When the unknowable future unfolds (since it is unknowable, we may as well expect the Great Awakening as the Great Slumber), someone, sometime might ask you this: “How clueless were you guys back then, anyway?”
You can tell that person: “This clueless,” and pull out the New York Times‘ report this week on the great I.Q. tempest in a teabag, complete with follow-up.
You can tell that person that in 2007, this culture was so desperate to find truths that could be reduced to hard numbers—so desperate were we to believe that intelligence could be expressed in a single numerical factor, so desperate were we to imagine ourselves in control of our children’s futures—that legions of buzz-mavens marched in to discuss the “scientific finding” that a first-born sibling, on average, topped the rest of the kids in his family by three whole I.Q. points.
You can also tell that person that the Norwegian researchers who tested a quarter of a million military conscripts to obtain this data concluded that the gap was dependent on “social rank” within the family, rather than birth order per se, which implies parents can reclaim their second child’s missing points by treating both siblings with absolute equality. (Whew! Something to do about it!) You can tell that person the New York Times even featured a link to a Q&A with a certified expert who obligingly translated the 3 putative I.Q. points into 15 SAT points and a 13 percent chance of getting into a better college!
Are we having fun yet?
I expect to see more of this egregious nonsense as the scientistic worldview deteriorates, releasing its grip on our minds. Indeed, such silliness is exactly what accelerates that distintegration: as the studies and numbers become more and more ridiculous, people begin to snap out of the trance of scientism. They think, “Hey, I probably have something better to do with my time than listen to ‘experts’ nattering about this triviality.” And then, perhaps we all get to wake up.
I.Q. numbers aren’t engraved on the brain. They are based on specific human judgments, grounded in a particular time and place, about what constitutes normative intelligence. I wonder if they are still using these numbers the way they did when I was in school.
In junior high, I.Q. tests were administered to our entire 7th grade class. I was an odd, alienated girl—you know, the girl who wore the wrong clothes and the wrong hairdo, who said the wrong things at the wrong time and spent hours in class time looking painfully abstracted, as if she were writing a secret story in her head instead of listening to the teacher (I was). When the test scores came in, the teacher played a little game with the class. “Who do you think got the highest score?” he asked.
We all called out the names of the kids who’d been dubbed “brains”: a rubber-limbed boy with thick glasses and an overbite who carried a slide rule in his pocket; a tall, gangly boy who wore his pants too high and always looked as if he might tip over from the weight of the books he lugged around; a girl whose hair and flesh were all the same unhealthy shade of ecru, who seemed to have been born middle-aged.
The teacher shook his head: No.
Finally, brimming with amusement, he turned in my direction and declared, “You’re all wrong! It was Goldbard!” Everyone looked at me as if I’d suddenly grown a second head. This is junior high school, remember. The news did nothing for my social standing (though it did give me a usable retort the next time one of my family members said, “You think you’re so smart!”)
What do you suppose the teacher had in mind? It’s still hard for me to see his actions as anything but mildly sadistic, since the whole performance turned on his awareness of how I was seen by my classmates. But I suppose he wanted to confound the students’ expectations, and using me for that purpose seemed an acceptable price to pay. When we adopt the scientistic view, going along with the fiction that the cold, hard beauty of numbers can fully depict reality, things like human feelings tend to be overlooked, mere collateral damage. I’m a “winner” in the I.Q. testing sweepstakes, mind you, and still I ask: what real social and human good do you suppose I.Q. scores have ever done?
Twenty-five years ago, Howard Gardener first published his theory of multiple intelligences, which struck a chord with many sentient beings. We’ve all known someone who was brilliant at music; who could take things apart and put them back together again blindfolded; or who was uncannily adept at relating to fellow human beings. I.Q. tests can’t measure any of these forms of intelligence, which are just as useful as logic and calculation, and just as likely to shape a person’s gifts and the course of a life. How clueless is it that decades after my junior high experience, this number is still being treated as meaningful? I revise my judgment: tempest in a tea leaf.
Ha! Take that! A karate chop to the scientistic worldview!
This is a wonderful little piece. It puts me in mind of all those “readibility formulas” we were taught as teachers.
Those studying the written word point out that there are various things that make text more difficult: things such as sentence length, the number of multisyllabic words used, the number of sentences per paragraph. They provide formulas to tell you exactly how difficult a piece of text is. You count the instances of “difficult” words, count the number of words in a sentence, etc. When you crunch the numbers, you arrive at some “grade level” of the material: 5th grade, 9th grade, 15th grade, whatever.
These hold up, more or less, as you apply them to various pieces of text: Faulkner really is more difficult to read than Hemingway. You do get some strange blips outside of the standardized range: Vonnegut, using simple words and simple sentence structures, comes in at a pretty low reading level, say 7th grade, but of course his writing is full of moral thought that is beyond a typical 7th grader. But of course you can’t easily quantify these qualities, so you do what all good scientists do: you ignore them. “Vonnegut? Isn’t he banned in many schools? We shouldn’t be using his stuff anyway. Not that I’ve read any myself, you understand.”
(I was once asked this question by a math education professor: “How can you analyze anything if you can’t quantify it?” It was a rhetorical question on her part; she “knew” that it was impossible. It’s striking that we can become so enmired in our own fields that we can’t think any more).
So, readability formulas are offered as a tool to prospective reading teachers. Blah blah blah. Okay. Another tool never hurts, even if it’s a tool for turning those star-headed screws that you have only one of in your house, and that in a place you can’t reach.
Of course, someone comes along and says, “Aha! Not only can I apply these reading formulas to extant text, I can write text to the forumula! Instant grade-leveled textbooks!”
That person, of course, is a moron. That person creates textbooks full of short, choppy, disjointed sentences, with all the “difficult” words (words that have the positive effect of actually describing a useful concept) removed. So we end up trying to teach kids with text that doesn’t flow, doesn’t contain much meaning, oversimplifies concepts to the point where they are unusable and sometimes plain wrong.
Scientism at its best!
Hi, Arlene! I agree that this study is bit odd, but as a teacher I found enlightening the reason the researchers used to explain this differentiation: older siblings often had to teach younger siblings things that they knew, and this increased their intelligence. To me, this was a clue about the strength of student-to-student teaching and collaboration. Gave me pause as I considered designing my fall classes…