Glenn, John, and Philip K. Dick

In the last segment of their recent bloggingheads discussion, John McWhorter told Glenn Loury he was writing a piece suggesting that discussions of an IQ gap be deemed unacceptable for public discourse1:

I don’t understand what possible benefit there could be. I think it should stay in the journals.

Glenn agreed, and mentioned his famous response to the conservative welcome of The Bell Curve, in which he angrily rejected Murray’s assertions.

My first, instantaneous reaction was hey, great idea.  In fact, it will save us billions. Too bad no one proposed it twenty years ago, before we wasted so much time and energy on No Child Left Behind, forcing states to report by racial demographics. Think of all the schools struggling to meet adequate yearly progress and failing because they couldn’t teach students to perform in perfectly average racial unity. Let’s be sure to tell the College Board; they’ll be happy to stop breaking out test results by race; it’ll save them so much criticism.  This will put NAEP out of business of course, so….

What’s that? You don’t think McWhorter would link banning discourse on race and IQ to ending all scrutiny of race-based academic achievement?

Ya think?

Of course John McWhorter knows that race-based academic achievement is at least tangentially related to discourse on race and IQ.  I also think he understands that race and IQ discussions have been The View That Must Not Be Spoken for forty years. In fact, he even mentions that the only sites engaging in this discusssion are “right wing chat sites” and “some blogs”.

So sarcasm aside, I was a bit puzzled by the proposal, as well as Loury’s endorsement. These are two intellectually honest academics, who are generally fearless on racial topics. Here they are declaring certain topics Voldemortean–and doing so in the event that the link between race and IQ is proven out.

Without even going into the suggestion itself, consider that McWhorter posits one response to an acknowledge racial IQ gap:

…are we going to have an arrangement where we allow that black people have these lower IQs and therefore give extra help to black people, with the presupposition that all the average black people aren’t as bright? I think the black people would take it as an insult.

Fifty years and counting on affirmative action (which McWhorter famously opposes), and McWhorter thinks black people would take extra help as an insult? Seriously?

Even more surprisingly, Glenn Loury doesn’t point out this obvious hole.  Or maybe not so suprisingly, I’m a huge Loury fan, but as I’ve mentioned, he’s got some blind spots on education.

The most notable one I can recall is in this  excellent 2010 discussion Loury hosted with Amy Wax, author of Race, Wrongs, and Remedies:

Wax’s central point both in the discussion and in her book is that black academic underperformance is due to the wholesale collapse of the black culture and black family.

Loury pushed back hard (emphasis mine):

“Well, gee, when I look at education, I think, true, what happens at the home is really important….but I do think that the fundamental problem with urban education is its political economic organization. It’s the unions. It’s the work rules. It’s the efficacy of teachers in the classroom, and so on. It may also be to some degree the resources.

And that’s something that government, with great difficulty, with some consternation, can change….that’s something that ONLY government can change, either by making resources available to parents so they can have outside options and not be reliant on a school system that’s failing, and/or by reorganizing the functioning of those systems that are failing so that the kind of things that reformers want to do, that are known to work, are permitted to be put into place.

But in either case, those are political public large government undertakings that need to be done, and to blame the failure of urban education on the culture of African Americans is, well, maybe just a little offensive….Why wouldn’t we want to think of that as a public problem in public terms rather than [blame] the people who are really the victims of failed public policy?”

So Loury holds on to some of the conservative tenets from his youth.  Like all conservatives, he wants to blame schools: crappy, incompetent teachers, unions, and by golly maybe more money would help, too.

Wax responds that blaming schools makes no sense, because black kids in suburban schools are doing poorly. They do poorly in the same excellent schools that whites do well in, and she argues again that it’s culture.

Somewhat surprisingly, Loury agrees. Suburban black kids are doing terribly, too, but not for the same reason:

“I would not identify underperforming middle class African American performance in good suburban schools, which is a real thing, with the absolute wasteland in terms of the cognitive development of the students who have no alternative but to attend the failed inner city public school system. Both are problems, but the latter is just a huge problem and I say it’s mainly a problem of failed institutions not of inadequate culture.

