rather than as a search for exotic revelations. The problem is to assess the nature of black excellence, its sources, and its wider implications for contemporary education and for social policy in general.

There are a number of successful black schools in various cities that exemplify this educational excellence — for the purposes of this study, six high schools and two elementary schools were selected. The high schools were chosen from a list, compiled by the late Horace Mann Bond, which shows those black high schools whose alumni included the most doctorates during the period from 1957 through 1962. The two elementary schools were added because of their outstanding performance by other indices. Some of the schools were once outstanding but are no longer, while others are currently academically successful. The schools were researched not only in terms of such "hard" data as test scores but also in terms of such intangibles as atmosphere and school/community relations, as these could be either observed or reconstructed from documents and from interviews with alumni, former teachers, and others. On the basis of this research, several questions were raised:

1. Is black "success" largely an individual phenomenon — simply "cream rising to the top"— or are the successes produced in such isolated concentrations as to suggest powerful forces at work in special social or institutional settings? Strong and clear patterns would indicate that there are things that can be done through social policy to create or enhance the prospect of individual development.

2. Does the environment for successful black education have to be a special "black" environment — either culturally, or in terms of the race of the principals and teachers, or in terms of the particular teaching methods used? Are such conventional indices as test scores more or less relevant to black students? For example, do these top black schools have average IQ scores higher than the average (around 85) for black youngsters in the country as a whole? Are their IQ scores as high as white schools of comparable performance by other criteria?


Excerpted from Education by Thomas Sowell. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Thomas Sowell is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Among his published works are Basic Economics, Late Talking Children, and Race and Culture. He has also published in both academic journals and the popular media including Newsweek, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and 150 newspapers that carry his nationally syndicated column.

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