Blame it on the Puritans

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Our testing system rests on ideas developed 150 years ago by religious dissenters. One author believes it's time for a rethink. Harry Brighouse agrees

Intelligence, Destiny and Education: the ideological roots of intelligence testing By John White Routledge pound;21.99

When I explain the 11-plus to my American students their reaction is usually disbelief. Knowing that I occasionally make things up to tease them, they assume the 11-plus is another one of my fabrications. It is hard, sometimes impossible, to overcome this reaction. "How could anyone think," they ask, "that they could identify the most intelligent children at age 11? With a test? And even if they could, how could they think that it was OK to deprive the bottom 75 per cent of access to an academic education?"

I took the 11-plus myself in a progressive Buckinghamshire primary school.

All my close friends went on to secondary modern schools, though our teachers, quite rightly, forbade use of the terms "pass" and "fail". The idea of a test that not only determined your life chances, but that a morally mature person should not celebrate success in, seemed simply cruel even then. I can't begin to justify it to my students, so I try to explain it.

And now I can explain it better. John White's book traces the origins of intelligence testing and its influence on the organisation of schooling in Britain. He finds that all the British and most of the American psychologists who developed intelligence testing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had deep Puritan roots, and suggests that Puritan ideas influenced their project profoundly. He argues that the dissenting tradition had a similar influence on the development of the modern, so-called traditional, school curriculum. The post-1944 testing regime was rooted in Puritan ideas about predestination and the importance of abstract cognition, and the post-1988 national curriculum draws on the curriculums of the colleges and schools developed by the Quakers and other dissenters in the 19th century.

The common roots of the pioneers in the dissenting traditions are, indeed, remarkable. The paternal ancestors of Francis Galton, a fervent believer that intelligence was hereditary, were Quakers for at least 200 years. The originator of intelligence testing, Cyril Burt, hailed from Congregationalist roots. Karl Pearson, the first Galton professor of eugenics at University College London (1911-33) and Galton's biographer, was from a Quaker family of long standing. And so on. The American pioneers of the same era were also mostly, but not so uniformly, from Puritan stock.

The Puritan tradition placed great emphasis on the power of the intellect. White explains: "This is linked with a concern for personal salvation, since the eternal life is the life of the spirit. What continues in existence is that which is held to be the least dependent on the world of sense-experience. Pure thought, as abstract as possible... best fits this specification."

White is not claiming the pioneers of IQ testing were consciously Christian missionaries; many of them had broken intellectually with Christianity by their adulthood, and some considered themselves socialists. But he argues that the affinity between their eventual views and their formative influences is not accidental; they were, like many of us, unconsciously influenced by their upbringing. They shared the idea that individual intelligence consists principally of facility with abstract, logical, and mathematical reasoning and is unequally distributed and immutable, fixed by genetic inheritance. White argues that the idea originated in an article Galton wrote in 1867 in Macmillan's Magazine. The idea is not found in any of the great philosophers prior to that date (or, to be fair, since). Its roots are, as White shows, in the dissenting tradition.

It is now so entrenched in the British school system that you have to step back to see how odd it is. Artists, poets, novelists, and sportsmen cannot be intelligent, according to the testers' definition. Intelligence is immune to environmental interventions, so it is by definition a waste of resources to try to educate the less intelligent in areas they cannot master. An educational regime that foregrounds "intelligence" risks neglecting other important aspects of the person.

We now know, of course, what Aristotle knew: that environment influences the development of most traits, including those that the testers label intelligence, and that a flourishing person is one who develops traits and virtues in a balanced way. Modern science supports Aristotle's intuitions about the environment; good sense and contemporary philosophy have bolstered his ideas about flourishing. But, White complains, the contemporary curriculum is still in thrall to the quirky views of the early testers; it places unwarranted emphasis on the rational and abstract, on knowledge and skills.

White's attacks on the concept of "intelligence" and practice of testing for selection, and his diagnoses of their emergence, are brilliant; his criticisms of the way the school curriculum has been influenced are less powerful. Schools participate in a social division of labour. It was traditionally assumed that the family and the larger community took care of emotional, moral, and aesthetic development; the school contributed to intellectual development. Every family had to have experts in emotional and moral childrearing, but there was no reason for them to have experts in teaching reading and mathematical skills. It is wrong, the argument ran (and runs), to focus on the intellectual to the exclusion of the moral, aesthetic and emotional in a child's overall upbringing, but there is nothing strange about charging a particular institution with that task during a relatively small proportion of the child's waking life.

This argument has been used to justify the modern knowledge-based curriculum rather than the character-forming mission of the great public schools. The public schools acted in loco parentis under the specific charge of the families. State schooling was compulsory, and could not claim to be vested with parental authority.

But this division of labour has broken down, so it is worth revisiting the curriculum. The greater community contributes little to children's emotional and moral development; families are complex and fragmented.

Powerful commercial forces attempt to stunt children's emotional and moral development so that even attentive and responsible parents are undermined.

Schools might now have a role to play in moral and emotional development.

This is an important and readable account of one important aspect of our system's history. It is replete with surprising vignettes and wise comment on contemporary schooling. No one who wants to think about the modern curriculum should miss it.

Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy and affiliate professor of education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin

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