So Loury has constructed  an absurd dichotomy: Middle class blacks and urban blacks have weak academic performance and he tacitly agrees with Wax that the problem is cultural. But urban black academic performance is about ignorant teachers and union work rules.

Wax comes back with an answer that any teacher would thank her for (which is why I’m quoting it in full)

“I would really argue, are the teachers really not trying to teach them basic stuff, or is it that the students, for whatever reason, are just so ill-equipped when they come in, so indifferent?….We know, from Roland Fryer…that these students are coming in significantly behind their counterparts, so they’re already behind the eight ball…then to turn around and say it’s the school’s fault that they can’t learn arithmetic, or they can’t learn to read. I really question that. I just am not sure that that is the locus of the problem or even the main problem.

Of course, then she ruins all that good sense by saying that the locus of the problem is  “the abject failure of the family….just collapse.”

Little evidence for either Wax or Loury’s position exists. Roland Fryer’s research on Harlem Children’s Zone ( the 2010 version) gets a mention by Loury as evidence that charters can do a better job. That’s odd, because Fryer’s research has widely been cited as evidence that HCZ does only an adequate job as a charter school, far less impressive academically than KIPP or the others–and of course, their “improvement” has a whole bunch of caveats. But Wax appropriately observes that the results, back in 2010 were new and fadeout often occurs.  As the medium term results from HCZ show,  lottery losers indeed  “caught up” in many ways.

Loury often swats his discussion partners for “asserting from faith”, but his demonization of  “failing schools”is exactly that.   Without any evidence, and considerable evidence against his position, Loury argued two separate culprits for black underachievement, depending on the SES category. Moreover, he uses a big ol’ group of conservative shibboleths to justify his position. That is not the Loury I know from other conversations.

For entirely understandable reasons, both Loury and McWhorter see any discussion of the IQ gap as a personal affront. They both interpret “racial IQ gap” as “blacks are inferior” and I’m sure that there are people who push the topic who see it that way. But one can angrily reject average group IQ as a sign of inferior or superior status while still acknowledging the hard facts of cognitive ability–Fredrik deBoer does it all the time. Whenever they discuss race and IQ, Glenn and John jokingly  mention how smart they are–which they are! But they don’t ever acknowledge that their tremendous intellects aren’t a rebuttal to the discussion at hand.

Men are, on average, taller than women. Michelle Obama is taller than Robert Reich. Both statements are true. Why more people can’t apply this to IQ is a mystery.

I don’t know all the corners of IQ science history, but I’ll stipulate that many unpleasant people discuss IQ gaps with a disgusting glee. I find it incredibly troubling how many people use “genetically inferior” as an equivalent term for “blacks have lower IQs on average”.  But I spend too much time with students of all abilities, and all races, to consider race as the logical grouping for IQ.  I’m more interested in IQ, or more generally the cognitive ability discussion, as a starting point to correctly frame what is now cast as a public education failure.

Our schools “fail” to educate many students. We tend to focus only on the black and Hispanic students–and not as individuals, just as data points that would push the average up nearer to that of whites.  We use white average academic achievement as the standard for success.  We began comparing racial groups back when it was primarily blacks and whites, in that optimistic era after Jim Crow ended, confident that the data would show blacks catching up to whites. If blacks had just caught up, if we just had the same amount of students “failing” to be educated, we’d have moved on.

But blacks never caught up. Since at the national level, we’d begun with the presumption that the gap was caused by racist oppression, we continued with that assumption as long as possible. Over time, other culprits arose. It’s the parents. It’s the culture. It’s the schools. People who offered cognitive explanations were ostracized or at least subject to a barrage of criticism. It’s always odd to hear Loury talk about the Bell Curve era as a traumatic time, when his peers were coolly discussing racial inferiority, while almost everyone else recalls it as a time when Murray was nearly banished from the public square.

As time went on, despite our failure to close “the gap” or, more accurately, despite our failure to provide a needed education for all students, demands went up. High school transcripts got more impressive, more loaded with “college prep” courses and, in many high schools, more akin to fraudulent documents, all designed to push all kids into college in equal proportions. Colleges have obligingly obliterated requirements. Schools have increasingly come in for blame from the political and policy folk, but all attempts to penalize schools for their failure have, well, failed. The public likes their schools and the public, frankly, is more willing to consider cognitive ability relevant than the political and policy folk are.

I’m always reminding myself that most  people see it in, literally, black and white terms for very good reason. But I only discuss IQ in terms of race because society insists on grouping academic achievement by race. Ultimately, I see IQ discussion as an effort to correctly categorize the “failure” of some students, regardless of race. I see it as a way of evaluating student achievement, to see how to best educate them to the extent of their ability and interest. I am well aware that these questions are fraught with reasonable tension.

But I worry, very much, that we won’t take needed steps both in education and immigration policy (as well as a host of other areas, no doubt) if we don’t stop insistently viewing cognitive issues through the prism of race. That is, as I first wrote  here, we need to consider the possibility that the achievement “gap” is just an artifact of IQ distribution. 

I would be pleased to learn this is not the case, as I wrote then. But if in fact IQ distribution explains the variations in academic achievement we see, then we need to face up to that. This facing up does not mean “well, your people are good in sports and music”. The facing up means asking ourselves regardless of race, how do we create meaningful jobs and educational opportunities for everyone?


I hope they change their minds. Because we are putting millions of kids in schools each year, making them feel like failures. Yes, some are black. Others are white, Hispanic, Asian. And we’ve spent no time–none–trying to figure out the best ways to educate them.  We’ve only looked for causes, for the right groups to blame.

Of course,  maybe we could trade: no more talk of the achievement gap in exchange for no more talk of race and IQ. That’s not the best approach, though, because in today’s employment environment, we need to educate everyone, not write off “failures”.

But I guess Glenn and John–along with a lot of other people–are still trying to wish reality away.

Note: The piece  Philip Dick, Preschool, and Schrodinger’s Cat is still canonical Ed on IQ.

 1: since I wrote this, McWhorter published the piece in the National Review. I made some additional responses directly on Twitter.


About educationrealist

21 responses to “Glenn, John, and Philip K. Dick

  • craken

    It’s hard to imagine that people will be susceptible to the notion that lower IQ groups are genetically equal–unless they believe the untenable notion that IQ is not heritable. One would not label Nigerians genetically inferior to Ethiopians because the former never win marathons. Nigerians instead win sprinting competitions. The situation for low IQ blacks vis-a-vis high IQ Asians is not analogous. Low black IQ on math subtests are not rescued by a compensatory strength in another IQ subtest. There is no athletic equivalent of the “g factor.” Intelligence, unlike athleticism, is largely unitary. How one could define a lower IQ group as genetically equal to a higher IQ group is a mystery to me. There may be ways to mollify hurt feelings (without a continuation of the current enforced mendacity). For example, different groups of what Americans call “whites” also have different IQ levels. The Greek-Ashkenazi gap is larger than the American white-black gap. And, in the end, the key to optimal management of this issue is to heavily emphasize that ability and achievement are first and above all individual in nature and consequences. Social engineering, abstract groupings are a distraction even as the boom in false credentials– handed out so promiscuously as to raise the possibility that America will become a giant Potemkin village–ensures that this issue remains a live one.

  • Anon

    (A previous version of this didn’t go through)

    In principle, findings on differences in average IQ should have no implications for how people evaluate individuals, as long as they remember that men are, on average, taller than women but Michelle Obama is taller than Robert Reich. In practice, even very highly educated people find this difficult to accept, and I see no evidence that less educated people are any better at it.

    I teach science, and colleagues will really struggle with these distinctions. If one makes a generalization about a group of students (and not necessarily race or gender, it could be students who are interested in a particular field or career or practice a particular extracurricular activity) the response is inevitably “But what about This One Student who doesn’t…” Conversely, mentions of atypical students can elicit surprise because “I thought that those sorts of students would…”

    It’s as if people can either think about a statistical distribution or think about individuals, but they can’t think about both. They can’t handle the idea that distributions are real AND that plenty of people are not situated right at the peak of the distribution.

    So if average differences in some cognitive measure were to enter common discourse, too many people would be unable to wrap their minds around the idea that the average differences are there AND that John Doe is really, really good at something and there shouldn’t be anything particularly surprising about that.

    • Citizen of a Silly Country

      “In principle, findings on differences in average IQ should have no implications for how people evaluate individuals, as long as they remember that men are, on average, taller than women but Michelle Obama is taller than Robert Reich.”

      That’s not entirely true due to regression toward the mean. There’s a reason why the phrase “He/She comes from a good family.” was used.

      Yes, if you’re hiring a person for a job or deciding whether to be friends with a person, evaluating an individual on his or her attributes is fine. However, when looking at long-term (more than one generation) decisions, you have to look beyond the individual to their group because that individual’s children and relatives will be much closer to his/her group mean.

      The oddly common “smart black guy I knew in college” that you always hear about almost certainly had not-quite-so-smart siblings and cousins. And if smart black guy marries somewhat-but-quite-as-smart black girl, they very, very likely will have not-stupid-but-not-smart kids who will definitely have not-smart cousins.

      It’s a main reason that upper-middle class black kids score so poorly compared to their white classmates. Those blacks kids are regressing to a different, lower mean.

      Therefore, whites and Asians in a nice, suburban neighborhood may have perfectly legitimate reasons for not wanting nice, upper-middle class black couples to move into their area. Besides fearing that it will entice less nice, less wealthy blacks to move into the area (a more short-term concern), the current white/Asian residents rightly worry that the nice black couples’ kids will be much closer to the black mean, i.e. much less intelligent and much more violent than their white or Asian kids.

      • Chris

        There’s a big problem with that point of view, do you really know what their mean IQ is just by skin color? As mentioned in the article, IQ varies by subgroup within larger racial groups. Just because those subgroups haven’t been identified for blacks (that I know of) doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There might be many large subgroups and just like some subgroups for whites, they may preferentially inter-marry. Heck, there could be black subgroups that outperform some or all white subgroups. Until you have *all* of that information, you cannot legitimately be making those kinds of judgements in the cases you give..

    • Chris

      All that may be true, I’ve certainly seen enough of it to believe its common place — but that doesn’t mean we lie, ignore scientific truths just to avoid that unpleasantness. By lying we misdirect resources, and possibly set people up for failures that aren’t their fault (yet they and others will believe it is or go searching for other causes driving witch hunts). Wouldn’t those resources be better spent educating people against the thing you worry about instead of maintaining a lie?

      “It’s as if people can either think about a statistical distribution or think about individuals, but they can’t think about both.”

      Maybe because they haven’t been taught to do so? Its clearly not innate, so it must be a learned skill — lets explicitly teach and practice/train that skill. I can’t think of anywhere its broadly taught, can you? The closest I can come up with is the logic course I took, but it didn’t really emphasize that aspect — and how many people take logic these days?

      The solution isn’t avoidance, its fighting against that tendency. If we can teach people to do that, it’ll help them and society is so many many other ways as well.

  • Jim

    For the most part it is impossible to discuss issues like this in public in our society without inducing hysterical reactions. As a result discussions of educational policy in the US frequently are surreal.

  • The Black/White SAT Gap – Ben Kurtz Blog

    […] Education Realist has a good insider-baseball write-up on the up-to-date status of this discourse. I highly recommend his […]

  • twistedone151

    how do we create meaningful jobs and educational opportunities for everyone?

    Over in the discussions of “technological unemployment” and automation, the rising consensus is that even if not there now, we are in fact heading toward a world where it isn’t possible to create meaningful jobs for everyone, and the key question is how we live with it, and handle those who can no longer contribute economically to society. For example, Tyler Cowen, in his Average is Over, predicts a not-too-distant future where only about 15% of the population have real, meaningful, productive (actually, hyper-productive) work; another 5-10% can carve out a space as a servant/toady class providing personal services to that elite in their gated community enclaves, and the remaining masses dwell in Latin-America-style favelas eating cheap beans living off some manner of Basic Income or other welfare redistribution funded by taxation of the massive economic surpluses generated by the incredible productivity of a highly-automated economy. While others are less, shall we say “harsh”, in their predictions, a lot of experts in that field seem to agree that significant fractions of the population, most particularly those on the low end of the IQ distribution, are highly likely to become unable to contribute to the future economy.

    So then, I must ask, what if they’re right about this? What if we really can’t “create meaningful jobs and educational opportunities for everyone”, not for much longer?

    • educationrealist

      Yeah, I know about Tyler. For starters, the answer involves that we stop importing people.

      • twistedone151

        For starters, the answer involves that we stop importing people.

        Indeed, ‘when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging’ and such. But what about after that?

      • twistedone151

        For now maybe, but in the long run, I don’t think it will be. What do we do when literally every job a 120 IQ jobs still need human beings, so we’re not yet at ‘Star Trek, nobody has to work’ level yet)?

      • educationrealist

        Why fixate on that when we’re doing things much worse now? Who gives a shit about 50 years from now after we’ve done the right thing (restrict immigration) when right now we can’t do that much?

      • Jim

        It’s mildly encouraging that Bill Gates who in the past has been gung-ho for more immigration now seems to be perhaps waking up to reality.

      • Jim

        And now Matteo Renzi has stated Italy has no moral duty to accept immigrants. Perhaps the elite are starting to realize the disastrous consequences of their open borders policy.

    • Roger Sweeny

      Do you have any elderly friends or relatives in a nursing home. If you do, the next time you visit, notice how many people are required to keep the place running (and realize that the residents are there 24/7). Then ask yourself how many of those people have to have an IQ above 85.

  • Mark Roulo

    Craken: “It’s hard to imagine that people will be susceptible to the notion that lower IQ groups are genetically equal…”

    Anon: “In principle, findings on differences in average IQ should have no implications for how people evaluate individuals, as long as they remember that men are, on average, taller than women but Michelle Obama is taller than Robert Reich. In practice, even very highly educated people find this difficult to accept, and I see no evidence that less educated people are any better at it.”

    The feature that makes discussions of IQ so charged is that everyone realizes that smarts matter. A lot. Even the folks who think that IQ tests don’t measure anything real rarely claim that not-bright people can do all the same things at the same level as very smart people, they just don’t think that IQ tests capture smartness. If the differences we were seeing were for something that fundamentally doesn’t matter (e.g. music in our society today/now, athletic abilities, chess playing) then we wouldn’t care and could discuss the matter. But IQ has a tremendous impact on quality of life, if only because smarter people get paid more on average.

    In short, the “problem” is that the groups that are less smart on average are NOT equal in a way that our society really, really values.

    Think of the Harry Potter universe. One can argue that Muggles are “just as good” as Wizards, but Squibs sure aren’t treated that way. Why? Because in the Harry Potter universe, the magical community values magical abilities above all else (lord knows the community doesn’t value brains …).

    I do think, however, that people are fairly good at “this is typical, but Fred isn’t typical.” I think you will struggle to find people who believe that ALL men are taller than ALL women. The default for a random man and woman who you have not met is to assume that the man will be taller, but I don’t think very many people have a problem adjusting to individual heights.

    For less obvious qualities it can take LONGER for the bias (the trendy fancy term for this is “Bayesian Prior”) to be overcome for a given individual, but it will still happen.

    The political challenge is when the bias says something true about reality. You aren’t going to overcome that with a long-term advertising campaign. The Sydney aquarium has (or had) a big campaign to convince folks that sharks really weren’t all that dangerous. But the Sydney harbor still had nets up to keep the sharks out of the harbor where people swam and you’d read newspaper articles every so often about a shark munching on a swimmer/surfer. A PR campaign can only go so far when people keep getting munched and the nets stay up to keep it from getting worse.

    In this case, reality is politically unpalatable. So … ?

    • Jim

      Anyone who has done much swimming at any of the beaches on the US Gulf Coast has probably been within several feet of a small shark on many occasions. Of course if even a small shark decides to attack you it will certainly ruin your day.

    • DensityDuck

      The issue is that “reality” so often turns into stereotype. “Jim is black. His failure to achieve much in school is only to be expected. There is no need for him to receive tutoring. Joe, however, is white. While he cannot yet get the same answer twice in a row to “2 + 2″ his whiteness means that he ought to be smarter than Jim, and therefore Joe will receive additional tutoring and resources that Jim will not be permitted to access.”

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